From glassholes to cyborgs: Wearables look to redeem themselves in their second coming

Tyagarajan S March 28, 2017 11 min

If you own a fitness band or a smartwatch, it’s likely that you use it mostly to track steps. However, it is also equally likely that your device is lying at home, unused for days, weeks or months. Wearables haven’t changed the world the way they were supposed to.

Most companies got it wrong in their first attempt. The devices were unintuitive, interfaces were kludgy and prices too high. The smartwatch tried to do too many things, poorly. Some of the attempts like Google Glass bordered on strange dystopian gimmickry.

Most companies got it wrong in their first attempt. The devices were unintuitive, interfaces were kludgy and prices too high  

But wearables are still around. Their second coming is more measured, with the realisation that the journey is long but revolutionary. This journey will throw up some tricky problems to solve and open up exciting new frontiers in our existence.

What lies at the end of this tunnel? Are we all just smelly carbon manifestations of a collection of data points? Are we destined to become cyborgs?  Read on in this weeks FactorFuture.


Weird. Ahead of its time. Horrible product made by designers who were tripping on acid. The perspectives may vary on Google Glass, but few can deny that it failed. Not completely, though. It did leave a scar in our lingo  —  Glassholes  —  as a warning for the choppy cultural and social voyage that lies in front of wearables.

What followed the Glass debacle was a slow, insipid dance to nowhere. Apple unveiled a “smartwatch” that never really lit the market on fire. A clutch of companies followed suit and then bit the dust. Google’s Android Wear was so tentative that it took them nearly three years to push a 2.0 update.

It was fair to ask the question at this point, “Is there really a wearables market?”

There’s some, certainly. About 100 million wearable devices were shipped in 2016. Propping it up is Fitbit, the company that started selling little fitness bands that could be synced with your computer long before wearables became a thing. Fitbit dominated a fifth of the entire market (in volume) last year.

The wearables market was a hammer searching for a nail (use case). It may have found one in health and fitness

The wearables market was a hammer searching for a nail and it seemed to have found one in health and fitness. As smartwatches are fast turning into expensive fitness bands, the future looks a little less hazy. A healthcare and fitness network built on the base of rich personal data is valuable not so much for individuals but for organisations.

Organisations are getting a scent of the kill. Gartner estimates that 25% of all devices will be provided by hospitals, gyms, insurance firms and corporates between 2018 to 2020 (and not bought directly). The model will shift to the Amazon school of platforming, where wearables will be so much more than just the little device being sold.

Organisations are getting a scent of the kill. Gartner estimates that 25% of all devices will be provided by hospitals, gyms, insurance firms and corporates between 2018 to 2020  

Services built on top will be much more valuable and devices will get subsidised, thereby easing one of the biggest constraints to adoption today: pricing. Pricing will also drop as the market matures.

Meanwhile, wearable makers are realising that wearables aren’t smartphones. An all-in-one device that aggregates all the functions may be the exact opposite of what wearables should be doing.

Apple has quickly diversified its wearable play into Airpods, realising that growing sophistication of AI enabled interfaces means disconnected, little devices could all work in concert with a larger brain. Could Airpods-like audio wearables drive the market in the future? This sounds logical when one considers an increasingly voice-powered computing interface will pervade all around.

Even smart glasses are getting a second chance thanks to Spectacles from Snap Inc. It’s success may determine if Google Glass was just a massive product failure or do people just not like this interface.

Spectacles, Snap Inc

In addition to focusing on use cases and disintegration, wearables are getting more invisible, closely inserting themselves with fashion choices. Soon everything from your favourite gold ring to your track pants would contain tiny sensors that can measure your biometric data.

It would seem that the wearables market is making an attempt to rediscover itself and become something that can serve a massive need. IDC expects wearables to show strong growth with device shipments more than doubling to 237.5 million in 2021. They will still not transform our planet but are set to start mainstreaming, slowly and surely.

Wearables to ‘insideables’

Even as the market expands, the social and cultural normalisation of technology adornments on our bodies is currently underway (it may have happened already for the younger generation). This will accelerate as the technology gets smaller, efficient and more powerful, getting to a point where wearables offer benefits so significant that we cannot afford to live without them.

Wearable sensors are getting there fast. We already have sensors that are sophisticated enough to read and alter brain waves, helping us remain calm and stress-free or priming the brain for better learning. Eventually, wearable tech could replace drugs, alcohol or performance enhancers.

There’s a whole host of directions in which wearables research is exploring more ubiquitous uses. MC10, a company pioneering with stretchable electronics, is bringing wearables that can be plastered to our skins, like band-aids. One day, this technology could help create artificial skin that we can graft on and replicate our skin’s sensory inputs.

Eventually wearables will get so ubiquitous and invisible that they’ll have nowhere to go but inside.

Today, ‘insideables‘ (wearables that are implanted inside us) are still largely in the “cult” realm occupied by DIY Grinder Bio-hackers (people who hack their bodies with do-it-yourself cybernetic embeds) engaged in esoteric amusements.

Rich Lee, a popular biohacker, is working on a project to embed a vibrator into the penile bone

It’s mostly too niche, too weird or too silly. Biohackers implant RFID chips and magnets to enable a range of activities like opening garage doors, sensing magnetic fields around them or even act a geocaching points. Then there are body embeds that vibrate every time you face the magnetic north, perhaps helping orient you in a post-apocalyptic world that will emerge after the inevitable fall of civilisation. Like I said  —  weird and silly.

Dangerous Things  —  a platform selling custom gadgetry for the discerning biohacker

But implants won’t always remain in the ‘cult’ territory. Brain implants are already beginning to have serious real world applications like helping a paralysed man move his arms or could even treat depression one day. Google and others are working on Nanobots that could one day travel in our bloodstream, tracking our vitals and helping proactively detect diseases.

It’s a strange, uncertain future where an increasing percentage of us will be made by ourselves.

We, the data

The most obvious issue is privacy. Personal data that wearables track is even more valuable than our credit card data. In the case of a credit card breach, the damage can be limited by cancelling transactions and the card itself. But what happens when date of birth, hear rate and other biometrics get stolen?

Ironically, with smaller, more intimate devices, we appear to care less about privacy. We are increasingly unaware of what data is being collected from us, who owns it and what is it being used for. A future where seeking privacy is increasingly taxing and complex, may even lead us to normalise the absence of it.

Read: You have a destiny and AI knows it

But the impact of any breach of such intimate personal data cannot be normalised. Imagine what happens when Fitbit shuts shop one fine day? Would the data still be protected? Even worse, could the company sell it to someone else as one of the ‘assets’ as part of its bankruptcy process, like Radioshack and Toysmart tried to do.

Ironically, with smaller, more intimate devices, we appear to care less about privacy. We are increasingly unaware of what data is being collected from us, who owns it and what is it being used for  

Forget breaches. By letting organisations track us, we are handing over an enormous amount of our personal freedom. Nearly two million workers will be mandated to wear fitness trackers by employers by 2018, says a Gartner research. Sensors are finding a place in employee badges, arm bands, and furniture all in an attempt to increasingly quantify employees in workplaces.

This raises some serious ethical and moral questions. Using our micro-habits to increase our output sounds eerily like fine tuning machines in a factory. If anything, a clutch of recent fiascos surrounding high profile startups (like this) have only reinforced the fact that organisations can hardly be trusted.

In the longer term, the bigger social worry is whether human-enhancing tech (like brain chip implants) will further increase the division in our society between the haves and have-nots. Today, we restrict performance enhancing drugs in sporting arenas but not in our day to day life. Could those who can augment their performance multi-fold gain an unfair advantage in life? These questions will get more pertinent as wearable technology gets more powerful.

Calling for Cyborgs

Unlike Elon Musk, who is aggressively evangelising brain-machine interfaces, a vast majority of us are likely terrified of interfacing with machines. We have fiction to thank for this terror.

Cyborg-like imaginations go way back to the 19th century. But in early fiction, cyborgs were just vague caricatures with superhuman strength and abilities. Cybernetics, a term referring to systems that combined electrical, mechanical and biological aspects, was popularised in 1947. The term Cyborg itself was coined in 1960 by Manfred Clynes in an article ‘Cyborgs and space’ to indicate “cybernetic organisms”.

The comic-verse has gave us some hero-cyborgs, no doubt, like Robotman and his cyborg best-friend Robotdog who fought crime relentlessly or Ladytron who could channel her bad-assery for good. Cyborgs were often manipulated, like Deathlok, being forced to do someone’s evil bidding. Existential crisis was rampant as cyborg heroes (E.g. Cyborg, SuperPatriot) often questioned their humanity in the face of overwhelming machine-ness.

Deathlok Prime. Earth-10511

Even among the heroes, the theme was often one of manipulation and desperation because becoming a cyborg was always looked at as an affliction unless you could just suit up into a temporary cyborg like Iron Man.

Perhaps this is the reason the most visceral and memorable cyborgs were often just a malicious bundle of soul-less evil circuitry and chrome.

Cybermen, Dr. Who

There’s the Cybermen from Dr. Who have the insatiable desire to reengineer all humans. The Borg from Startrek again have a keen desire to assimilate all sentient species by force. But nothing got the image of Cyborgs as the doom of mankind as effectively as the creations from Cyberdyne Systems  —  The Terminator, seeking to kill a lone woman for the sake of preserving the future machine rule.

Ultimately, some of the deepest discussions around being a cyborg happened in written fiction.

Cybernetics generated a substantial amount of science fiction exploring the resulting complications and social order. Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano was an early version exploring the enslavement of humanity to a cybernetic control seeping through computers, consumerism, and advertising. Wolfsbane by Frederik Pohl and C M Kornbluth took it further and may have pioneered the idea of humans being wired to computing systems.

One of the earliest deep explorations of humans becoming Cyborgs was the novel Limbo (by Bernard Wolfe) which dealt with a society where the limbs and sense organs of humans were voluntarily replaced with superior prosthetics. It’s imagining of a society built on this aesthetic puts in on par (at least thematically) with “1984” or  a “Brave new world”.

Novels like Masks and No woman born again sought to answer questions around humanity’s existential crisis and whether being devoid of our race or other aspects could even bring happiness. Eventually, the questions get larger and more ponderous seeking the meaning of god, soul and more assorted philosophical abstractions. No wonder then, that the concept of cyborgs holds such fascination for our imaginations. And fills us with dread as we see it manifest in real life.

Ray Kurzweil, in his book The Singularity is Near, says that it is unhelpful to think of the future cyborgs as enhanced present-day humans. He predicts that we’ll eventually interface to become a new species, another step in our evolution from homo sapiens.

Today, even though the future seems far away, we’ve begun on this path thanks to wearables. Kurzweil also recently predicted singularity by 2029  —  the point in time when humans and machines will fuse together into one coherent entity. Whether this transpires or not, it is certain that we’ll increasingly get embellished with circuitry in our bodies in the decade to come.

Read other FactorFuture stories.


Lead visual: Angela Anthony Pereira
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