Monday, March 31, 2014

Can Your Smartwatch Read Your Mind? Highlights from WearablesTech Con

I was able to drop by the Wearables TechCon that was held earlier this month in Santa Clara - a charming suburb claimed by many as the Heart of Silicon Valley. Here is a "trip report." 

The conference combined educational tracks addressing the full spectrum of wearable technologies with sessions on business opportunities, keynotes from industry luminaries, and an expo floor where leading wearable tech companies were exhibiting their devices and technologies.

There were more than 60 combined classes and tutorials split among three tracks -  the hardware track,  including classes on product design and embedded technologies such as sensors, and other components; the software and App development track,  focusing on platforms, APIs, Software development kits (SDK), and best programming practices; and finally a business opportunities track. 

I was pleasantly surprised to see not one or two but multiple sessions on a topic near and dear to my heart. As those of you who have read my autobiography already know, I had proposed a project in "Artificial Imagination" during my graduate studies. The project envisaged computer systems that could understand and simulate human emotions and imagination. The proposal was quickly shot down by my adviser, with a look on his face that seemed to suggest that I ought to seek medical attention. 

 Twenty eight years later, the technology I briefly imagined is coming closer to being reality. The sessions on the army of wearable devices turning sentimental included one on
 embedding ultra-lightweight vision software that can read facial micro-expressions in real-time into wearable devices. Yes, camera sensors that feed into image and pattern recognition software to recognize joy, surprise, anger, fear, and 30 other emotional states  in less than 1/30 of a second that gives us enough time to possibly react in real time as well. 
In addition, it recognizes mood indicators and other facial behavioral metrics. If wearable technology can recognize emotions, we are just a small step away from simulating them! We can all imagine applications that can benefit by sensing moods and emotions.

Similarly, there was one session about sensors directly communicating via the brain. Yes, now we are talking the next gen Wearables - a device that can understand me without talking to it! The presenter explained methods like  Electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical activity along the scalp, and nano-sensors fit into a contact lens which can analyze the chemical composition of our tears to know what we are REALLY feeling.  Brain-computer interaction is not the only way. The presenter also talked about "Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation (tDCS)" whereas constant, low current is delivered via electrodes to increase cognitive performance and attention span, and enhance language & math abilities.

These may sound futuristic but remember, just a few years ago, the idea that computers would understand voice commands and help us look up information, do computations or remind us seemed far- fetched. Not only have such advances been achieved, but computers have also shrunk in size to fit into our phone or watch and are affordable enough for masses to own them.

There was also a session on "affective" computing (not a typo, that's what we're calling computing involving processing of emotions) by Scott Amyx, who goes by the title of Wearable and IoT thought leader. Watch highlights of his session by 
clicking here

But these ideas about monitoring and influencing human mind are all is still in the "innovation" stage. Let's talk about wearable technologies that have moved from Alpha / Beta testing to early adoption.

One of the keynote presentations at Wearables TechCon – the only one that I was able to attend - was by Qaizar Hassonjee, vice president of innovation at Adidas. His startup - Textronics - was purchased by Adidas in 2008. After the merger with Adidas, the Textronics group worked on a project that became Adidas' miCoach Elite software and hardware which has been rolled out to the entire league by major league association.  Each miCoach Elite sensor pack includes a GPS, compass, heart rate sensors, accelerometer, and wireless transmission equipment.  The acquired data is analyzed by the miCoach Elite system which produces insights that helps the coaches improve their teams' performance. These insights have been extended to the consumer market through an array of other devices produced by Adidas such as a smart sports bra and a smart ball - a soccer ball with sensors inside that allows players to see how hard they're kicking and how far the ball has gone, thanks to GPS.

Of course, no one can talk about wearable technology innovations without talking about smart watches. There was also a series of classes specifically on the Apple Watch, including  an overview session, several deep dive sessions into the Software Development Kit for the Apple Watch (dubbed WatchKit), a session specifically on what will the Apple Watch mean for fitness apps, and one comparing Android Wear with Apple Watch for Developers. 

All that discussion about the Apple Watch fascinated me enough that I decided to buy a smart watch. - No, Apple is not selling the Apple Watch yet (pre-orders begin next month) but Pebble was at the expo offering a discount on the Pebble watch, so I ended up buying one. Please standby for an article describing my experiences with Pebble watch, but you can watch Verge's video on it below: 

That's a good segue onto the Expo floor, where leading wearable tech companies were  exhibiting their devices and technologies.

In addition to the Pebble watch, the two other exhibiting companies that are worthy of mention in this blog are:
  • Duratouch, which demonstrated its PCap touch technology that works in the pouring rain, with winter gloves, and in extreme temperatures. They had an innovative demonstration booth with  streaming water fountains where they'd immerse the device in water stream and the touch screen  would continue to work.  
  • Infostretch,. Santa Clara based Infostretch provides mobile testing, certification, verification, development and sustenance engineering services to enterprise customers in different verticals. 
Wearables TechCon is produced by BZ Media LLC, which publishes SD Times, the leading magazine for the software development industry. I do not have any business or investment relationship with BZMedia, or with Adidas, Pebble, Infostretch, or Duratouch. 

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