Data will not help you if you can’t see it when you need it. For Dan Eisenhardt—a competitive swimmer for more than a decade, beginning as a 9-year-old in his native Denmark—the data he needed in the water, what he could never know in the water, was his splits. His event was the 1,500-meter freestyle, the longest slog in the sport, a near-mile of grinding exertion divided into 15 laps of 100 meters apiece. As with every distance sport, pacing is all; lag your target time on the first two laps and you may never catch up, but accidentally beat it and you’ll load your tissue with lactic acid, doom your endgame. How fast was his last lap? How did it compare to his usual pace? His coach up on the pool deck could know, his parents in the stands could know. But Eisenhardt, at war in the water, could only guess.
The rigors of engineering school eventually forced Eisenhardt to stop racing. He worked for a while as a management consultant. But later, during business school, while he was spending an exchange semester at the University of British Columbia, the problem nagged at him again. For a project in an entrepreneurship class, he pitched a business plan: data-enabled goggles for swimmers like his former self. He teamed up with some other students, and they soon concluded they had the wrong sport. Swim goggles were too small to support a screen, plus the athletes were too few in number—and too unaccustomed to shelling out for expensive gear. Close at hand in wintry Canada, though, was a better idea. In January 2008, after a year or so of tinkering, four of the classmates founded Recon Instruments.
Their first product, Recon Snow, is a heads-up display for skiers and snowboarders. From the outside it looks just like any set of ski goggles. But tucked below the right eye is a little display, controllable by a simple remote—snow-proof with big, chunky buttons—that clips to a jacket. The main screen is a dashboard that shows speed, altitude, and vertical descent. There’s also a navigation view that uses the built-in GPS to plot position on a resort map, as well as an app screen that offers access to a camera. Through Bluetooth, the display integrates with a smartphone, letting skiers play music, answer calls, and see text messages or other notifications. Recon has sold 50,000 of the Snow so far, and the second generation, Snow2, came out in November. The company’s next product—Jet, designed for cyclists, with voice control and gaze detection for hands-free use—will ship in March.
Recon Heads-Up Display | From the outside, the only real sign that anything’s different about these Oakley goggles is a tiny red logo on the right. On the inside, though, the Recon Snow2 (starting at $399) sports an ingenious display that lets skiers and snowboarders stay connected on the slopes. With an armband-mounted remote control, users can toggle between a few simple screens showing speed and more. Friends using Recon devices at the same resort can keep track of one another on a map. Recon sold 50,000 pairs of its first-generation goggles, and the company’s second product—Jet, designed for cyclists, with voice control and gaze detection for totally hands-free use—goes on sale in March. Ian Allen
Technically, the Recon doesn’t do anything that the average smartphone couldn’t. The lavish array of sensors in today’s phones can chart speed and altitude; social networking apps can find friends and set up voice or video chats; any number of map apps can navigate users down a mountain. That is, a smartphone would do those things—if users could access it on a ski slope or cycling run. But they can’t, at least not without risking a crack in their screen or their head. What Recon sells is the ability to see all the crucial data, and only the crucial data, at times when it would otherwise remain locked away. It brings the power of the smartphone out of your pocket and into your field of vision, accessible any time you glance its way.
This is the promise of wearable technology, and it’s the reason—after more than 20 years of tinkering by cybernetics enthusiasts—we’re finally seeing an explosion of these devices on the market. It’s the reason Google has poured millions into an improbable set of eyeglasses, why Samsung has unveiled a companion watch for its smartphones, and why Apple is widely rumored to be exploring something similar. It’s the reason tiny companies banked thousands of preorders last year for smartwatches, gesture-controlled armbands, transmitting rings, notification bracelets, and more. A new device revolution is at hand: Just as mobile phones and tablets displaced the once-dominant PC, so wearable devices are poised to push smartphones aside.
In purely technological terms, the wearable revolution could take shape much faster than the mobile revolution that preceded it. Thanks to what former WIRED editor in chief Chris Anderson has called the “peace dividend of the smartphone wars,” sensors and chip sets are cheaper now than ever, making it easier for small companies to incorporate sophisticated hardware into wearable devices. And while smartphone manufacturers had to master the tricky art of providing dependable mobile Internet service, wearable manufacturers can piggyback on those innovations using simple Bluetooth or other protocols to communicate with a smartphone and thus with the outside world. With all that prebaked hardware and wireless connectivity—and huge preorders from crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter—it has become possible for tiny companies to dream up, build, and sell wearable devices in competition with big companies, a feat that was never possible with smartphones.
Recon Heads-Up Display | The display’s main screen shows speed and other key metrics. Another shows your progress on the trail, while a third shows notifications. Ian Allen
It may seem laughable to suggest that people will soon neglect their iPhones in favor of amped-up watches, eyeglasses, rings, and bracelets. But then again, 10 years ago it seemed laughable to think that people would use their smartphones to email, surf the web, play games, watch videos, keep calendars, and take notes—all once core tasks of desktop PCs. We can already see how wearable devices might peel off some of the phone’s key functions: One study of smartphone users indicates that on average we unlock our gadgets more than 100 times a day, with some of us pawing at screens far more often than that. Internet analyst Mary Meeker estimates that as many as two-thirds of those uses could be handled with a wearable device.
To get there, though, pure functionality won’t be enough. After all, people could surf the web on their BlackBerrys; smartphones didn’t really take off until the advent of the iPhone, a device that launched an aesthetic transformation in the tech industry, as design went from an afterthought to a corporate necessity, a core competency prized no less than the ability to make a faster chip or stable operating system. Wearable devices—technology that people will want to display on their bodies, for all to see—represent a new threshold in aesthetics. The tech companies that mastered design will now need to conquer the entirely different realm of fashion. And that could require technologists to unlearn a great deal of what they think they know.
- The Information reports Sony (SNE -0.1%), which (like many OEMs) has focused its smartphone efforts on building Android hardware, is thinking of launching a Windows Phone (MSFT +0.1%) as soon as mid-2014.
- The site also reports Microsoft, hungry to expand Windows Phone’s OEM support, is “making new moves” to win over ZTE (ZTCOY) and other vendors, such as slashing licensing fees. The Verge reported three weeks ago Microsoft is thinking of offering Windows Phone and RT for free, and monetizing the platforms via ads/services.
- Microsoft’s pending acquisition of Nokia’s phone business has fueled concerns third parties will now be reluctant to license WP, particularly since Nokia is the market’s dominant player. AdDuplex just estimated Nokia hardware accounts for 92.1% of the WP installed base. But OEM concerns about becoming too dependent on Google could leave Microsoft with an opening.
- Though IDC estimates WP only had a 3.6% Q3 global smartphone unit share, Kantar Worldpanel believes the OS is faring much better in Europe, assigning it a double-digit share within the EU5. That might be of interest to Sony, whose smartphone ops depend heavily on European and Japanese sales.
December 30th, 2013 | by Charles Q. Cho
Over the years, researchers have been making slow progress working out how to make the devices, which work by guiding light waves completely around objects so they zip along their original paths as if nothing were there. But such advances have generally been limited to cloaking objects in very narrow bands of the electromagnetic spectrum.
A major challenge to creating more intriguing cloaks has been that these early prototypes have each been limited to working against narrow ranges of wavelengths for various types of waves — a cloak against green light would likely not also work against red or blue light, for instance.
Indeed, electrical engineer Andrea Alu at the University of Texas at Austin and his colleagues recently discovered that although cloaks make things invisible to certain wavelengths, all cloaking techniques employed today essentially render objects more visible overall, not less, if one considers visibility over all wavelengths. For example, making something invisible to red light may also make it bright blue. If one looked at all wavelengths of light, the cloaked object would actually be more visible than the uncloaked version.
Now Alu and his colleagues say they have designed the first electrically powered invisibility cloak that works over a much broader range of light wavelengths than ever before. Their battery-powered cloaks, they say, may overcome the challenges faced by its predecessors, though so far they’re advance is still limited to the microwave part of the spectrum.
“I believe this is an important step to provide a real impact for cloaking applications, which have been so far limited to narrow bandwidths,” Alu says.
Passive materials to active electronics
Until now, the cloaks that scientists have designed have been passive structures known as metamaterials and metasurfaces that do not draw energy from an outside power source. Instead of using these static, fixed structures warping light like current invisibility cloaks employ, the researchers suggest making future cloaks using active, dynamic electronic components.
The cloaks that Alu and his colleagues have designed involve arrays of square metal patches on a surface connected by a network of electronic amplifiers that need little in the way of power. This helps warp light over a broader range of wavelengths. Moreover, such active cloaks might be thinner and less conspicuous than standard cloaks.
“We found a way to combine the newest technology in active circuitry with cloaking in order to significantly broaden the bandwidth of operation of invisibility cloaks,” Alu says.
Such active cloaks might help mask objects from radar. They may also have a number of applications beyond camouflaging, such as improving wireless communications by suppressing extraneous signals.
The active cloak the researchers devised works against microwave-range wavelengths, not visible ones. “We are far from having an impact on invisibility to the human eye,” Alu says.
However, “there is a lot of interest at the moment in realizing active metamaterials in the visible,” he says. “Our results may possibly inspire new active cloak designs at visible frequencies with broader bandwidths than what are available today.”
The researchers are now exploring building a prototype of their design, “but it presents some challenges,” he says. The circuit technology such cloaks relies on “is evolving very fast, and we hope that in the near future we will be able to integrate these elements directly into our metasurfaces.”
Alu and his colleagues Pai-Yen Chen and Christos Argyropoulos detailed their findings online Dec. 3 in the journal Physical Review Letters.
Top Image: Camouflage via Shutterstock.