Wearable devices seemingly came out of nowhere, with the “future of wearable tech” here before many of us even realized it had started. Hundreds of thousands of people now wear Fitbits and Apple Watches, but the industry was commoditized as quickly as it took off. Even though we were just starting to strap (smart) devices to our wrists, the market quickly reached a point where most of the offerings were the same. Tracking your steps, calories, and workouts can only be presented in so many ways—and market growth has slowed significantly. The future of wearable tech looked bleak.
While the Apple Watch didn’t stand in the path fitness trackers paved for themselves, both Jawbone and Fitbit have seen slowing sales and have struggled to reach new customers. Companies and IT managers were worried about the influx of data from wearables, but that hasn’t materialized. There might be thousands more devices out there, on our person instead of in our pockets, but they haven’t flooded networks like many expected. But there’s something that may truly change the game on the horizon.
What will the future of wearable tech look like?
At one time, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) existed only in science fiction, but now devices that let us experience other worlds are freely available at retail stores (in the real world). New hardware like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and more have opened the door to unprecedented opportunity. Compared to wearables, sales of VR and AR gear trail behind, but many of these devices have only recently hit the market.
AR and VR have already shown the potential to transform both the workplace and the internet infrastructure itself. When you can give each member of your team a headset instead of a desk with monitors, and use the goggles to access screens of any size, it completely changes the way IT works. No longer does your company need to buy expensive hardware or set up desks—it can all happen virtually.
A plethora of new VR and AR technologies is emerging daily, and hardware is iterating quickly. Both Oculus and HTC Vive were recently released to the world, but you can expect rapid hardware innovation in 2018 and beyond as we move beyond the first generation of hardware.
What’s been slowing down adoption?
This influx of new wearable and mobile devices presents an interesting challenge for businesses, ISPs, and home users alike: How can the network handle the huge amounts of data required for these applications when they take off? John Carmack, cofounder of Oculus Rift, has said that a connection latency of more than 50 milliseconds causes motion sickness for users, and that anything below a consistent 60 frames per second would do the same. Facebook has found some creative ways to stream video to VR headsets by building a new codec that streams only the parts of a video that’s in your field of vision, but it’s still not the perfect solution for live-streaming events or video calls.
What businesses and consumers ultimately need is higher-fidelity connections and bigger pipes. Technology like 5G and AC wireless could help alleviate bandwidth concerns and deliver reliable frame rates, but much of the VR experience will need to be delivered over a wired connection to provide the reliability required for an enjoyable experience. In the workplace, it’ll be a long time before VR or AR becomes the norm, but it’ll likely happen all at once as consumers bring their own devices into the workplace. By then, networks will need to be ready to offer quality-of-service to those applications or they won’t stick, especially if users experience motion sickness. Fiber connections will be an absolute must, not to mention guaranteed levels of bandwidth.
The future is indeed bold and exciting, as VR, AR, and wearables could change the way workplaces interact with remote workers and clients. But the bandwidth question is one that must be answered before the onslaught of devices begins. The true future of wearable tech is going to be bigger than we expected—and will likely all happen in a virtual world.