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What we learned from Wearables DevCon

By Evan Wade / March 10, 2014

What we learned from Wearables DevCon

When some of the biggest, most influential minds in a burgeoning tech field meet up en masse to talk shop, good things are bound to happen. Wearables DevCon, an event designed “for the day to day practitioners” of wearable tech, did just that. Last week, swarms of developers and hardware manufacturers descended upon San Francisco to exchange ideas and forge the relationships that could easily influence the future of the industry.

With the help of mobile experts Sean McMains and Elliott Chenger, who attended all three days of wearables discussion, I got a clear view of just how close my DevCon preview was to the real thing. Although most of my predictions were on target, they merely scratched the surface of this major mobile event. Here’s what I hit, what I missed and what I’m most excited to learn more about out of this year’s Wearables DevCon.

A focus on rapid prototyping

Jenny Murphy, Staff Developer Programs Engineer of the Google Glass team, had a lot of entertaining info to share in her keynote address. She kicked things off with a humorous anecdote about the first iteration of Glass, which was built from office supplies and a Pico projector, and continued with a seriously informative and engaging talk about rapid prototyping.

The practice is increasingly popular in software development, which makes sense in a market full of continual upgrades and software-as-a-service packages, but Murphy argued hardware developers can see many of the same benefits. She used the Glass prototype as an example of its effectiveness, stating that though the hardware came from crude materials and took around an hour to build, playing with it gave the team critical insight on transparent displays and their performance in various lighting conditions.

“The really interesting part is how Google, a multi-billion dollar company, scrapped together pieces to create [the first version of Glass], when they could have easily dropped thousands to create a very highly polished prototype right off the bat,” Chenger discussed. For other wearables developers, the majority of whom don’t have anything close to Google-sized resources at their disposal, the info should be taken as less of an inspiration and more of a lesson.

Sneak peeks at new stuff

Wearables DevCon attendees got several looks at future products, including (as we predicted) some new Sony hardware. McMains made special note of the Smartwatch 2, calling it a “surprisingly credible entry” into the wearables market. He claimed the device’s “decent display” and “waterproof form factor” could separate it from an ever-growing list of competitors, including big dogs like Samsung and (if rumors hold true) Apple.

Other smaller contributors also made notable appearances. McMains mentioned a device designed to slip in a user’s shoe and “[give] info similar to what Wii Fit provides, only without a board to stand on.” Another company called uTest offered “interesting elastic testing solutions” and “an on-demand army of testers” for various mobile apps in need.

The future is in the eye of the computer

The concept of computer vision (CV) may be older than wearables, but that doesn’t mean they’re incompatible. Chenger and McMains agreed that one class on “perceptive wearables” demonstrated this point quite well by showing how technology like Subaru’s EyeSight and Project Tango, can help existing and future wearable products understand the space around them as if they were human.

With augmented reality apps poised for another popularity surge and companies looking for ways to separate their apps and hardware from the competition, CV is guaranteed to become a standard feature across wearable devices in some form. Chenger said an eye-tracking system and a 3D space-mapping prototype similar to Tango were particularly exciting examples of CV’s potential. He also noted how enthusiastic the crowd was for the concept, more proof that CV could become a major wow factor for future wearables.

Wearable apps are stepping out of the shadows

Tempting as it may be to save work by throwing a smartphone or tablet app on a wearable device, it’s important developers realize smartphones are not wearables. Several presenters tried to impart this wisdom on Wearables DevCon attendees.

A program called “Glassware UI Design” touched on the topic quite nicely, according to Chenger. The presenter, CEO and cofounder of Winklogic Matt Abdou, was responsible for one of the first third-party submissions to Google’s Glassware market, giving him a clear understanding of the trial-and-error process that comes with building a Google Glass UX. The crux of his class was that Glass is a unique piece of hardware that deserves equally unique apps. Like smart devices before them, the most popular wearables will separate themselves by making use of the platform’s features.

Another design talk focusing on the slate of social media apps bound to appear on wearable devices, discussed the importance of contextual understanding when transmitting and displaying user info. Like many other questions revolving around the platform, Chenger and McMains are interested to find out whether such features would be handled at the app or OS level.

Security is key – as always

Both Chenger and McMains noted several different discussions on the importance of security in the wearables era. While some of them came from scheduled presentations, others came from impromptu talks during “fireside chats.” Regardless of the setting, it was clear that security is, and always will be, a major concern for developers and end users. That was especially true for Google.

“We’re both intrigued at how something like Glass became the pinnacle for all security and privacy questions, when other devices which are more intrusive and lower profile went virtually undetected or unnoticed,” Chenger said, calling the company’s status “a blessing and a curse for wearable computing.”

Still, Chenger said, the fact that developers are as concerned about privacy as users will make solutions come faster than they might have otherwise. We’ll never be able to erase security problems in the mobile data arena, but that’s certainly a step in the right direction.

A brief look at the future of wearables and DevCon

Although most of the conference’s content focused specifically on Glass, far-future projects like implantable technology also got some limelight. McMains mentioned several discussions on what shape the industry might take beyond products like Glass and fitness trackers.

The long-term future of Wearables DevCon seems as bright as the industry it caters to. After hosting over 1,200 attendees — on a projected figure of 500 — parent company BZ Media LLC has renamed next year’s event “Wearables TechCon” and moved the festivities to a larger facility. They’re also tossing around the unofficial tagline “Like a CES for OEMs,” hinting at a broader base of potential invitees including venture capitalists, gawkers and other tech enthusiasts DevCon excluded.

With the rename and refocus, it’s clear BZ Media expects large things from the industry behind their Dev/TechCon in the next 12-ish months. We do too. Mobile data has evolved to a point where Apple no longer needs to make the first step before a category becomes legitimate. Where wearables end up is anyone’s guess, but we’re confident they’ll be as useful as they are prominent. Events like DevCon, with their content and expanding popularity, only cement that opinion.

Learn more about wearables with the Google Glass Trend Report.