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History of Wearable Technology – Everything You Need To Know

An in-depth look into the concept of wearable technology; past, present, and future.

We are often defined as tool-using animals; while correct to some extent – some animals use tools too – humans differentiate from other creatures thanks to their technological ability.

The capacity to conceive, manufacture, and use tools and the constant desire to improve our capabilities make us special.

The word ‘technology’ is a combination of two Greek words.

‘Techne’ means craft or art, and ‘logos’ translates into ‘speech’.

Thus, technology can be defined as a ‘discourse on arts, both fine and applied.’

The wearable part of technology refers to small, portable sensors used in fitness trackers, smartwatches, smart glasses, smart tattoos, and even fashion.

Wearable Technology – The First Recorded Eye Glasses

Long before the Google Glass and the ‘glasshole’ individual, there was the eyeglass.

One of the first wearable devices, the eyeglass, was designed to enhance a person’s perception of the world and provide the wearer with clearer, enhanced vision.

The fascinating history of wearable tech begins over 700 years ago with Roger Bacon and the comments on his first use of corrective lenses in his Opus Majus, c. 1266.

However, before the invention of the convex spectacles, the short-sighted had to find more ingenious ways to see.

Nero, the 5th Emperor of the Roman Empire, used polished emeralds to watch and see better his gladiator fights, and later, in the Viking Age, the “lenses” were carved out of rock crystals.

Wearable Technology – Oldest Smart Ring

Let’s travel to China for our next stop on the history of wearable technology journey.

Given the recent media coverage, you might be tempted to think that Apple has invented the smart ring.

However, tech-infused creations that we can wear around our fingers are quite old.

Made in the Qing Dynasty era (1644-1911), this 1.2 cm long and 0.7 cm wide ring is a functional abacus you can wear on the finger.

Now you know why they call it “the abacus ring.”

Wearable Technology – First Wearable Timepiece

Let’s take a quick trip to Germany on our “history of wearable technology journey” to admire the Pomander (Bisamapfeluhr) watch.

Made in 1505 by Peter Henlein, a clockmaker in Nuremberg, “Pomander” is confirmed as the oldest known watch to date.

Not to confuse with ‘Nürnberger Ei’, considered Henlein’s first watch.

A far cry from today’s slim and precise watches, the Pomander was large and inaccurate.

However, rather than being just functional timepieces, these watches were status symbols.

Expensive to make and, of course, to purchase.

Now, back to the ‘status symbol’ the Apple Watch launched half a millennium later in what seems an inevitable historical recurrence.

As history repeats itself, why should the history of wearable technology make an exception?

Wearable Technology – First Wearables In Fashion

If you are interested in fashion technology, I am sure you are familiar with Cute Circuit, a London-based wearable tech pioneer since 2001.

Founded by Ryan Genz and Francesca Rosella, the company uses “smart” fabrics to give fashion as we know it a new form and modern image.

However, before Cute Circuit, there was a world of fashion tech apparel:

“The introduction of illuminated ballet girls has added to the attractions of the grand stage. Girls with electric lights on the foreheads and batteries concealed in the recesses of their clothing.” 8 November 1884. Grey River Argus. Volume XXXI. Issue 5032. Page 1.

Thanks to the ‘Electric Girls’, wearables and fashion tech touched New York’s fashion stages long ago.

Wearable Technology – First Wearable Camera

Let’s now check out a multi-million company, conceived in the back of a VW van dubbed “The Biscuit.”

The company I am talking about is now called GoPro, with a valuation of 3.86 billion U.S. dollars last year.

So, before we had extreme sports athletes, police officers, and even drones fitted with GoPro cameras, we tried wearable cameras on birds. I am serious.

Pigeon photography was a technique invented in 1907 by a German apothecary, Julius Neubronner.

The pigeon was fitted with an aluminum breast harness and a light, time-delayed miniature camera.

This simple invention let the German army capture game-changing aerial photographs behind enemy lines.

Wearable Technology – First Virtual Reality ‘Headset’Past world war two, the history of wearable technology touches down to the year 1960.

We find Morton Heilig, a cinematographer who has just created a new way of enjoying movies through the “immersive arcade experience.”

It is the first recorded attempt at blending cinema with virtual reality. Morton called his invention the “Stereophonic Television Head-Mounted Display” and patented the invention.

Two years later, in 1962, he patented another invention.

The “Sensorama Simulator” (US Patent #3.050.870). An upgraded virtual reality simulator, with handlebars, binocular display, vibrating seat, stereophonic speakers, cold air blower, and a device close to the nose that would generate odors, all synchronized with the action in the film.

If this does not make you think of the 4DX technology, stop now!

Go to the cinema, see “The Hunger Games,” and only then come back for more of the history of wearable technology.

And, when your seat starts shaking, remember that Morton Heiling invented the same tech half a century ago. Minus the comfy cushions, but you get the idea.

Wearable Technology – First Wearable Computer

We are still in the sixties.

You see, the sixties were not all about sex, drugs, and rock and roll but also the years of technological excitement.

The golden years of phreaking, the years of smart boxes designed to hack automated telephone systems.

However, two MIT professors, Edward Thorp, and Claude Shannon, took the hacking to another level.

They’ve designed and constructed the world’s first wearable computer.

Thorp’s and Shannon’s invention consists of two parts. One part hides in a shoe, and another inside a cigarette pack.

The data-taker indicates the speed of the roulette wheel, and the computer sends the data to a hearing aid.

A simple but efficient system that let mathematicians predict the outcome of many roulette games when the computers were the size of rooms.

The wearable computer was invented in 1961, but it was mentioned for the first time only in 1966 in the revised edition of the “Beat the Dealer” book by Edward Thorp.

Later on, Thorp disclosed another wearable computer in the LIFE Magazine, the 27th of March 1964 edition, pp. 80-91.

A model for winning at the “Wheel of Fortune” gambling game.

Wearable Technology – First Wristwatch Computer

The first “wristwatch calculator” was introduced by Pulsar in 1975, just before Xmas time.

The first “Limited Edition” of 100 pieces was available in 18KT solid gold for 3950$.

Nevertheless, it was a huge success, just like the gold Apple Watch.

A few months later, a more affordable – stainless steel – version was offered for just 550$.

“The Calculator” was promoted as the watch “For the man who had everything until now.”

Fact: The president of the U.S.A. at the time, Gerald Ford, wanted one for the Christmas of 1975.

If you wonder if he got one, the answer is recorded in the history of wearable technology as such: “The president’s wife had the last word.”

Wearable Technology – First Portable Music Player

Personal portable music did not exist for most of human history, at least not in mainstream “fashion”.

Not until the Sony Walkman came along.
Sony Walkman, or, the first-ever portable cassette tape player from Sony.

Also named “the icon”, the device went on sale on the 1st of July 1979 for $150.

The portable music player “rocked” the music industry and changed how people have experienced music ever since. Ummm….did I hear you say iPod?

Wearable Technology – First Wearable Computer

While still in the high-school, Steve Mann wired a 6502 computer (the hardware components used in the Apple-II) into a steel-frame backpack that allowed him to control flashbulbs, cameras, and photo-related gadgets on the move.

He used a camera viewfinder CRT attached to a helmet as a display, giving 40-column text.

The whole “backpack” computer, including the flash lamps, was powered by lead-acid batteries. Brave pioneers.

Although most people acknowledge Steve Mann as the father of Wearable Computing, he was far beyond “wearables” more than twenty years ago.

Mann’s inventions delve into possible forms of co-evolution and even human-machine symbiosis.

Thus Steve Mann, the inventor of “wearables,” is inaccurate.

Wearable Technology In Fashion

The ’80s and the ’90s are the times of the so-called “commercial pioneering” in wearable computing.

The first wearable devices with mass-market impact arrived in the late ’70s.

One of the first wearables with real commercial success was the calculator watch, launched by Hewlett-Packard in 1977.

Named the HP-01, the watch was sold at a top price of $850.

That is the equivalent of 3.500 U.S. dollars in 2015.

Apart from the calculator functions, the HP-01 could store names, addresses, phone numbers, and even appointments, just like any modern smartwatch.

Speaking about smartwatches, the history of wearable technology cannot ignore the Japanese company Casio and its “fashion statement” at that time, the “Databank” watch.

It was so influential that the Police lead singer Sting wore one in making the song “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” and Michael J. Fox showcased his watch in the movie “Back to the Future.”

Wearable Technology In The ’90s

So step by step, we have reached the nineties with our history of wearable technology.

In the ’90s, we got busy with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and watching Bill Clinton “reinventing” sex.

Busy with Budweiser’s “Waaaasuup” advert and busy watching Friends and Seinfeld TV series.

Still, we had time for the “sneaker phone”.

Sports Illustrated developed the sneaker phone as a free promo in the early ’90s. A shoe and a corded phone all in one.

Wearable Technology – First Contactless Payment Smart Bracelet

The mBracelet. Developed in 1999 by Studio 5050 in New York was “innovation on the wrist.”

Nowadays, most smartwatches come with colored, personalized bracelets and also include a form of contactless payment.

Moreover, the mBracelet also had – seventeen years ago – eight bright colors and the ability to compute financial transactions with ATMs.

With regret, the mBracelet remained just at the prototyping stage.

Seen as a far too futuristic idea at that time, the project was let to vanish into obsolescence, and it died before it made it to the market.

Like many other amazing ideas, the mBracelet was ahead of its time.

Wearable Technology – Marketing Attempts At Wearable Tech

“Philips technology in every shirt and skirt,” reads a late 90’s advert on the company’s Wearable Electronics Centre.

It is the year when Philips launched the world’s first fashion tech garment with Levi’s. The ICD+ jacket.

Worth mentioning here is that the project was led by a fashion designer obsessed with functionality over style and a high interest in developing innovative fabrics.

A designer like no other, he invented the R=rubber-wool and the temperature-sensitive material, SI-product used on another amazing fashion creation, the “Ice Jacket.”

His name is Massimo Osti, an Italian genius designer that changed the clothing and the fashion world forever.

Wearable Technology – First Commercial Wearables

Google Glass. A pair of smart glasses, also called a head-mounted Android smartphone. On paper, the Google Glass project was groundbreaking.

In reality…Let’s say that the trial release of the Glass did not go quite as expected.

There were major privacy concerns, endless headache complaints, and even reports of potential addiction caused by using the glasses for prolonged periods.

I don’t know how, as my battery never lasted more than 45 minutes on a single charge.

Not long before the Glass, in 2008, Fitbit, a wearable tech startup, launched its Fitbit Classic wristband.

A fitness tracker that allowed the wearer to monitor the taken steps, the traveled distance, the kilocalories consumed, intensity levels, and sleep patterns.

Thanks to the new generations of smartwatches, smart jewelry, and luxurious fitness trackers, it was the start of a new era, the use of wearable tech in fitness, healthcare, and even fashion.

Wearable Technology – Fashion Brands And Wearable Tech

The fashion world started to show increasing interest in wearable tech, and, in 2014, with the assistance of a solar manufacturer called Pvilion, Hilfiger launched a pair of “Solar Powered” jackets for men and women.

The “Solar Powered” jacket has an array of water-resistant, flexible solar panels that snap on and off to collect solar power for charging your gadgets.

A cable runs to a battery pack in one of the front pockets and a steel-frame backpack, which in turn has a dual USB port to charge two devices at once.

Wearable technology has become lighter, smaller, smarter, flexible, waterproof, and intelligent.

We’ve come far from the Pomander watch and the abacus ring.

Wearable Technology – What Is The Future?

Wearable technology has a fascinating past. We can never predict the future, no matter how much we calculate or condition ourselves to foresee what comes ahead.

The future is an unexpected wave crashing upon us, with endless possibilities and surprises.

However, I see embedded sensors, implantables, and smart fabrics.

I see new landscapes and markets developed around smart sensors, such as digital health, fashion technology, and VR, augmented or even mixed reality.

I see the world “bathing” in an ocean of big data on the blockchain.

I see AI interacting with smart objects, autonomous cars, connected cities, and embedded and implanted sensors.

I see the beginning of the “digital persona”, connected, synchronized, and omnipresent.