Computers

Gilster: 'Internet of Things' lets us wear Web

CorrespondentMay 11, 2014 

We’re moving into an era where more and more objects in our everyday lives are going to be processing data and delivering information. Wearable computing is taking us into the so-called “Internet of Things.” From refrigerators to thermostats, everything must connect, or at least an attempt must be made to find some way to connect it. There are signs of this effort everywhere, but look no further than the things we carry to see how connectivity is spreading in our lives.

Take a walk these days and notice how many of the joggers and pedestrians out there are not only wired for sound but connected to health monitoring devices. Count me among them. I try to walk 5 miles a day and was delighted to receive a Fitbit One for my birthday. In its basic form, it’s the best pedometer I’ve ever had, talking to my smartphone to relay statistics on my walk like calories burned or steps taken. When I told my wife that my pedometer had sent me a text (“You’ve reached your daily goal”), she declared this was proof that the world had gone insane.

Tracking activity

But it hasn’t. The little Fitbit looks like a USB stick and clips onto a pocket or a shirt. It’s unobtrusive (except for the texting, which you can turn off), and I’ve found its careful monitoring gives me an incentive to get out there and add more miles, just as its calorie monitor gives me a bit of reassurance that I’ve walked off last night’s big dinner. Similar gadgets like Nike’s FuelBand line and the products of Jawbone fit into the category known as “wearables.” They track activity and measure energy burned while offering entree into an online community of users.

Wearables and the “Internet of Things” are aiming at the same point: Companies are trying to figure out where daily life can be enhanced through clever insertion of their products. One of Nike’s earliest attempts was a sensor that could be embedded in the insoles or laces of shoes. The company now seems to have found a synergy with Apple, whose powerful M7 chip handles sensor duties for the iPhone 5S and would allow Nike, if the two can work out the details, to insert its NikeFuel platform into the software of Apple’s long awaited smartwatch.

Health and medicine

Or is that device Apple is rumored to be working on really a smartwatch? I’m hearing more and more speculation that Apple will go after something more like a health-services device, a “smartband” that contains fitness and activity tracking as part of a much larger panoply of offerings. In this thinking, health-related apps may be the game-changer, turning what had been straightforward fitness monitors into more comprehensive health sensors and reporting tools.

We’ll see how Nike plays this amid the speculation that the company is getting out of the hardware game in favor of such a partnership. Meanwhile, take note of this: Apple has been hiring in the area of sensor technology, which could involve monitoring of nutrition, blood pressure, blood sugar levels and other health indicators far beyond simple calorie and step counting. Reuters is reporting that in the past year, Apple has hired half a dozen prominent players in biomedicine. This comes in the context of CEO Tim Cook’s promise of new product categories this year.

Speculating on Apple’s moves is always a shot in the dark, but there is a case to be made that a company whose last new product category was the iPad four years ago might well move boldly. Taking fitness wearables into the domain of a health and medicine platform supported by third-party apps is an aggressive and game-changing move. Don’t be surprised, then, if the so-called iWatch has a lot more to do with how you feel than how you communicate.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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