With 5G, wearable devices are expected to become even more sci-fi

March 24, 2020, 7:00 PM UTC

In a few years, you’ll be a walking connected app. When trying to find a friend’s house, you’ll feel a vibration in your right shirt sleeve to indicate that you should turn. A personal digital assistant embedded in your contact lens will show you your appointments on a miniature screen in your eye. Your shoes will measure how far you walk—while they recharge your wearable devices.

This future, straight out of a sci-fi movie, will be possible partly because of 5G, the superfast successor to today’s wireless networks. After the upgrade by major telecom companies, which is just getting underway, wearables will be able to send and receive far greater amounts of data wirelessly, providing the people wearing them with vastly more digital information.

In a few years, 5G optimists say, wearables will be sleeker and smaller than today’s versions because they’ll need less data crunching power internally. Instead, huge volumes of information will be sent through 5G networks to be processed. “What 5G does is make it easy to transport data to the cloud, to make decisions faster,” says Sanyogita Shamsunder, Verizon’s vice president of 5G Labs and Innovation.

In essence, 5G turns people and the sensors they wear into an embodiment of the Internet of things, the tech industry’s term for Internet-connected appliances and machinery. “It’s 5G that’s the big enabler,” says Angela McIntyre, executive director of Stanford University’s eWear Initiative.

But not everyone believes 5G will bring a huge change to wearables—at least not immediately. For one thing, making them 5G-ready will take a lot of time. Manufacturers will have to come up with technical standards, better product designs, and batteries that last longer, says Frank Gillett, technology analyst who follows 5G developments for Forrester Research. Moreover, the question remains: Do consumers even want 5G-connected wearables? “There’s a lot of hyped hand-waving about 5G,” he says. “Plus, why on earth do I need 16 other connected things?”

Perhaps, but even without 5G, the market for wearables is flourishing. At least a quarter of consumers now own a wearable device like an Apple Watch or Fitbit, according to a recent Gallup poll. As prices drop and technology improves, sales will likely grow, to $69.8 billion in 2024 from an expected $49.4 billion this year, according to IDC.

The rise of 5G and the huge volume of data collected from the wearables using it already have privacy advocates worried. Marketers will be eager to mine data from the devices, including precise location information, to deliver targeted ads, for example.

“When we’re dealing with location data and sensitive biometric and health information, that’s a risk that consumers should take seriously,” says Gennie Gebhart, associate director of research at privacy watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Already, a new wave of wearables is gaining traction, albeit without relying on 5G. Smart earbuds, or “hearables,” provide information via audio including directions that can be heard only by the people wearing them. Meanwhile, nearly a dozen companies sell smart glasses, most of which are aimed at health care, exercise enthusiasts, music aficionados, and owners of smartphones with no headphone jacks.  

Wearables go beyond ears, faces, and wrists, however. Clothes are now “wearables” too, and while they’re not 5G powered yet, they highlight what may be possible down the road. For example, this month, Adidas introduced a $40 pair of insoles that measure, for instance, the number of kicks and amount of running that real-life soccer players do and award them “virtual points” for that physical activity in EA’s FIFA soccer video game. Additionally, clothing startup Wearable X makes yoga pants that alert customers when they’re using poor technique for their downward dogs.

“By 2024, we’ll hit an inflection point,” says Shamsunder of Verizon. People may have devices on or beneath their skin that monitor heart rate, glucose, or oxygen saturation and help control chronic conditions like diabetes or respiratory disease. The monitoring could enable people to live at home instead of having to move into an assisted living facility.

Paramedics and firefighters may eventually be required to use wearables that track their heart rates and stress levels. Doctors, too, may regularly use smart glasses to review a patient’s anatomy in 3D before surgery.

Further out, the future gets still weirder. Researchers are working on ultrathin electric mesh for human skin, “tattooable”—or temporary skin that can store data and deliver drugs—and electronic second skins made of microscopic semiconductors. Billionaire Elon Musk is even pushing the concept of a brain-computer interface with his startup, Neuralink. This year, it hopes to implant flexible computer “threads” inside the brains of paralyzed people.

5G would play an important role in all of these far-out technologies. Or maybe not.

“Call me a skeptic,” says Gillett of Forrester. “But I just don’t see it.”

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