Wearables developers put safety first


If you thought the future of wearables was all about staying fit, personal healthcare and next generation gaming, it’s time to have a rethink

It’s hard to believe, but 2019 will mark the tenth anniversary of wireless fitness trackers, the devices that spawned not only a new technology category but a new word in our modern lexicon – ‘wearables’.

In the intervening decade, wearables have gone from strength to strength, and despite some analysts arguing the category has seen its best days, the numbers tell a different story. According to market intelligence analyst International Data Corporation (IDC), 122.6 million wearables will ship in 2018, up six percent from last year, moreover by 2022 this number is predicted to rise to over 190 million units at a CAGR of 11.6 percent over the five-year forecast. To misquote fabled U.S. writer Mark Twain, rumours of the death of wearables has been greatly exaggerated. 

“The slowdown in the worldwide wearables market is a sign that this is a market in transition instead of a market in slowdown,” says Ramon T. Llamas, research director for IDC’s Wearables team. “Vendors are slowly moving beyond first-generation devices and experiences, bringing together an ecosystem of partners and applications for improved user experiences that reach beyond step counting. The wearables of tomorrow … will make last year’s wearables look quaint.”

In other words, wearables have moved beyond fitness bands that simply count steps to promote improved lifestyle decisions, and instead are now providing smarter solutions that deliver more holistic benefits. To that end one emerging wearables niche in the ascendancy is personal protection – devices designed to watch over the wearer’s immediate safety rather than manage their long-term health and fitness. 

Looking after number one
XPRIZE, an incentive-based competition, is one channel driving awareness and growth of smart, wireless personal safety wearables. In 2016, philanthropist entrepreneurs Anu and Naveen Jain used the XPRIZE platform to offer a million-dollar prize challenging developers to create a device that could inconspicuously trigger an emergency alert if a woman was facing a threat to their personal safety. Teams had six months to put together a deployment-ready prototype that could transmit information to a network of community responders, all within 90 seconds, and costing less than $40. Developers responded in droves, with 85 teams from around the world registering to compete. 

In June this year India-based Leaf Wearables was announced as the winner. The company’s ‘Safer Pro’ device comes in a smartwatch form factor but is also available as a module that can be embedded into other devices or regular jewellery. The smartwatch provides a panic button that when ‘long-pressed’ transmits the alert using Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE) wireless connectivity to the user’s smartphone, that in turn relays the notification to their trusted contacts via the Leaf Wearables app. The device is also GSM- and GPS-enabled, allowing panic alerts to be communicated directly to their trusted contacts in the event the user doesn’t have their smartphone with them. It also records audio of an incident in progress from the time of the alert.

“What makes Leaf's technology a good device for global use is the fact that it runs off [Bluetooth 4.0] technology and a mesh network, so any message can leap from one device to another with a very low signal,” says competition sponsor, Anu Jain.

Leaf Wearables are but one of many companies exploiting the benefits of Bluetooth LE wireless connectivity for the emerging personal protection wearables sector. Nordic Semiconductor has provided wireless solutions to designers including Kwema and Smartfuture, both of whom have developed fashion jewellery that ingeniously doubles as a personal safety device with an in-built touch sensor that once pressed can trigger an alert to the user’s smartphone via Bluetooth LE, in turn relaying the emergency message — and GPS location — to the individual’s nominated guardians via the cellular network.

While most safety wearables are panic buttons dressed up in a multitude of jewellery-based form factors — necklaces, bracelets, pendants, lockets, keychains and rings — there are other designs emerging for a sector on the rise. A Bluetooth LE- and GPS-enabled smart whistle; a pair of smart spandex shorts with a built-in alarm; a bracelet worn by the hearing-impaired at night to alert them to suspicious noises they might not otherwise hear without their hearing aids in; even a Bluetooth LE-enabled ‘man down’ vest for law enforcement and military applications. A wireless sensor embedded in the vest automatically sends an emergency alert to first responders in the event the wearer suffers an impact.

Personal protection is a wearables niche in its infancy, but the potential is only limited by the developer’s imagination. What is for sure is that wearables are not done yet, and there is more to the category than ensuring we meet our 10,000 steps a day.

Looking after number one

XPRIZE, an incentive-based competition, is one channel driving awareness and growth of smart, wireless personal safety wearables.