What wearable computing is really all about

Wearable computing gadgets aren't toys for lazy geeks or harbingers of a dystopian future. Here's why you're going to love it

Most of the criticism about wearable computing technology is about social acceptability. "Nobody wears a watch anymore." "I wouldn't be caught dead wearing Google Glass."

The rest is about utility. "Smartwatches and Google Glass can't do anything that a smartphone can't do."

These arguments are based on a misunderstanding of what the wearable computing revolution is all about.

It's not about devices. And it's not about the convenience of leaving your phone in your pocket.

Wearable computing is nothing less than a fundamental shift in our relationship to computers and the Internet.

Meet your WPAN

A "personal area network," or PAN, is a network centered around an individual person. And, of course, a wireless PAN, or "WPAN" is such a network that uses Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or NFC (near-field communication).

In the past, the PAN concept involved a central connected laptop. It was portable (movable from place to place) as opposed to mobile (usable while moving). The wireless computing revolution will give every user his or her own mobile WPAN.

The WPAN model is comparable to a LAN, or local area network, which emerged as a normal way to connect in the '80s and '90s. Under the simplest version of that model, devices were connected to a nearby server via Ethernet, mostly -- PCs, printers -- and that server was connected to the Internet.

The future of personal computing, if you will, can be compared to the LAN. The smartphone is the Internet-connected server. Wearable devices are the primary user devices where most input and output occurs.

Just as the adoption of LAN was driven in part by the evolution and standards formation around Ethernet technologies, the wearable movement's WPAN adoption will be driven by the new Bluetooth Low Energy standard (the wireless specification formerly known as Bluetooth 4.0). The new Bluetooth, first adopted by iOS and recently integrated into Android, will enable power-sipping devices with very small batteries to function, wake each other up and exchange rich data.

That means wearable devices will be able to receive not only words, pictures and sound, but video.

The wearable WPAN market will get huge fast

Prognosticating pundits say the wearables market will get huge fast. The UK research company Visiongain says wearables are a $4.6 billion market this year with "explosive growth and high adoption rates" over the next five years.

Juniper Research predicts that nearly 70 million wearable devices will ship in the year 2017 (up from 15 million this year).

ABI Research disagrees, and projects that the sports and health wearables market alone will see 170 million devices in 2017.

Here comes a world of new gadgets

The wearable movement will be dominated in early days by health, fitness and "quantified self" applications. The reason is simple: It's less complicated.

Health monitoring involves measuring things like heart rate and activity level from a wristwatch or chest strap and uploading that data to a central place where changes can be tracked over time. Fitness fans, doctors and patients are all highly motivated to embrace this kind of self-monitoring, and are therefore already willing to spend big for new devices.

Over time, however, fitness and health will take a backseat to personal information management and interaction with everything on the Internet through a voice-based virtual assistant.

Right now, people associate wearable computing with smartwatches, fitness bands and Google Glass. But wearable devices will be worn all over.

We'll see a wide variety of wearable devices that clip onto clothing. Sony, as an early example, will soon ship its Sony Smart Bluetooth Handset SBH52, a clip-on device that relays audio to and from any Bluetooth device. You can use it like a phone (as in hold it up to your ear and talk). It also has an FM radio. Think of this device as a halfway technology between a Bluetooth headset and a clip-on wearable device.

Some wearable devices will be built into clothing, including shirts, shoes, socks and hats. Under Armour even has a vision video showing what it looks like when clothes are wearable touch computers.

Under Armour's vision video on wearable devices.

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