Contest To Fuel Wearable Technology Innovation

While many of us are still trying to wrap our brains around how smart phones and mobile apps have forever altered day-to-day living, innovators are moving on to what many are calling the next big thing: wearables. Engineers are already dreaming up designs for the wearable product segment, which encompasses anything from augmented reality glasses like the widely-hyped Google Glass to Apple’s rumored iWatch and a range of still-to-be-thought-of devices.

If you think this segment seems like the stuff of science fiction, think again. Analyst firms such as the UK-based IMS Research are projecting the wearable computer market to swell to around $6 billion by 2016, with some estimates going even higher. Already, more than 14 million wearable technology devices were estimated to ship in 2011, according to IHS, another research firm tracking this emerging segment. IHS is projecting that 171 million wearable tech devices will ship in 2016, resulting in a 550% growth surge from 2011 to 2016.

Sensing an opportunity to stoke the flames of creativity, Element14, an information portal and collaborative community aimed at electronic design engineers, has put together a crowdsourcing contest to encourage engineers and do-it-yourself hobbyists to dream up a new generation of wearable technology. The challenge is to design technology that can be integrated within clothing or attached to wearable accessories, covering a range of capabilities, from fun-inspiring gadgets to serious applications around health care and customer experience.

Christian Defeo, e-supplier manager at Newark Element14, said the idea for the contest was sparked when he saw early versions of Google Glass, before the design evolved into a sleek, industrialized product. “I saw photographs of early prototypes of [Google Glass] and it looked like a pair of comedy glasses with a chopped up Arduino board strapped on,” he explains. “Those origins looked like it came from someone from the Maker Movement, which made me think that perhaps the barriers into wearable technology is now quite low.”

With that in mind, Element14 put the contest in motion, partnering with Adafruit Industries, an online electronics shop and DIY community. Adafruit’s FLORA kit, about the size of a man’s watch face and designed to be sewn into an item of clothing or an accessory, will serve as the platform for contest participants to create their wearable product creations. The device uses a special steel wire to run the circuitry within the seams and it can be programmed via a built-in USB. The FLORA, which supports USB HID (Human Interface Device) can act like a mouse, keyboard, or attach directly to mobile phones. It also allows for easy control and power of a large quantity of addressable RGB LEDs, allowing all types of displays and effects to  be incorporated to provide decoration.

There have been around 121 proposals entered into the contest, Defeo says and eight have been selected to receive the FLORA kits to turn their wearable ideas into reality. The proposals range from the playful to the serious, he says. For example, there’s an entry for an umbrella that incorporates wearable technology by leveraging a GPS sensor to detect proximity to an owner’s home and then initiating a rainbow light show as a welcome home greeting. Another project from the Science Museum in London is seeking to incorporate wearable technology into the exhibits’ offering to gather real-time user feedback and promote interaction with other visitors.

“The wonderful thing about wearables is that the sky is the limit,” Defeo says. “It can be both fashionable and practical.”

For more on Adafruit Flora, watch the video below.


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Beth Stackpole's avatar
Beth Stackpole

Beth Stackpole is a contributing editor to Digital Engineering. Send e-mail about this article to [email protected].

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