The next Silicon Valley?

Pioneers of ‘wearable tech’ are predicting a glorious future for their gadgets. What are they, and will they really take off? Simon Wilson reports.

What is self-tracking'?

Modern practitioners cite Benjamin Franklin, who kept a list of 13 virtues he aspired to, and put a check mark next to each whenever he violated it. More prosaically, most of us step on a pair of scales from time to time, and athletes have meticulously monitored personal metrics and nutrition for decades, giving rise to a whole new discipline of sports science.

Nike sold its first mass-market personal speedometer in 2006, where a sensor fitted in your shoe tells you how far and fast you've run. In 2007, the best-selling Nintendo Wii Fit was launched, encouraging you to compete against family and friends in body tests' with the aim of optimising your Wii Fit age'. All are precursors to the modern idea of the quantified self'.

Who came up with that idea?

A couple of Wired journalists, Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, started the Quantified Self blog in 2007; it has since evolved into a loosely connected global movement made up of real-world seminars and conferences and online discussions forums all devoted to the marriage of technology and self-improvement.

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The idea is that by measuring and keeping a regular log of (for example) mood, sleep patterns, calorie intake, exercise, alcohol consumption indeed, pretty much any personal metric marking physical or mental health self-trackers can radically improve their well-being. What makes the quantified self era different is that new technologies dramatically increase the possibilities.

What sort of new technologies?

Cheap, portable sensors have revolutionised the fitness device market. Accelerometers, which measure changes in speed and direction, once cost hundreds of pounds, but are now routinely packaged in smartphones. Companies have developed a bewildering range of gadgets and apps that let the user analyse his own performance, and where desired share it online (often using a system of trophies and prizes; a process known as gamification').

The best known include Fitbit, a sensor that fits on a belt and analyses movement and sleep patterns; Jawbone's wristband UP, which wirelessly uploads data onto a smartphone; and a similar product from Basis Science.

Is this just about fitness?

It's about health in the broadest sense. On one of the best-known self-tracking sites, CureTogether, patients list symptoms, detail their treatments and describe results. By analysing data on (as of now) some 637 health conditions, the site has revealed broader trends of direct use to patients.

For example, founder Alexandra Carmichael, a longtime migraine sufferer together with other users found that people who suffer vertigo as well as migraines were four times more likely to suffer even worse pain if prescribed a particularly common migraine medication that works by constricting blood vessels.

What does this mean for business?

For now, quantified self technology is in the early adopter stage but proponents say it is close to a tipping point. Pioneers compare themselves to the Homebrew Computer Club of the 1970s and 1980s, a Silicon Valley gathering of tech hobbyists including Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak who swore that one day personal computers would grace every office desk and home. That doesn't mean that all the firms jumping on the wearable tech' bandwagon will thrive.

Indeed, one of the best-known Zeo quietly vanished this year. Zeo had raised $30m in capital, and also came up with well-respected, effective sleep-tracking products but it couldn't make the business pay.

What's coming next?

Self-tracking will both drive and be driven by the development of wearable tech. Devices such as "Google Glass, iWatch [and] Google voice-enabled devices will inevitably replace the smartphone", reckons Sephi Shapira, head of MassiveImpact, a mobile communications consultancy.Shapira believes a recent report by BI Intelligence predicting a $12bn market for mostly wrist-worn devices within five years is conservative.

For now, the smartwatch unveiled by Samsung earlier this month may be too pricey and clunky to find a mass market but it does hint at how smaller wearable devices are set to become the peripherals' of the next stage in the communications revolution.

Similarly, the latest iPhone has features biometric (fingerprint) security; a chip that constantly collects information on the user's movements which point the way ahead. Many in the industry are waiting to see whether the long-rumoured iWatch now not expected until late 2014 at the earliest will prove another gamechanger from Apple. And if a wristwatch can become an effective computer, then why not an implanted or ingested device? Google is already working on it.

What does the future hold?

Essentially, there are two competing visions for how wearable computing will break into the mainstream, says the FT's California-based Richard Waters. One is that it will seep into everyday life via gadgets such as Nike and Jawbone's wristbands. The other vision involves a "full-frontal assault on general purposes personal computing" via an all-conquering new platform, such as Google glasses or the underwhelming new Samsung Galaxy Gear smart watch. "Of the two, the history of personal technology points to the former" as the more likely.

Wearable technology's truly revolutionary moment is only likely to come after "enough of these seamless gadgets have found their way into the world, creating a constellation that itself becomes a new computing platform".

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.