What is wearable tech?

We break down the four main categories—and what these new kinds of devices can do

Published: August 25, 2014 06:00 AM

Even if you’ve never heard of wearable technology, you may know someone who uses the most popular type of gadget in the category, an activity tracker that records fitness data and transmits it to a smart-phone app and website. Susan, a 58-year-old Connecticut resident who works in the insurance industry, was given a Fitbit tracker by her company in June 2013 as part of a wellness program. (She asked us not to use her last name.) The product is known for prompting users to reach a daily total of 10,000 steps; Susan often hits 25,000 steps thanks largely to the 2-hour runs she takes a few times a week. “I was fit before, but now I’ve raised the bar," she said. "It’s a motivator.” She recently bought one for her mother, who is 82 years old.

Like other wearable technology products, the Fitbit makes use of the tiny, inexpensive sensors and processors developed for the smart-phone industry in recent years. Such technical innovations are allowing engineers to build computing power into wristwatches, necklaces, headbands, and even socks. New products are emerging rapidly. Here are the main areas of innovation.

1. Smart watches

Depending on which of today’s half-dozen or so models you own, a smart watch can alert you to a phone call, e-mail, social-media updates, and more. One app for the Pebble lets you activate your phone’s camera to take a picture remotely, and several watches enable you to control your phone’s music apps. The LG G Watch, one of the first to use the Android Wear operating system, performs a number of neat tricks. For instance, when you’re navigating using Google Maps, the watch will vibrate to remind you when it’s time to turn. Android Wear integrates with Google Now, and the smart watches accept the voice commands already familiar to users of Android phones. (See Consumer Reports' comprehensive reviews of smart watches for more details.)

2. Activity trackers

Activity trackers, including the Fitbit and Misfit Shine, perform tasks such as measuring how many steps you take throughout the day, monitoring your heart rate, calculating the calories you burn, and collecting data about your sleep patterns. You can access the data from a phone or computer and in some cases share it with a group of peers. One startup is developing a thin adhesive strip called the ElectroZyme biosensor that is meant to be worn on the skin, analyzing perspiration to provide athletes with detailed feedback on hydration levels and other performance parameters; it could also have pure medical applications. Apple recently announced HealthKit, an app bundled with iOS 8 designed to help you keep track of all of your health and fitness data, and Google introduced Google Fit, a similar platform to collate information from activity trackers and health sensors.

Read our full report on Google Glass, including test results.

3. Lifeloggers

It’s a truism that digital technology allows us to offload our memories—there’s no need to learn phone numbers or recall the route to your brother’s house once you begin carrying a smart phone. A small number of “lifelogging” wearable cameras take that to a new extreme. Niche devices such as the Narrative Clip snap pictures all day long, which can help you recall a wine label— or else just make your dinner companion squirm. The new Sony SmartBand is also being touted as a lifelogging device: It monitors your physical activity like a Fitbit but also keeps track of how much time you spend Web surfing and playing games on your phone.

4. Medical sensors

Contemporary heart-rate monitors fall into this category. In a sense, so does the Reebok Checklight, which can be worn under a helmet and alert football or hockey coaches with a series of lights when a player’s head has undergone an impact that might be associated with a concussion. Google is working on a contact lens that it says will monitor blood-glucose levels in diabetics. Devices may someday be available to monitor the tremors of Parkinson’s patients, detect seizures, and transmit vital signs to a medical team.

New wearable gadgets—from head to heel

Editor's Note:

This artice also appeared in the October 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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