When Zephyr Technology CEO Brian Russell uses a small, wearable sensor to show people their electrocardiogram on a phone, the first question is always, "Am I OK?"
They usually are. But then someone else wants to see theirs. Before long, a small group is comparing their biometrics. It's fun, but it also turns people on to information that can alert them to when they need to see a doctor or improve their lifestyle.
Wearable computers, in the news quite a bit lately thanks to Google Glass, have been around a while and are quite intimate devices — collecting perhaps the most personal information about the person wearing them.
"That intimacy drives socialization. And socialization drives entertainment. And that entertainment drives wellness … because what it drives is compliance," Russell told Patch following an hour-long discussion on wearable computing Wednesday night at George Mason University's Arlington campus.
Russell has a laundry list of examples of how those sensors are changing lives and decision-making. The DC-based company also produces specialized models for the health care industry and military.
Doctors can use them to monitor multiple patients remotely — cutting down on the trips someone takes for an exam and providing the data needed to determine whether a medication should be changed. Sergeants in the military can tell if one of their snipers is bleeding out. And, just last month, the sensors helped save the lives of five people on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, Russell said.
Wearable computing is potentially on its way to becoming mainstream, thanks in part to the growing popularity of using monitors to improve personal fitness, like Fitbit. Smart watches are in development by several major manufacturers. Google Glass already has been banned in a Silicon Valley bar, several casinos around the country and even Guantanamo. And most early users seem to have figured out not to wear them in restrooms.
"It's the unique aspects of what this tech is doing that's changing people's lives," said Adam Zuckerman, the founder of Foster.ly in the district and generally someone to know in the regional entrepreneurship ecosystem.
And the applications for this equipment are just starting to erupt — some ideas, and even hardware, may turn out to be little more than "fashion statements," Russell said. Other ideas are still incubating, waiting for the hardware to work itself out.
Zuckerman mentioned Funderwear, a new lingerie line that vibrates and responds to remote smartphone touch commands. But that kind of technology can be used for other purposes: A simple hug can help comfort autistic children; the same or similar technology Durex is producing could be used to provide virtual hugs.
Wearable computers are "highly personable. They're highly customizable," said Marvin Ammori, CEO of Silica Labs, also in the district. "The data people use … are going to be vastly different."
And because of that, the potential applications are extremely broad. Silica Labs recently created an app that allows Google Glass users to post photos taken with the device directly to WordPress. Silica also has created an application that allows any site with an RSS feed to create a headline-streaming app for Google Glass.
"Part of adoption is that new social norms have to be figured out," Russell said. "And that's going to take time."
The panel, part of the Venture Camp series put on by Amplifier Ventures, Arlington Economic Development and George Mason's Center for Social Entrepreneurship, didn't all agree as to when and how wearable computers would become mainstream. Google Glass, again, is driving that discussion, with the first products available for mass consumption expected next year — and perhaps even using real estate in Best Buy stores across the country to help roll the product out.
Jay Kim, the director of research and development at Herndon-based APX Labs, has by virtue of his position experimented with more than 40 wearable computer headsets like Google Glass. The products' biggest challenge, he said, is wearability — how big the screen should be so as not to obstruct vision but still be useable, for instance — and user acceptance.
"It's the human factors of it all that makes programming very, very difficult," Kim said.
On the latter point, for instance, only about half the crowd realized when Zuckerman put on a Google Glass headset and took pictures of them — and that realization can be jarring.
"I think pretty soon, people will realize that nobody wants to take a picture of you, no one wants to record you — you're not that interesting," Ammori said. "No one wants to spy on you but the NSA."
Russell said the industry is struggling more with "boring" issues like battery power.
Zuckerman, who moderated the panel, said the night made him realize how much "sleeper success stories" like Zephyr Technology need to be told. Doing so can only lead to more conversations — and, in turn, ideas and acceptance — of devices some people may think look silly.
"I'd heard about Fitbit and some of the other stuff, but I didn't know about these companies," said Laurent Trieu of Fairfax. "It's pretty cool. Every time I come to one of these events, I learn about a different perspective."
Past Venture Camp articles: