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The History of Wearable Tech: From Calculator Watches to VR Headsets

Tech

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Wearable technology has gone from a novelty to an everyday part of our lives.

The concept of wearable tech isn’t new. It’s been around since at least the 1600s. However, the wearable technology of the past often isn’t recognized as the innovation it was at the time. For example, we’ve gone from analog watches to smart watches that can do pretty much everything.

In the article, we’re going to explore how wearable tech has changed over time.

Watches

In 1970, the Hamilton Watch Company revolutionized watches with the Pulsar LED prototype, which was the first digital watch. Two years later, The 18-carat gold Pulsar watch would go on sale for $2,100. Because that was out of reach for the common consumer, Texas Instruments would release a mass-market $20 dollar plastic LED watch in 1975. That same year, Pulsar released the first calculator watch.

Throughout the 1980s, watchmakers continued to experiment. In 1982, Seiko, which had bought the Pulsar brand, would build a watch with a TV screen. That same year Casio produced two innovative watches: one that contained a thermometer and another that could translate 1,500 Japanese words into English.

In 1985, Citizen developed a watch that could react to a user’s voice. Ten years later, Timex released its Datalink watch, which could store data from a computer. After the mid-1990s, watches returned to their basic function as timepieces. However, the concept of a watch that could do more than tell time was never lost.

Eventually, all these advancements in watch technology would coalesce into smartwatches. In 1998, Steve Mann invented what could be considered the first smartwatch. His watch was Linux-based, could display graphics, and run 3rd party applications. While Samsung, IBM, Fossil, and Microsoft would all market some version of a smartwatch, the smartwatch didn’t hit the mainstream until the Apple Watch was released in 2015.

Health and Fitness

Throughout history, wearable technology has made it easier to monitor our health and fitness. In 1780, Abraham-Louis Perrelet made the first pedometer. Pedometer designs would continue to be improved upon, eventually becoming integrated into other devices.

The first instance of a modern fitness tracker may be the Nike+iPod Sports Kit, which connected Nike shoes to iPods through the use of a small transmitter embedded in the show. Three years later, Fitbit released its classic device, which clipped to clothing. After several versions of clip-on Fitbit devices, the company released Fitbit Flex. Unlike previous devices, Fitbit Flex was worn on the wrist 24 hours a day, so that it could track the wearer’s movements and sleep patterns. While it is still common to see people wear a Fitbit or other activity tracker on their wrist, the functions of activity trackers have been incorporated into smartwatches.

Virtual Reality

In 1963, Morton Heilig created the Sensorama, which is often considered the first example of a virtual reality machine. While it was not wearable and would not fit current definitions of virtual reality because it was purely mechanical, the Sensorama did successfully immerse users into one of 5 experiences.

During the 1990s, technology improved to the point where virtual reality as we know it began to emerge. In 1992, Louis Rosenberg invented the first augmented reality experience with the Virtual Fixtures system. Virtual Fixtures could overlay 3D virtual objects over a user’s real environment.

While Virtual Fixtures was not meant for consumer use, Sega and Nintendo attempted to make VR successful in the home market. Both companies failed. The Sega VR headset for the Mega Drive/Genesis was never released to the general public, but could be found in arcades. Nintendo’s contribution to VR was the Virtual Boy, which sold less than 800,000 units worldwide and is widely regarded as a commercial failure.

In 2010, Palmer Luckey would revive interest in virtual reality with the Oculus Rift. Two years later, Facebook would purchase Oculus VR, the company behind Oculus Rift, for $2 billion. Because of the interest in Oculus’s projects, in 2014, Sony would announce its virtual reality headset for the Playstation 4. That same year, Google would seek to further interest in virtual reality with Cardboard, a cardboard viewer for use with smartphones.

Google Glass

I would be remiss to cover wearable tech without mentioning Google Glass, which doesn’t fit neatly into the aforementioned categories. The prototype was unveiled in 2011. It would take another two years for the Explorer Edition to be available to developers. While Google had grand plans for Glass, which connect to the internet and responded to user’s requests, problems with privacy overshadowed what the device was capable of. By 2015, Google realized that Glass was not going to be the mainstream success it had hoped, but that did not mean the Google Glass’s story was over. In mid-2017, Wired reported that Glass was finding a second life as a tool for factory workers, who need hands-free access to relevant information in real-time.

Wearable technology has become better and more compact since the days of the calculator watch. Technology that was once little more than a novelty has become an integral part of our lives. For every success like the smartwatch, there are other technologies that are still a work in progress or whose creators are reevaluating what the main purpose of their tech should be.

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