Wearables: cool gadgets or another distraction?

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An attendant at “REACH: The Wearable Future” wears Muse, a brain-sensing headband.

Wearable technology is one of the hottest trend in gadgets right now. What’s is wearable technology exactly? Think Google Glass, Fitbit and Nike Fuel Band, and these devices are oftentimes referred to as wearables.

Amazon UK just launched a wearable technology store this week, selling fitness trackers, smart watches, and wearable cameras. Sales of wearables are expected to top $1.5 billion this year and be more popular items than tablet computers.

I attended “REACH: The Wearable Future,” a conference held in Santa Monica a couple weeks ago, to find out whether they are just another fad or if they’re here to stay.

Wearables? Well, they are all the rage in circles that obsess over the latest gadgets. I’d heard of wearables but thought it was just some niche product like Google Glass. Funny-looking, overpriced and with no obvious reason why I’d need it.

But when I talked to a few of the hundreds of vendors and attendants that packed into a conference on wearable technology in Santa Monica, I found out it goes much further. Jocelyn Umengan works for a company called Muse and she told me about the Muse headband.

“It’s a brain sensing headband based on EEG technology,” Umengan said. “There are four EEG sensors, and it basically fits on your forehead and behind your ears. And what it’s doing is taking your brain activity, and taking that information to help guide you into the brain health that you want to be in.”

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Ownphones are headphones tailored to the shape of each specific user’s ear.

Turns out this Muse headband is all about detecting one’s state of calm. It plays sea sounds to indicate when you are mentally at rest. Sounds of rolling thunder tell you you are distracted.

Seems like pretty complex technology. Even familiar products like headphones are considered wearables, and they’re also becoming more complicated.

Itamar Jobani is the CEO of a company called Ownphones. They create headphones tailored to the shape of each specific user’s ear. “Ownphones is custom 3D-printed earphones, and the process works that you download an app to your phone and you create a short video that orbits around your ear and we analyze the video into a 3D model of your ear, and then we 3D print you custom fit earphones.”

I also encountered a robotic ball – for pets. They keep pets entertained, and even keep an eye on them, while their owners are out. But apparently not all animals are into it. “Dogs are cool, dogs are okay,” Petbot’s owner, Roman Shulga said. “With cats, it just depends what kind of cat you have honestly.”

Cats, he said, get a little freaked out by Petbot. I don’t really blame them.

Goofy tech products aside, the biggest trend I saw at the conference were devices for measuring personal health data. Things like sleep, exercise, and calorie consumption.

One conference attendant, Charlene Zvolanek, says knowing those kinds of things can make a difference in how people act.

“I’m fascinated because of the behavior changes that wearables can create for people,” Zvolanek said. “By being aware of the information about how we behave, we actually become a little bit more concerned with the outcomes.”

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The crowded conference room where tech geeks tried on new wearable gadgets. Photos by Caroline Chamberlain.

Lots of people at the conference were interested in how wearables could improve our society’s overall health. But what about other applications? One of the conference’s organizers, Christen Costa, said one of the more out-there examples of wearables is a product called Myo.

“It senses the movements in your fingers up through your arms and allows you to either game with it, or control things in your house,” Costa said. “Rotate your wrist to turn the volume up and down, or turn off the light by pinching your fingers together.”

I asked him how that was any different from the clap-on/clap-off light switch from the 80’s with the chipper jingle, the Clapper.

“They say that there’s no new ideas,” Costa admitted. “So is it more about new concepts or same concept, or is it new products based on technology that is now available?”

Maybe there aren’t new ideas, but there are still a lot of big names investing in these gadgets.  Musician and tech entrepreneur will.i.am, Apple and Samsung are all pouring big bucks into wearables.

Forbes Magazine and other outlets speculate that wearables will be the next big wave in computing.  But Costa says this is only the beginning.

“The real people, the real players who deliver a true product that benefits us and isn’t just making our lives more difficult and fragmented will stick around,” Costa said.

So are we all going to become obsessed with our every step and brain wave? I kind of hope not – but I also see the potential that wearables offer in understanding our bodies and behavior.

But ultimately, it’s up to consumers to figure out which of these devices actually adds value to their lives, or is just another distraction.