The History Of Wearable Technology – Past, Present And Future
Laurenti de' Medici 20/07/2015
What is wearable technology, where does it come from, who invented the wearable technology, what is the future of wearable technology? These are questions we are asked every day. The words “wearable technology” instantly make most people imagine a fitness tracker, a smartwatch or google glasses.
As my colleagues explained in a previous article, there is a clear distinction between wearables and wearable technology. Sadly, even the so called “experts and gurus” in wearable technologies are confusing wearable technology with fitness trackers and smartwatches. An illustrated history of wearable technology is, in my opinion, the best way we can help our readers find the answers to the questions above and hopefully comprehend the difference between wearables and wearable technology.
The History Of Wearable Technology – Past, Present And Future.
Wearable technology has been with us for a lot longer than you might realise. Way before Google Glass and the “glasshole” there was the eyeglass, one of the first wearables designed to enhance a person’s experience of the world, allowing for clarity and enhanced perception.
The First Wearable Eye Glasses – 1286
The beautiful history of wearable technology starts over 700 years ago. Before the convex lens, the short sighted had to find more ingenious ways to see; Nero the emperor looked through an emerald to better see his gladiators fights and here we are, the history of wearable technology starts with the first eye glasses; made in Italy in 1286, according to a sermon delivered on 23rd of February 1306, by the Dominican friar Giordano da Pisa: “It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses, which make for good vision …”
The Oldest Recorded Smart Ring – Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911)
Abacus ring is the oldest smart ring
Let’s “travel” to China for our next stop on the history of wearable technology. Smart rings may seem like something from an impossible (or at least highly unlikely) vision of the future, but surprisingly enough, technology that can be wrapped around our fingers isn’t anything new. Before the calculator watch, there was a smart ring. The smartest ring at that time, called the abacus ring. Developed in the Qing Dynasty era (1644-1911), the ring features a 1.2cm long, 0.7cm wide abacus that sits, right on the finger.
The First Invented Wearable Watch – 1505
Let’s follow the fascinating history of wearable technology to Germany. Pomader (Bisamapfeluhr), a 1505 watch, is recognised as the first portable timekeeping device invented. A far cry from today’s discrete and extremely precise watches, Pomader wearable watch was large and fairly inaccurate. However, rather than being simply utilitarian pieces, these wearable watches were status symbols, being incredibly expensive to make and purchase. The history of wearable technology is repeating. 2015, all hail the Apple watch.
First Recorded Fashion Tech Public Appearance – 1884
Everyone interested in fashion technology knows Cute Circuit, a London based company founded in 2004 by Ryan Genz but I wonder how many of you have heard of the “Electric Girls”: “The introduction of illuminated ballet girls has greatly added to the attractions of the spectacular stage. Girls with electric lights on the foreheads and batteries concealed in the recesses of their clothing….” Grey River Argus, Volume XXXI, Issue 5032, 8 November 1884, Page 1. You see…the history of wearable technology touched New York’s stages (catwalk) long, long time ago.
First Wearable Camera – 1907
Now I am sure that everybody knows and loves the wearable camera, GoPro. As above, the history’s once again repeating as the wearable camera is nothing new. Pigeon photography was an aerial photography technique invented in 1907 by the German apothecary Julius Neubronner. A homing pigeon was fitted with an aluminium breast harness to which a lightweight time-delayed miniature camera could be attached, being used to capture aerial photographs behind the enemy lines. Back to present times, did you know that a British team has developed a system to help protect wild rhinos by using a combination of GPS trackers, heart rate monitors and hidden cameras inside the horn of the rhino, in a painless procedure?
First Ever Head-Mounted Display (HMD) – 1960
In 1960 cinematographer Morton Heilig, created an immersive arcade experience as an early form of expanded cinema and virtual reality and patented the stereophonic television Head-Mounted Display (HMD). This was followed by his patent in 1962 for the “Sensorama Simulator” (US Patent #3,050,870), a virtual reality simulator with handlebars, binocular display, vibrating seat, stereophonic speakers, cold air blower and a device close to the nose that would generate odours that fit the action in the film.
The First Wearable Computer – 1960
Edward Thorp and Claude Shannon, two MIT mathematics professors, designed and constructed the world’s first wearable computer. Their successful and revolutionary pocket-size endeavour, however, took place in the early 1960s – back when computers were the size of rooms. Thorp’s and Shannon’s invention consisted of a pair of devices: one concealed in a shoe and another placed inside a cigarette pack. This duo of devices aided the mathematicians in successfully predicting the outcome of a game of roulette.
The First Combined Computer-Calculator-Wristwatch – 1975
The “Calculator” is the first ever wristwatch calculator introduced by Pulsar in late 1975 just before Xmas time. The first “Limited edition” of 100 pieces was available in 18KT solid gold for an enormous price of 3950$. Nevertheless, it proved to be a huge market success so a few months later a more affordable stainless steel version was offered for 550$. The Calculator was targeted “For the man who had everything until just now…”. Fact: USA’s President Ford wanted one for Xmas 1975.
Personal portable music didn’t exist for most of human history, at least not in any mainstream fashion. Not until the Sony Walkman came along. The first of Sony’s iconic portable cassette tape players, Sony Walkman went on sale on the 1st of July, back in 1979 for $150, rocked the recording industry and fundamentally changed how people experienced music. Does it sound familiar?
First Backpack-mounted Computer
While still in high-school, Steve Mann wired a 6502 computer (as used in the Apple-II) into a steel-frame backpack to control flash-bulbs, cameras and other photographic systems. The display was a camera viewfinder CRT attached to a helmet, giving 40 column text. Input was from seven microswitches built into the handle of a flash-lamp, and the entire system (including flash-lamps) was powered by lead-acid batteries.
First Marketed Portable PC, Gaming Device And First Head Mounted Screen
The 80’s and 90’s were the pioneering phase of wearable computing. The first wearable to have mass market impact arrived in the late 1970’s. Hewlett Packard introduced its first calculator watch in 1977, selling its top model for $850 (the 2014 equivalent of $3,300!). Beyond their calculator functions, these watches also stored appointments, names, addresses and phone numbers. The amount of information they stored was revolutionary, and for a time Casio Databank was highly fashionable (Police lead singer Sting wore one in the video for “Wrapped Around Your Finger”).
Wearable Tech In The Early 90’s
The sneaker phone. Sports Illustrated came up with the sneaker phone as a free promo in the early 90’s. A shoe and a corded phone all-in-one.
First Touchless Payment Device, Studio 5050’s “MBracelet” – 1999
Developed in 1999 by New York’s Studio 5050, the prototype never made it to the market and has all but vanished into obsolescence. Apple Watch includes Apple Pay (a mobile payment and digital wallet service that lets users make payments) and its personalised coloured bracelets that make it some remarkably covetable arm candy. Back to the mBracelet; with eight bright colours and a proposed ability to compute financial transactions with ATM machines, it would appear that it was too much for its time.
World’s First Commercial Fashion Tech Garment – Early 2000
“Philips technology in every shirt and skirt” reads the manifesto for the electronic giant’s Wearable Electronics centre in the late 90s. A memorable collaboration with Levi’s produced the world’s first commercial wearable electronics garment: the ICD+ jacket. The lead on the project was designer Massimo Osti, the high priest of smart, sensor embedded fabrics.
First Smartglasses, Google Glass – 2013 Essentially a smartphone with a head mounted display, the trial release of Google Glass didn’t go as planned. Many were concerned about the potential for privacy intrusion whilst wearers themselves complained of headaches and even addiction to the device after long periods of use. 2008 sees the appearance of Fitbit Classic wristband that allowed the user to track steps taken, distance travelled, burned calories, activity intensity and sleep patterns. Vuzix claims that their model Vuzix M100 wast the world’s first commercially available “Smart Glasses” well before anyone else, including Google.
Solar Power Enters The Wearable Fashion Market – 2014
With the assistance of solar manufacturer Pvilion, Hilfiger launched in 2013 a pair of jackets, one for men, one for women, that has an array of water resistant, flexible solar panels that snap on and off easily to collect solar power for charging your gadgets. A cable runs to battery pack in one of the front pockets, which in turn has a double USB port, so you can charge two devices at once.
Wearable Tech And Wearable Fashion – 2015
Wearable technology has a beautiful past and no matter how much we calculate, how much we condition ourselves to foresee that which comes ahead of us, we can never quite truly anticipate the future. It comes like an unexpected wave, crashing upon us with possibilities and surprises. Still, I see a future of embedded sensors and smart fabrics, a future of fashion technology. A future of monitoring sensors, ingestible sensors, a future of digital health. A future of big data; constantly synchronised, analysed, interpreted and used for a better me, a better you, a better world.
Image by WT VOX