What's next in wearable tech for research and education?

At Google's I/O conference developers got a sneak preview of some projects they're working on. For me the most interesting was Project Jacquard, which is all about sewing circuitry into clothing and accessories. Just think, instead of interacting with a tiny touch screen on a phone or a watch, you could your whole jacket sleeve into a control surface or even buy a touch panel 'legwarmer'? And what fascinates me is the use of this type of technology in education.

[This piece originally appeared in Education Technology, June 2015 edition]

Wearable tech for teaching

If you had mentioned wearable computers a couple of years ago, the buzz would have been about Google Glass. If you believed the hype, Glass was all set to become the dominant computing paradigm for the early 21st century. However, it was clear from beta testers' feedback and society's reaction that Glass was not quite ready for prime time. But, Google didn't give up on the idea, Tony Fadell's Team, who famously produced the iPod for Apple, are now continuing development.

There are interesting examples of Google Glass being used in teaching for example, doctors recording surgical procedures for med school training. Originally Glass had built-in support for Hangouts, so your students could not only see what you were doing - through your own eyes, or near enough, but you could also interact with them. It turned out that this was hard to do well given the limited hardware and battery life of the Glass Explorer units, but we will probably see this reappear in Glass 3.0.

I think Glass has promise in a range of industrial scenarios where it is necessary or preferable to keep your hands free. Many of the potential scenarios for Glass at Work are quite relevant to vocational and skills based training, e.g. the mechanic who can call up diagrams and documentation for the car they are working on (hands free) whilst actually carrying out the work.

Similarly it seems to me that Glass could be very helpful for the researcher working in the field - picture a digital archaeologist, like the University of York's Sara Perry, taking pictures on her finds in situ as centuries of dust and dirt is brushed away. In an increasingly connected world wouldn't you like to hang out in real time with archaeologists?

What's next?

However, only a few items of wearable technology have made it out of the labs and into anything like mass circulation. You might be expecting me to mention smartwatches, but actually I would go much further back in time to the invention of glasses and hearing aids. These technologies took a long time to emerge from the labs to reach the ubiquity they now enjoy.

We might look at today's largely disappointing smartwatches and fitness trackers, and think that this is as good as it gets - but the lesson from those early 'wearables' is that it might be decades before they reach their full potential. What we can see, however, is a direction of travel - the guts of a smartphone can now be reduced to something that will fit on your wrist, and other more specialised devices can be shrunk even further. For example Proteus Digital Health's ingestible scanner pill, which allows us to take pictures of the intestine without exploratory surgery.

What is clear is that we can now assume that small connected devices studded with sensors are a given and start to ask ourselves where they might be useful. What objects around the home, office or public spaces could usefully be given an IP address and hooked up to the global internet? How could student use these in the classroom or could they be used to improved international collaboration?

Martin Hamilton

Martin Hamilton works for Jisc in London as their resident Futurist.