Imagine if you could snap on a DNA-matching wristband that connects you with long lost cousins, or pick up a personalised VR headset game that could immerse you in the lives of your ancestors? "It's simply a matter of time before we could see this sort of technology," says genealogy expert Thomas MacEntee.
Known in the industry as 'The Tech Guy', MacEntee runs an online community of 3,000 family history bloggers called GeneaBloggers. He also heads up Hack Genealogy, a blog about "repurposing today's technology for tomorrow's genealogy", as well as the consulting site High-Definition Genealogy. MacEntee is renowned in the industry for spotting emerging family history trends and innovations.
Essential reading: The social age of wearable tech
Wearable technology for genealogy research and exploration is currently in its very early days. Ancestry.com, the world's leading genealogy website, has made the industry's first foray with its Ancestry app for Apple Watch, which launched last April. The app offers speedy access to Ancestry.com's 14 billion records and images, allows the user to edit their family tree in an instant and delivers regular family history-related notifications.
That's pretty much it for the moment – but MacEntee, who has envisaged a number of exciting potential uses, believes that this is just the beginning.
Cataloguing tombstones and burials is a key aspect of genealogical research and MacEntee believes that a wearable device or smartwatch app could make a big difference to this rather arduous task.
How close are we? Ancestry's Apple Watch app isn't graveyard research-friendly at present. And although BillionGraves, the world′s largest resource for searchable GPS cemetery data, already has a dedicated mobile app that allows the user to locate graves and upload tombstone photos to the database, it's rather limited in scope and not available as yet for smartwatches.
MacEntee also foresees apps for smartglasses, augmented reality glasses or even smart contact lenses that could enable the wearer to automatically scan a gravestone, upload the inscription data. AR could possibly even help us to discover further information via an overlay about the deceased, their family tree, and the historical context in which they lived.
Tracking down records
Accessing historical records is an essential part of any genealogical research project. Centrally archived records such as births, deaths and marriages are fairly easily accessed online these days, thanks to various governments' national archives, sites like Ancestry.com and FindMyPast, as well as the efforts of the Mormon church, which stores billions of documents as well as microfilm at its Granite Mountain vault in Utah.
Local records, such as church baptisms or more obscure genealogical documents that are not held in the mainstream collections, are much harder to access. "We're going to have to count on a citizen archivist movement to get these records digitised," says MacEntee. He thinks an auto-scanning smartwatch app, smart glasses, smart contact lenses or even a wristband could revolutionise the process and provide a wealth of records online that might otherwise be overlooked.
These wearables might very well also digitise handwriting as well as type, which would be a boon for the industry. Future connected accessories might even feature hyperspectral technology, which is used to reveal hidden information such as faint writing impressions and traces of deleted text.
DNA cousin connecting
DNA-based genealogy has become big business. The two major players, AncestryDNAand Google-owned 23andMe have millions of DNA profiles at their disposal, so it's not such a stretch of the imagination to speculate that they might incorporate this data into a wearable device.
MacEntee anticipates a GPS cousin-connecting smartwatch app or wearable that could alert the wearer to long-lost relatives in the surrounding area based on their DNA information. "I was at the RootsTech genealogy conference in February with 22,000 people," he says. "How would I know if one of my distant cousins was there? A strictly permission-only smartwatch app, wristband or temporary clip-on badge that could connect us based on our DNA, using similar technology to dating apps like Tinder perhaps, would be very useful."
Ancestry.com has hinted as to what a future version of its smartwatch app or a hypothetical wearable might do, and cousin connecting is a distinct possibility, whether DNA-based or not. "Just last year we released the Ancestry app for Apple Watch," says Kendall Hulet, senior vice president of product management at Ancestry.
"In the future, you might imagine driving down the road when you receive a notification that you just passed your great-grandmother's birth home, or that you're in the vicinity of a distant cousin you may not have known about."
Gone are the days when genealogy was just concerned with names and dates. "Now it's all about telling a story," says MacEntee, "and learning how our ancestors lived in the context of history." He anticipates games or apps for augmented and virtual reality headsets that will transport us back in time and immerse us in the lives of our ancestors.
"My ninth great-grandfather's stone house, built in 1699 in New England, is still standing," explains MacEntee. "I'd love to be able to give my nieces and nephews an augmented or virtual reality tour, so they could experience the time in which he lived."
Bizarrely, a project that aims to put people in contact with virtual dead family members is already in the pipeline, though the startup's Twitter account (there is no website) has been quiet of late. Project Elysium, which was entered into last year's Oculus VR Jam contest, is an app for the Oculus Rift that will allow wearers to interact virtually with their dead relatives.
The app is intended for people who want to connect with the recently deceased, but it might have the potential to be adapted for those who want to communicate with a virtual version of their great-great grandmother or great-great uncle for instance, possibly based on genetic records.
MacEntee has identified lifestreaming as a hot genealogy trend. "Here we are documenting the lives of our ancestors – but what are we doing to document our own lives?" he says. "That's why we're getting more into lifestreaming."
People who are interested in recording their every life experience for posterity can already use the latest wearable action cams or smart glasses such as Pivothead Wearable Imaging. And the future for lifestreaming wearables looks very bright indeed.
Microsoft applied for a patent for a 'life-recorder' in 2012, and in January 2015, Apple filed a patent for lifestreaming smart glasses that analyse as well as capture the wearer's daily life. If a Google Glass consumer edition returns, it could also mean a return for its controversial lifestreaming Glass application.
The potential issues
While MacEntee is excited about these possibilities in wearable tech, the genealogy guru has flagged up factors that could slow down take-up of the technology.
"Genealogy tends to attract an older demographic. They are not like millennials," says MacEntee. "I even had a hard time getting some of my demographic to join Facebook. They are not early adopters and take some persuading to adapt, which can take time.
"These people are also hypersensitive to privacy. They hear horror stories and worry their data might be hacked. This is of particular concern when it comes to DNA information."
If technology and genealogy companies can overcome these stumbling blocks, possibly by making a point of reaching out to an older demographic, as well as developing rock-solid security systems people can really trust, there's a strong chance wearable technology could be the future of genealogical research.
You never know, you could be using DNA wristbands to discover distant relatives sooner than you'd imagine.