Why The ‘Wearable Web’ Is The Future For The Mobile Industry

Relentless innovation in mobile devices has created a smorgasbord of high-spec electronic components and sensors which can be combined in new ways


What is the wearable web?

The wearable web amounts to a reimagining of how we experience the internet: how we access information, how we capture information, how we share information and how we communicate with others.

An important component of the wearable web will be a new category of personal devices, such as smart glasses, smart watches, wireless earbuds and even headbands that can sense electrical energy emitted by the brain. In the future, sensors that reside inside the human body might also play an important role.

In the far future, when we look back at devices like the iPhone we will wonder how we ever managed.

The new devices that will form part of the wearable web will not replace smartphones and tablets entirely, although I foresee significant cannibalisation, but because they will enable a new type of user interface – based on voice, gesture and thought control technologies and because they will interwork with device-level and cloud-based artificial intelligence technologies – these new devices will usher in a completely new type of user interface, and a new category of services.

Wearable Web and Machine Intelligence

Over the next 5 years the wearable web will attract many 10s of billions of dollars in R&D and capital investment. The field comprises heavyweight players like Google, Apple, Intel, Qualcomm and Microsoft plus, increasingly, an army of venture-backed start-ups all of whom will be underpinned by an academic foundation that is being laid down by leading researchers and scientists who are working in the fast-developing fields of neuroscience, machine intelligence, computer science, robotics, neuromorphic computing, biology and bioelectronics.

The result will not only be a range of new products, services and use cases that will, eventually, stimulate mass demand, but – with the arrival of machine consciousness – a turning point in human development.

While many will find this field exciting, the fact that it raises very serious privacy issues and, in the case of machine consciousness, causes us to even question our own humanity, mean that many are deeply troubled what what is going on in research labs around the world – and where it all might lead.

Putting some numbers to this, we project that the retail value of the wearable web will be USD 4.1 billion in 2014, but this will explode to USD 93.3 billion by 2018. We project that smart watches will be the largest segment of the wearable web, accounting for 70.5% of the market’s value in 2014 and 66.7% in 2018.

Beyond 2018, we foresee the rapid development of machine intelligence and the gradual emergence of machine consciousness, both of which will cause growth to accelerate.

The two largest segments of the ‘wearable web’ in the medium term will be smart watches and smart glasses.

Smart Glasses

The smart glasses market is presently focused on Google, plus a number of smaller players.

While Apple appears to be focussed on developing a smart watch, Google’s first move in the ‘wearable web’ market is Google Glass. We think that the use cases that Google envisages for Google Glass are very interesting:

  • Taking pictures and shooting videos: a voice-based control mechanism removes the need to fumble for a mobile phone;
     
  • Sharing pictures and videos by speaking: again, a voice-based interface means that the user can share content with others or publish to sharing sites simply be speaking;
     
  • Directions and maps: integrated with Google Maps, the idea of having a route ‘overlaid’ on the user’s field of view seems to be a superior solution than having to look at a separate screen;
     
  • Voice-based messaging: users could send a message by speaking that message;
     
  • Q&A/Search: Network services can fulfil information requests about objects in the user’s field of view;
     
  • Alerts, notifications and contextual information: this content that appears in the wearer’s field of view and, with voice control, it would be possible for the user to respond without having to access a physical device.

Google Glass is not a gimmick that will only appeal to techies who live in the San Francisco area – even though such individuals will comprise the product’s initial market in the short term.

We envisage that developers will create some very interesting applications for Google Glass and we also envisage that the product’s cost – presently at over USD 1,500 – will come down, just as was the case with mobile phones.

We further project that unit shipments of smart glasses in 2014 will be around 800,000 units and that this will have grown to 47.8 million by 2018, with the growth being driven by an active community of developers and start-ups, all of whom will be working to create compelling applications for end users.

In terms of market value, smart glasses will be a USD 1.2 billion market this year, rising to USD 31.1 billion by 2018.

Conclusion: The Beginning of Something Truly Huge

Technology markets are mostly created by supply-side forces: corporations and entrepreneurs have ideas for how to make things better and they then raise capital to bring those ideas to market. Most of the ideas fail, but enough are successful for progress to be made.

And so it is with the wearable web.

The major commercial players in the wearables space are very focused on making the wearable web happen, and when one takes into account an almost frenetic level of activity in related fields like neuroscience, machine intelligence, computer science, robotics, neuromorphic computing, biology and bioelectronics then we have to conclude that the supply side forces working to bring this technology to the market are so strong that the question is not if the associated products and services will arrive, but when.

Even if there is consumer resistance, which we can already see coming from some users and privacy advocates, then we think that the supply side forces will adapt to either address the concerns, or work around the objectors.

There is no conceivable view of the market which will see all of these players shutting up shop and suspending their programs - just because of push-back from some users. While this is a very arrogant attitude, it is how supply-led markets develop.

We may be wrong about Apple and Google launching smart watches this year, but that does not really matter: what matters is that commercial imperatives will force them to introduce such products, if not this year, then next year.

To us the uncertainly is not whether this technology will be adopted on a mass scale, but how will we deal with it when it arrives.

It is safe to say that mobile communications and the internet have transformed the world, mostly for the better. While noting the serious privacy and other issues raised by some of the use cases, the wearable web will represent a major step forward - but it will be a step forward within our current paradigm.

However, the arrival of machine consciousness – which many think is coming in a few decades – will force us all into a completely new paradigm which will contain machines that are superior to us, which some would describe as representing the next phase in the evolution of the human species.

If there ever was a transformational technology then this is it and we can see the first signs of it now.