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When people think of wearable technology today, they likely picture smart watches, fitness trackers, virtual reality headsets, and similar products. The history of wearable tech is an important part of the longstanding connection between the fashion world and the technology sector and in fact extends back to well before those products existed. Wearable tech is also one of the fastest-evolving areas of the fashion industry and one that is likely to continue to evolve with the development of artificial intelligence (AI) tools as well.
Below, we provide a brief overview of the history of wearable tech and a glimpse at where this space may be headed into the future.
What is Wearable Tech?
First, it’s helpful to define what we mean by “wearable tech.” Put simply, wearable tech is any electronic device that is worn on its user’s body, either independently or as part of a larger accessory or article of clothing. These devices can include medical tools, accessories, clothing, and even jewelry. Of course, some of the examples of wearable tech are more closely linked with the world of fashion than others, but advances in tech in one set of products can also mean updates and new opportunities for other ones as well.
Most often wearable tech provides an enhancement of some kind to the article of clothing or accessory it is a part of, or otherwise a benefit to the wearer. This can include monitoring of the user’s bodily data, access to digital or virtual spaces, and even improved physical performance for the user, among other things.
Earliest Examples of Wearable Tech
One of the earliest examples of wearable technology is something most of us take for granted: eyeglasses. Glasses date back hundreds of years, with the first having been invented during the Medieval era. Today we would hardly consider glasses to represent a type of wearable technology, but the fact that they utilize specialized materials to aid in human performance places them squarely in the wearable tech category according to the above definition.
For most followers of fashion and technology, though, the real dawning of the age of wearable tech occurred in the middle part of the 20th century. Innovative counting tools that could be attached to a user’s waist or placed in a shoe emerged in the 1960s as a way for people to try to cheat at roulette in casinos. In the 1970s, calculator wristwatches became immensely popular.
Wearable tech continued to develop in other areas in the 1980s, as the Sony Walkman became a dominant part of the culture. Digital hearing aids also emerged for the first time in the 1980s, helping to revolutionize the wearable tech space in healthcare.
Starting in the late 1990s and continuing until today, the Internet of Things (IoT) movement began to place computers and other technology in a host of devices. Bluetooth headsets, iPods, Fitbits, wearable webcams, and much more emerged beginning early in the new millennium.
Fast forward to the 2010s and we begin to see the release of some of today’s most famous wearable tech devices, including the Apple Watch, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, and Google Glass.
Wearable Tech Today
As technology has advanced and society has become more accustomed to the idea of wearing clothing and accessories that double as tech devices, so too has the list of possible applications of wearable tech grown. Now, it’s common to find wearable tech across many categories:
- Smart clothing: Smart clothing uses built-in tech to either adapt to a user’s needs (for instance, allowing greater airflow when a wearer becomes hotter) or monitor aspects of the user’s bodily performance. In the latter case, clothes and accessories exist to watch for heart irregularities, to track workouts by biometric data, and more. Smart clothing may be designed to interact with other types of wireless tech, including laptops, smartphones, and more.
- Virtual and augmented reality headsets: Augmented reality—the practice of overlaying a depiction of the real world with digital content as well—and full virtual reality headsets are some of the most popular and latest examples of wearable tech. These types of products exist in the gaming sphere, but they have increasingly found their ways into other spaces and applications as well.
- Smart jewelry: Smart watches may be the most popular example of smart jewelry. They allow users to do everything from send texts and take calls to perform fitness monitoring tasks and more. Increasingly, tech has found a place in other types of jewelry as well, including rings, pins, and watchbands.
- Sensors and cameras: Users are finding it increasingly helpful to wear body-mounted sensors and cameras in a number of environments. GoPro cameras can be mounted directly on the body or on an item of clothing or accessory like a bike helmet. In other cases, this type of tech takes the form of sensors aiming to capture and analyze data produced by the wearer himself.
- Older examples of wearable tech in new iterations: Just because newer examples of wearable tech exist does not mean that older products and categories are completely obsolete. Indeed, people still wear glasses, contact lenses, standard digital watches, hearing aids, and many other examples of wearable tech that are no longer considered cutting edge.
Where Could Wearable Tech Be Heading?
It’s difficult to say exactly where wearable tech could be heading going forward, only that it’s likely that technology will continue to progress at a rapid pace. There are some specific products that have been speculated about for years and which, if they are ever produced, are sure to garner significant attention. Apple’s take on tech-adapted glasses, for instance, is an example of such a hotly-anticipated product. Some experts expect Apple to someday release augmented reality glasses capable of transferring information between a wearer’s iPhone and her face, doing everything from playing games and composing emails to sending and displaying text messages.
Another as-yet-unseen branch of wearable tech that is highly anticipated is smart contact lenses. These products—a marvel of technology given the small size of the lenses themselves—may someday be able to provide an augmented reality experience as well, or at least to synchronize with smartphones to provide information to the wearer in addition to helping them to see better.
Technological advances outside of specific products could help to benefit all wearable tech as a category. An example of this is energy harvesting. As of now, wearable tech is limited by battery capacity. Once a battery runs out, the user must remove the smart product and recharge it, usually by plugging it into another power source. Experts in the space are hoping to find alternate ways of recharging the technology that they wear. Ideally, this would be possible by using the wearer’s body heat or even their movement to help to power the device. If this could be achieved, it would go a long way toward making it possible to have permanent wearable tech—technology designed to be more fully integrated with a person’s entire lived experience.
On that final note, a frontier for the wearable tech world is so-called human augmentation. This includes any type of technology that is designed to be implanted into a human body or otherwise permanently installed. Some examples of pre-existing human augmentation products include pacemakers and, to a lesser extent, hearing aids. Companies like Elon Musk’s Neuralink are dedicated to developing interfaces designed to be installed directly into human brains, with the goal of augmenting the brain with the power of AI and other computer technology.
- Wearable tech is any electronic device that is worn on its user’s body, either independently or as part of a larger accessory or article of clothing.
- Some of the earliest wearable tech dates back hundreds of years, with eyeglasses being one of the first items in this category.
- Wearable tech proliferated rapidly in the middle part of the 20th century with digital and calculator wristwatches, counter tools, and more.
- In the 1980s, one of the most prominent pieces of wearable tech was the Walkman.
- Digital hearing aids also emerged in the 1980s.
- Beginning in the 1990s, wireless technology and, eventually, the Internet of Things trend began to see more and more connective devices incorporated into wearable items. These include Bluetooth headsets, iPods, Fitbits, smart watches, and more.
- Most recently, wearable tech has also grown to include virtual and augmented reality systems, commonly used in video games but also employed in a variety of business and personal settings.
- Modern wearable tech also includes smart clothing, wearable sensors and cameras, smart jewelry, and related items.
- In the future, users may watch out for more examples of smart glasses, as well as smart contact lenses, improved energy systems that even allow wearable tech items to recharge using a wearer’s body heat or similar outputs, and, eventually, implantable tech that is integrated directly into the user’s body.