The future of useful wearables is big data not Bluetooth connected devices

ARM's director of emerging technologies Gary Atkinson talks smart cities
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The internet of things isn't living up to its big picture potential.

We're not spotting diseases before they develop yet or saving money on repairs or slashing office heating bills or tracking down our missing kids, grans and pets.

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To get there, says ARM's director of emerging technologies Gary Atkinson, we need to forget the idea that every wearable or connected device needs to hook up to the internet via Bluetooth and a smartphone.

Instead, Atkinson, through his work with the new Weightless internet of things standard, is pushing for a low cost, low power network across the whole of the UK and Europe, put in place through upgrades to street lights.

Beyond Bluetooth

The future of useful wearables is big data not Bluetooth connected devices

Devices that connect to this network, such as an alarm bracelet for elderly people, could last for a year, or ten years, on one charge and have a range of 5km or 10km - i.e. the whole neighbourhood - instead of the 10m or so you get with Bluetooth.

The devices wouldn't need a smartphone to work so everyone from kids to OAPs to pets to farm animals could wear them. And depending on the big data being collected, the system could save lives, prevent disease outbreaks and monitor the environment.

"If the whole village was wired up this way, I could develop a little module that sews into my kids' jackets so I know roughly where they are," said Atkinson.

"And if you could say that the UK and Europe were to be completely blanketed with this network, you could just imagine that every single guy on Indiegogo and Kickstarter, the washing machine manufacturers in China, they would just build that radio right in. We call it the Chinese White Goods Test."

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In Milton Keynes, Weightless is being trialled as part of the £16m MK: Smart Project, to help - in the first instance - make recycling bin collections more efficient and also monitor car parking in the city. And a similar Climate Kic trial in Budapest is also deploying air pollution and noise pollution sensors.

The internet of things standard will be finalised and released by the middle of 2015. "The nice thing about it," said Atkinson, "is the network gets deployed for free because it's paid for by the energy savings of doing the upgrade to the street lights in the first place."

Spotting patterns

The future of useful wearables is big data not Bluetooth connected devices

Tech companies are beginning to harness the power of individuals' data collected by wearables and smartphones. Jawbone produces infographics on, for example, thousands of people waking up at roughly the same time during an earthquake in San Francisco.

And Apple has just announced its ResearchKit platform which allows institutions to collect health stats from volunteers' iPhones without even seeing the data itself.

"We need massive amounts of data points in order to spot patterns," said Atkinson. "The whole point of data mining and data analytics is that if you can tie demographic information, anonymised, to patterns you can start to infer and extrapolate but you need huge data sets.

"When a company that has access to all of that data by accident, almost, or by default [such as Apple] I think it's good if they give that away and use it for research. I applaud that."

The halo effect

iphone-1410301737-5DGM-column-width-inlineThe wearable tech devices getting mainstream coverage, from Apple, Samsung and Pebble, are being bought for their tech appeal, first and foremost.

But, according to Atkinson, anyone wearing these gadgets could potentially benefit both from the health and fitness tracking that's built-in or simply, the longterm trend towards people getting more used to making their personal, health, electronic and environmental data available.

"The halo effect of the Apple Watch is going to have a significant impact on everybody," said Atkinson. "I think it will become an object of desire with some added benefits that people probably won't recognise when they buy the device. People that have Android Wear watches don't necessarily understand everything they can do.

"It's going to take a while. Things like chronic disease management will prove that the technology is ready, that issues of security and privacy can be adhered to and that the government isn't taking some sort of a Big Brother attitude to it. People will become comfortable to the extent that it will just become normal."

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Sophie was Wareable's associate editor. She joined the team from Stuff magazine where she was an in-house reviewer. For three and a half years, she tested every smartphone, tablet, and robot vacuum that mattered. 

A fan of thoughtful design, innovative apps, and that Spike Jonze film, she is currently wondering how many fitness tracker reviews it will take to get her fit. Current bet: 19.

Sophie has also written for a host of sites, including Metro, the Evening Standard, the Times, the Telegraph, Little White Lies, the Press Association and the Debrief.

She now works for Wired.

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