Wearable technology

The first incarnation of wearable technology consisted of the calculator watches which were popular in the 1980s. Mainly produced by Casio, these were mass marketed and relatively cheap but came to be seen as tacky. Aside from telling the time and calculating sums, functionality often included stop watches, countdown timers, a multitude of alarms, phone number storage and later versions could even act as remote controls.

Seiko produced some more complex watches with its RC series. These could be plugged into a selection of the computers of the 80s, such as the Commodore 64 and the Apple II, and achieved some degree of synchronisation functionality. There was even limited scope to actually program these watches. An offering from Seiko in 1990, which took advantage of the trends at the time, was a watch which doubled as a pager. There were a few more attempts at so-called smart watches but nothing really managed to capture the zeitgeist, until now.

The new wave of wearable technology

2014 has seen the release of various pieces of brand new wearable tech from some of the big players such as Google, Apple and Samsung. Whether it’s due to the significant marketing budgets at the disposal of these huge companies, the advanced functionality of the new devices or it’s simply the right time, this new wave of wearable tech appears to have caught the public imagination. The distinction of the latest wearables from previous efforts lies in their online connectivity and integration with smartphone devices. Voice recognition technology has also made huge leaps forward and is instrumental in making the new offerings functional tools rather than just gimmicky. So far, the main types of wearable tech which have been brought to market are glasses and watches, but clothing is gradually also becoming part of the so-called “internet of things”.

Google Glass

Anyone who has seen Terminator will remember that the advanced robot played by Arnie was able to view the world in a different way, with a sort of heads-up display (HUD) showing details of people and buildings. Augmented reality, where visual information is enhanced has been available on smartphones for several years (eg Google Sky Map which interprets your position and shows you the names of the stars depending on where you are pointing your mobile). Google Glass (or just “Glass”) essentially consists of a user friendly HUD with the potential for a smoother kind of augmented reality – but it’s nothing like in the movies!

Glass was released in America in 2013 and became available to UK consumers in mid-2014 for the eye watering price tag of £1,000. It’s still in a beta testing phase which means that those who do fork out the money to get their hands on a pair are basically tech-savvy Google guinea pigs. So what can this pricey piece of wearable equipment actually do? The first thing you will see when donning the device is a semi-transparent display in one eye. You can then use its voice activation capabilities to conduct internet searches, read, compose and send emails and texts or make phone calls. The obvious advantage over using your smartphone is that you don’t have to actually hold a phone – and also that you can still see in front of you due to the HUD being semi-transparent. Aside from the display, Glass also has (often controversial) camera features; you can take pictures or record video of whatever you are looking at.

So is Google Glass actually useful? This depends on how you want to use it. It won’t transform your vision to that of the advanced robot played by the former governor of California, but it can help to make many tasks hands-free. As more apps are developed for it, the spectre of augmented reality may gradually become less sci-fi and more, well, real. For example, although Google has so far banned facial recognition apps, at least one has been developed and this conjures up the prospect of being able to, say, banish name tags at business events and “see” details of attendees simply by looking at them.

Smart watches

Back in 2010, there were suggestions that time was running out for the wristwatch, with increasing numbers of people relying on their mobile phones for timekeeping. However, a new series of “smart watches” released over the last year, which have taken advantage of the Google and Apple ecosystems, are attempting to reverse this trend. One of the early entrants to the market was Kickstarter-funded Pebble, with technology incumbents Samsung, LG, Motorola and finally Apple all entering the fray.

It’s really only in the last quarter of 2014 – particularly with the release of the Android Wear Moto 360 and highly anticipated Apple Watch that the industry has been buzzing and marketing tactics have taken off. But what can this new range of supposedly all-singing all-dancing watches actually do?

Ironically, with these most sophisticated of timepieces, the most basic element of a watch – telling the time – is one of the less functional aspects. Because the screens which form the watchfaces use a lot of battery, techniques have to be used to reduce battery drain, such as dimming the screen in a sort of standby mode until wrist movement is detected. What smart watches do well is to notify the wearer when they receive an email, text or other message on their phones, using a combination of vibration and lighting of the display. Replies to messages can be composed and sent using voice recognition and some Android Wear devices (eg. Moto 360) also allow voice-activated Google search. But the internet on your wrist, this is not (yet)!

Health features are also available but these mainly consist of a heart rate monitor and the ability to track how far you have walked (of which the latter is already possible with smartphones).

Finally, there is a cross-over into fashion, particularly with the Apple Watch and Moto 360, with many consumers potentially buying the watches not for their functionality but purely as a fashion accessory. Indeed, some fashion labels are turning their hand to wearable tech, such as with Opening Label and their Intel-powered smart bracelet.

How can wearable tech be used by lawyers?

Wearable technology is still very much in its infancy and the products currently on the market, with their current price tags and limitations, are unlikely to be adopted as crucial business tools in the same way as laptops or smartphones. However, as more apps are developed and different types of wearables become available, the situation will probably change and the need to carry around specific internet devices is likely to diminish in time as the internet becomes more woven into the fabric of our society, quite literally.

Although smart watches are better geared towards the consumer market, as fashion accessories with notification functions, Google Glass demonstrates the considerable progress of hands-free technology since the day of the humble bluetooth headset and it’s a good indication of what the future holds in store.

But although wearable tech may not, in itself, hold any obvious benefits specifically for lawyers, its adoption within society in general gives rise to a whole gamut of legal issues which need to be addressed by the government and regulators, and tackled by the legal profession. Data protection, intellectual property rights, the use of wearables for medical purposes or adoption of devices by employees in the workplace will all pose important legal questions and lawyers need to ensure that they have a thorough understanding of this fast developing area of law in order to effectively advise their clients.

Alex Heshmaty is a legal copywriter and journalist with a particular interest in legal technology, employment law and DIY legal services. He runs Legal Words, a legal copywriting agency based in Bristol.

Email alex@legalwords.co.uk.