The History Of Wearable Technology

Wearable technology, which includes wearable devices, tech togs, and fashionable electronics, consists of articles of clothing and/or accessories that incorporate computer and advanced electronic technologies. Designs often incorporate practical functions and features, but may also have a purely critical or aesthetic agenda.

Today, wearable devices are exploding onto the market, with everything from smart glasses (Google Glass) to smart watches (Samsung Galaxy Gear) on the rise. As for smart watches, the technology isn’t exactly new, however, as it got its start back in the 1970s with the release of the first calculator watch.

The calculator watch, first released in 1975 under the Pulsar brand, became a widely popular tool for science geeks and math nerds everywhere. These early “smart” watches had their heyday through the mid-1980s and although their popularity went downhill, many companies still produce calculator watches to this day.

The calculator watch can be seen in pop culture, getting front cover prominence on The Police song Wrapped Around Your Finger (1983), worn by Sting. As well, calculator watches have appeared in film, notably in the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away (2000) and Back To The Future (1985), with Michael J. Fox’s character Marty McFly sporting one. In the hit game Grand Theft Auto V (2013), protagonist Trevor Philips can be seen wearing a calculator watch as well.

The dwindling popularity of the calculator watch can be foretold by the introduction of PDAs, smartphones and other techy products.

While the 1970s saw the production of the first modern-era wearable computers, the history of wearable technology may go back even farther.

Due to the varied definitions of “wearable” and “computer,” the first wearable computer may have been introduced as early as the 1600s, when the first abacus necklace was unveiled. Other early wearable computers include a sixteenth-century abacus ring, the first wristwatch worn by the Queen of Naples in 1810, and the first cheating devices worn in shoes at roulette tables in the 1960s.

In 1961, mathematicians Edward O. Thorp and Claude Shannon built computerized timing devices to help them cheat at the gambling game roulette — one concealed the device in a shoe, while the other in a pack of cigarettes. Various versions of this apparatus were built in the 1960s and 1970s.

Thorp has referred to himself as the inventor of the first “wearable computer.” However, the specificities of the device were archaic and since the device relied on several other alternately-placed components to work properly, it was deemed this was not a wearable computer. Others went on to perfect the device and built similar wearables through the 1970s, all for the purpose at cheating the tables.

Along with the early wearable calculator watches in the 1970s, came the introduction of a wearable system for the blind. Published by C. C. Collins in 1977, this camera-to-tactile device converted images into a 1024-point, 10-inch square tactile grid on a person’s vest.

In the 1980s, wearable computers started becoming more general-purpose and better fit the modern definition of “computer” by incorporating task-specific hardware to more general-purpose devices. Steve Mann built a backpack-mounted multimedia computer in 1981. Remaining active in the wearable computer field through the 80s led Mann to create the first wearable wireless webcam in 1994, which became the first example of “lifelogging.”

Other wearable computer devices unleashed in 1994 include the first “wrist computer,” developed by Edgar Matias and Mike Riucci of the University of Toronto, and the Forget-Me-Not device, developed by Mik Lamming and Mike Flynn at Xerox EuroPARC, which recorded interactions with people and devices and stored it in a database for later query. DARPA’s Smart Modules Program was started in 1994 to find humionic approach to wearable and carryable computers. In 1996, DARPA hosted the “Wearables in 2005” workshop, bringing industrial, university and military visionaries together for the purpose of delivering computing to the individual.

As the world moved into the 21st century, wearable technology started to take off.

In 2002, as part of Kevin Warwick’s Project Cyborg, his wife, Irena wore a necklace that was electronically linked to Warwick’s nervous system via an implanted electrode array. The necklace color changed dependent on signals from Warwick’s nervous system. Devices that supported augmented reality also got their start in the early-2000s.

In the late-2000s, various Chinese companies began producing mobile phones on wristwatches, the descendants of which as of 2013 include the i5 and i6, which are GSM phones with mini 1.8-inch displays.

Approaching the 2010s, wearable devices started moving toward incorporating IEEE, IETF and other industry standards, including Bluetooth technology, leading to more various interfacing under the wireless personal area network (WPAN) and wireless body area network (WBAN) categories.

Wearable computing really took off in 2011 when Google developed the first prototype of what it now calls its Google Glass Project (smart glasses). The technology is based on military research of head-mounted displays starting back in 1995.

In April 2013, Google Glass was released to a handful of Glass Explorers who were invited to try the technology. It was officially released to the general public for a starting price of $1500 in May 2014.

With the advent of Google Glass, numerous companies made a run into the smart wearable market, including Apple (iWatch), Samsung (Galaxy Gear), Sony (SmartWatch), and others.

Wearable technology has now evolved into numerous types of devices, including watches, glasses, headbands, wigs, rings, etc. As well, such devices are being implemented for numerous applications, including personal and business computing, practical everyday tasks, fitness tracking, healthcare monitoring, etc.

Of course, there have been concerns with such technology; the main issues being that such devices could be a huge threat to security and privacy, with some legislation already being passed to ban the use of smart wearables in some instances and locations.

Still, it will be interesting to see where wearable technology goes as we move forward.

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Image Caption: Stylish wristbands with smart technology. Credit: Chesky_W/