From viewing computers as devices exclusively meant for high-intensity computations to holding such computing power in the palm of your hand, the attitude towards computing devices has changed in the past six decades or so. So much so that it’s common enough these days to have devices with immense computational powers to be worn as part of body attire-sometimes displacing ornaments and at other times, complementing them. But wearables have a back story which goes far back into the past to centuries before Alan Turing conceived his Turing machine which more or less laid the foundation for modern computers.
The story, when told in the narrative arc of wearable’s evolution is as amusing as it is enlightening. Shedding light on not just the dominance of human ingenuity down the ages but also the almost organic manner in which one thing leads to the next, even when the next step in question is highly removed from anything organic.
The first ever truly wearable ‘tech’ product that man produced was the humble eyeglasses. Though the identity of the inventor remains unknown, it’s widely believed that the invention was made the 13th century in Venice. The earliest users of the device were probably Christian monks since during the period clergymen and monks were the literate class while lower classes were limited to farming activities and were generally unlearned.
Glass blowing was an art the Venetians were excelling during the time and reading glasses were a result of the ingenious skills of the glassblowers who applied their acumen to produce reading stones using solid glass. The evolution from these hand-held single lens to the reading glasses set into bone or metal and balanced on a monk’s nosebridge didn’t take long. And in a painting by Tomasso da Modena that the artist created in 1352, we have the very first artistic representation of a pair of eyeglasses.
Time-keeping was an idea that was to revolutionise the way in which humans engaged in wealth creating activities. The ability to mark time with a high level of precision not only told employees when it was time to leave work but also enabled employers to keep track of the amount of work done by an employee in a given unit of time. This scenario meant that during the early years after time keeping was introduced, devices to accurately mark time became important.
Of these, the Nuremberg Egg was one that the owner could wear around the neck. A predecessor of the pocket watch that was to become popular in the later centuries, the Nuremberg Egg was in vogue during the early 16th century. The users were particularly impressed by the fact that these devices made use of clockwork rather than weights like the preceding model of time-keeping units.
The invention of the device is credited to German clockmaker, Peter Heinlin.
The Abacus Ring- the ‘calculating wearable machine’ of the 17th century
Some people consider it the first ever wearable computer. Others see it as a novelty item introduced in humanity’s past. Whatever be the case, there exists no doubt that the Abacus Ring-invented in China during the 16th century, was a major evolutionary point in the history of wearables.
The ring which was developed during the early years of the Qing Dynasty(1644 to 1911) was 1.2 cm long and 0.7 cm wide and could be worn on a finger.
Having seven rods with seven beads each, the ring was mostly used by Chinese ladies who used hairpins to move the bead since the maneuver was impossible to make using a finger, owing to the diminutive size of the beads.
The users could make quick calculations using the Chinese abacus which had a value of 10 or a multiple or sub-multiples of the number ascribed to each bead. For instance, all beads on a single rod could have the value of 1. If that’s the case and you have to represent, say the number 155, you should separate five beads on a rod from the rest of them on the ‘ten’s wire and also separate a bead on the ‘hundreds’ wire. The traditional Chinese abacus had 10 rods, so the abacus ring was a variation of sorts.
The Victorian ingenuity of the air-conditioned top hat in the 1800s
The Victorian era is generally associated with vanity. Historians may or may not agree with that view. However, if you go by the fact that they came up with an air-conditioned top hat to mimimize the sweat on the scalp of many a high-browed gentleman, you would side with the ‘vanity-view.’ The invention remained in fashion for just the briefest of times.
‘Electric Girl Lighting Company’ introducing dresses fitted with bulbs and batteries to light up houses in the 1890s
The company in question was started in 1884 in America when the concept of electricity was, well..electrifying the entire nation. The correlation between the human body and electricity was taken from its conceptual cradle to materialistic reality by the company which aimed to give dresses that were fitted with batteries and bulbs that can be worn by women. This would help light up the home. In other words, a wife being the light of the house was an idea that the company took to heart. As shown by subsequent history, the people of America, or the rest of the world didn’t find this an electrifying idea.
The pigeon camera in 1907
Pigeons may be the emissaries of love as far as Bollywood is concerned but the German photographer, Julius Neubronner had a different idea. Neubronner-who lived more than a century ago used to be an apthecary whose job entailed the use of carrier pigeons to deliver medications to clients. However, when one of his pigeons returned four weeks later than expected, Neubronner hit upon the idea of mounting a lightweight camera on the pigeon’s body so that he could observe what goes on in other parts of the land.
The camera in question was usually made using wood and weighed anywhere from 30 to 75 grams. Pigeons were given special training to carry the load and they would fly at a height averaging 160 to 330 feet. The camera’s time delay mechanism was made possible by the pneumatic system attached to it.
The Roulette shoe in 1961
One of the wackiest inventions ever made by mathematicians, the Roulette shoe was essentially a miniature computer that fitted inside a shoe. It’s purpose, as you may have guessed was to help the wearer win at a game of roulette. The device was invented by Edward O. Thorpe- a Mathematic professor along with Prof. Claude Shannon- who is considered as the father of information theory.
The idea was something which Thorp had been carrying around in his head ever since he was young. However, it was only when he met Shannon in his adult life that the plan came to fruition. The acquaintance with Shannon not only gave Thorp the benefit of a highly scientific mind to help him but also gave him access to the IBM 704- a machine which at the time was the cutting-edge of technology.
The wearer of the device would have wires running down the length of his body, concealed under his clothes, leading down to the leg where they find their housing in the shoes where they are attached to switches. An earpiece was also part of the contraption which would convey messages as musical tones- one each for the octants of the roulette wheel. Simple tapping of the foot were used to give “inputs” to the computer. The duo, even though they covertly tested the device in Las Vegas casinos, never used it for the purpose of gambling.
The Pulsar calculator watch in 1975
These days, the Pulsar calculator watch has a firm place in the list of vintage devices. But when it came out in 1975, the device was considered as an ingenious piece of technology. The first ever wristwatch calculator, the watch was introduced just before Christmas of that year. The first 100 pieces were “Limited edition” and was made in 18 kt gold and the price was a whopping $3,950. However, people really did like the idea as all of them sold out and the company followed it by introducing the stainless steel version for $550.
With red LED display of up to 6 digits, and the ability to perform calculations up to 12 digits, this one created quite a stir when it was introduced for the first time in America.
Sony Walkman in 1979
Not even the Apple’s iconic iPod has been able to bloat the memory of the Sony Walkman. At least, not among those who have had a great time grooving to music during the 80s and 90s, thanks to this extremely portable music device. The fact that a highly vibrant youth culture- features of which included sexual exploration and individualism, existed in America when it was introduced helped make Sony’s device all the rage. Following their success with audio casette players, Sony made the product innovation which enabled users to carry their music anywhere they went. As for the quality of the cassette tape frequently getting tangled, that’s another story altogether
Seiko UC 2000 Wrist PC in 1981
One of the earliest attempts at creating a wearable computer, Seiko’s Wrist PC looks like small fish judging by present day standards. 2K was all the volume of date that you can feed to the ‘PC’ which would perform funtions like telling the time or calculating sums for you. Ambitious as the invention was, it didn’t go down well with the audience- probably because of the fact that computers were still mostly used by organizations rather than individuals. It was not until three years later when Apple introduced theMacintosh in 1984 that the PC became a device of choice in households. Maybe, if Seiko had waited that long, it would have been a different story altogether.
Nelsonic Space Attacker Watch in 1984
Inroduced in 1984, the Nelsonic Space attacker watch coupled as a time-telling device as also a game playing unit. A collectible item for game enthusiats thsee days, the watch had a pretty large display that would display the time along with information regarding the day, time, month, am/pm and the alarm status all in one go. With a simple push of a button, you can change the display into a miniature game monitor- albeit the fact that you could play just one game in it- Space Attacker. The game could be played using just two front buttons in the watch- the left button to move your turret and the one on the right to shoot at the attackers from outer-space. The catch was that if the attackers had you the first three times around, the earth is lost!
The fact that arcade games were steadily gaining in popularity during the time in the U.S as well as the widespread use of wristwataches- unlike the present day when we are content with the time-telling abilities of our mobile phones meant that these watches found their share of savvy users.
The head mounted screen- ‘Private Eye’ in 1989
It seems that every contemporary piece of wearable technology has a predecessor. The Private Eye introduced by Reflection Technology was a prelude to Google Glass. By scanning a vertical array of LEDs along a visual field with a vibrating mirror, the head-mounted display would feed you visuals the kind of which the world had never seen before. The diplay was 15- inch long and was mounted at a distance of 18 inches.
A rather daring invention for its time, the invention probably had for its inspiration the portable devices such as the Sony Walkman which had already become an icon by then. The fact that television and movies had a potentially wider audience than music might have been an influence too.
The sneaker phone in the 1990s
Looking like something that was born in the imagination of Ian Fleming when he was super-drunk, the sneaker phone made a splash during the 1990s in America. However, the product didn’t casue any widespread ripples in the market, possibly due to its clunky nature. The fact that sneakers were THE accessory of choice for the urban young might have prompted such an invention, though apparently even the experimental fashionistas of American cities found this one way over the top.
Levis ICD+ jacket in 2000
Levis- the brand that’s single-handedly responsible for making the denim the choice attire of the young was also the first to inculcate wearable tech into their garment. The piece of clothing in question is the Levis ICD+ jacket which was introduced in summer 2000. Meant for young professionals, the jacket was created in collaboration with Philips and came in four styles.
The basic idea was to have a removable wired harness which one could connect to portable electronic devices- including mobile phones and MP3 players. All the devices would be connected to a central control module using which the wearer could easily switch between devices. Appealing both aesthetically and on a utilitarian front, Levis’ jacket was testinmony to how much technology has literally become a part of people’s lives by the turn of the millenium.
Bluetooth headset in 2002
We all know how it is- people talking as if mumbling to themselves, all thanks to the ‘hands-free ‘ luxury that the Bluetoot headset affords them. And it all began in year 2002 when Nokia devised the first ever Bluetooth headset- the Nokia HDW-1. Initially conceived as a concept program, the product was later accepted as a product program. Unfortunately though, the device-which was based on Nokia’s proprietary chipset, LPRF was scrapped before going for mass production. But that doesn’t take the sheen away from it since it served as the basis for more advanced products in the category.
Nike + in 2006
What would happen when two of the world’s biggest companies came together to create a product? If the companies in question are Nike and Apple, then the answer is a cutting-edge wearable device that takes your athletic performance to whole new heights- the Nike Plus. Introduced in 2006, the product has already gone through a few significant evolutionary steps and is a favourite among runners.
A transmitter that can be embedded in a shoe transmits information to the activity tracker- a Sportband or an iPod/ iPhone to which the transmitter is linked. The runner could get the exact stats regarding the distance covered and the pace etc. Apart from athletes, health-conscious individuals also find this a useful device for obvious reason. What with a host of life-style induced ailments like obesity and high levels of cholestrol making it inevitable for millions around the world to exercise on a regular basis, Nike’s introduction turned out to be timely as well as innovative.
Fitbit classic in 2008
The company, Fitbit Inc. which is headquartered in San Francisco took the wearables route to challenge Nike by introducing the Fitbit classic. It was the first in the line of products that measure such statistics as the number of steps that one take while walking, the quality of sleep and also the number of steps climbed aside from other personal metrics. Having a more expansive list of features than the Nike Plus, added with the fact that it has appeal to a broder audience than the athletically-conscious, Fitbit is rather popular and could have significant influence on the wearables to come.
Google Glass in 2013
Everyone saw the lines between science fiction and reality blur significantly when Google came out with their unique product, Glass. The idea behind the product that comes with a head mounted display was to create a ubiquitous computer. Part high-end toy, part utility, the Google Glass is already put to good use in fields as disparate as healthcare and journalism. Undoubtedly a significant leap in the evolution of wearables, the product-coming from such a widely recognised company has also made wearables a common concept among the ordinary men and women.
Solar powered jackets in 2014
One of the major concerns that the world faces in the 21st century is the depleting resources of the world. The clothing brand, Tommy Hilfiger entered the wearables sector against this backdrop. Their product- solar powered jackets for both men and women was introduced as a limited edition offering in 2014.
The jacket allows the wearer to charge cell phoes etc. using power from the solar cells embedded in the jacket. The mechanism makes use of a chord in the lining of the jacket that is connected to the solar panels which are found on the back of the garment. The chord connects the panels to a removable battery pack that’s found in the front right pocket. The solar panels were made using flexible silicon technology. If exposed to full sunlight, the cells would enable the charging of a 1500 mAh mobile device for up to four times. The presence of two USB ports in the pack means one can plug in multiple devices simultaneously.
Apple Watch in 2015
As an unintentional nod to one of the first wearables ever – the Nuremberg Egg which helped keep time in the 16th century – Apple came out with the Apple Watch in 2015. But this one’s not just about telling the time. Not by a long shot. Using the product, one can make or take calls as well as text and is integrated with iOS aside from other Apple products and services. And that’s just the beginning of it.
VR and AR: Wearables of the future
Starting with the Oculus Rift, we now have the HTC Vive, Playstation VR and many more in the offing. In the Augmented reality space we also got head mounted displays like the Hololens and very recently we saw Microsoft’s mixed reality platform with devices from manufacturers like Acer.
From the humble beginnings as eyewear for monks to a head-mounted VR device which takes the concept of contrived reality to another level, the story of wearables is exciting, to say the least. And along its evolution, there has been inventions that didn’t quite hit the mark as also the ones which delighted the users. Judging by the rapid pace of innovation which the world is seeing these days, many more along the same lines will hit the market in more frequency than ever before.
This article was first published in November 2015 issue of Fast Track on Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.