wearable fitbit clipped to jeans

Wearables were everywhere at CES 2015, which is no surprise — even “normal people” are already walking around with activity-tracking bands. An avalanche of wearable products is coming your way.

The term “wearable” is a buzzword, sure. But it’s a simple one — it just means wearable technology. Thanks to the march of technology, such products are becoming easier to create.

Wearables 101

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The word “wearables,” short for “wearable technology,” is pretty easy to understand. A wearable device is one that you wear somewhere on your body instead of sitting on your desk, tucked into a big, or slipped into your pocket. That’s all “wearable” really means. To be more specific, here are some examples of wearables you can get your hands on today:

  • Fitness-tracking bands made by Fitbit, Jawbone, Runtastic, Mio, Basis, Misfit, Nike, Microsoft, Garmin, and others.
  • Smartwatches including those running Android Wear, the forthcoming Apple Watch, and the Pebble watch.
  • “Smart glasses” like Google Glass and similar products, like Sony’s SmartEyeGlass. These aren’t as widespread in the real world, but many people have certainly heard of them.

Overall, fitness tracking bands and smartwatches are by far the most popular type of wearable technology at the moment. But anything else that’s potentially wearable could be considered a wearable technology. For example, CES 2015 saw the AmpStrip, a sort “smart band-aid” that you stick onto your chest to monitor your heart rate and send the data to your smartphone. A jacket with built-in LEDs could be considered a wearable, too. A ring that monitors your vital signs or functions as an authentication token would also be a wearable.

Technically, even a humble pair of headphones could be considered a “wearable.” They were just around so long before the buzzword that they generally wouldn’t be lumped in to this category. However, a pair of wireless bluetooth earbuds that reads notifications to you or a pair of wired headphones that also monitor fitness data while you’re wearing them would always be considered a wearable.

Why Wearables Are Popping Up Now

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So, why are we hearing so much about these now? It’s all about the underlying computing technology. That means the chips and sensors, and their size, power usage, and price. Modern computers can now be so small that they can be crammed into a fitness band, complete with sensors and a battery, and last for a week monitoring your health data. This doesn’t just require a small, low-power computer — it requires special low-power sensors that can sip a small amount of battery while capturing information from the environment. New wireless technologies like Bluetooth Low Energy even allow wearable devices to communicate with smartphones while using much less battery power, too.

These low-power sensors are the same types of sensors built into modern Android phones like the Moto X, Nexus 5, or Nexus 6, which are always listening for you to say “Okay Google,” even while the screen is off. They’re also the same type of sensor found in the iPhone 6, which is always counting your steps and how many flights of stairs you’ve been climbing. These super low-power sensors allow a device to track data with very little battery drain. This is key, as most people don’t want to walk around with a battery pack their wearable devices must be constantly connected to.

At CES 2015, Intel showed off the “Curie” module — a microcomputer the size of a small button designed for wearable devices. Qualcomm, which makes many of the ARM chips found in smartphones and other mobile devices, also has their own system-on-a-chip for wearable devices. These chip manufacturers are providing complete tiny computers to wearable manufacturers, who can create wearables by adding their own stuff without having to design a tiny computer platform from scratch. This will likely lead to an explosion of wearables.

Image Credit: Intel Curie module prototype from Intel

Wearables You Might Actually Want to Buy Today

That’s all you need to know to understand the avalanche of wearable products that will surely be promoted and begin appearing in stores soon. But wearables aren’t just the future; they’re the present. Here’s what you might want to buy today:

Activity-tracking bands: Yes, fitness tracking bands have become the quintessential wearable. Fitbit’s line of fitness-tracking bands are the most popular, although they aren’t the only ones. You wear such a band on your wrist and it tracks your activity. You can see how many steps you took, how many flights of stairs you climbed, and how many calories you burned. The band also tracks your sleep and can wake you up by vibrating on your wrist. Depending on the band you choose, it can also have a tiny screen for displaying the time, caller ID for incoming phone calls, and other information. All this information syncs to your smartphone and then to the cloud, so you can view it in an app or web browser.

Activity-tracking wristbands are the big wearable products being used in the real world right now. They’re also a good example of wearables in a microcosm — small devices with inexpensive computers and low-power sensors that work along with your smartphone. We’ll be seeing a lot more of these soon.

Smartwatches: Smartwatches are probably the second-most-popular type of wearable device. They still haven’t found a mainstream audience — or as strong a niche audience as activity-tracking bands have — but many companies are betting this will change. Apple is working on their own Apple Watch, and many companies are making watches with Google’s Android Wear platform. There are also various other types of smartwatches you can buy, including the Pebble. The Pebble’s hardware hasn’t been updated in a while, but it does provide more battery life than other smartwatches thanks to its low-power e-ink screen.

We don’t necessarily think smartwatches are a great buy at the moment for most people, but feel free to get one if you’re a gadget geek who must have the new thing before everyone else.

Manufacturers are also talking up wearables right now because they’re looking for the next big, profitable things after smartphones. Wearable devices seem like they could fill that niche. Thanks to the onward march of computing technology, devices which would just not have been possible a decade ago can now be made. Expect to hear a lot more about wearables in the future.

Image Credit: Denis Kortunov on Flickr, Karlis Dambrans on FlickrBecky Stern on Flickr, Maurizio Pesce on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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