A little over 50 years ago mathematician Edward O Thorp invented a shoe-based timing device, the aim of which was to allow him to beat the casinos on the roulette table.
Five decades on and the legacy of the man who bills himself as "the father of the wearable computer" may hold the key to the future direction of the IT channel, the wider technology industry and even the world at large. Necessity may often be the mother of invention, but sometimes, it seems, it is just people wanting to cheat at games of chance.
Recent months have seen a raft of stories about major players making big moves towards the wearable tech arena. Kevin Curran, senior lecturer in computer science at the University of Ulster, said he saw the development of smart devices and wearable technology as the "next natural progression" for computing.
"We are going to see people wearing devices more, and supplementing their phones with [devices and applications] that complement their life," he said. "It is about the vision of ubiquitous computing where everyday devices become connected; wearable technology should be unobtrusive and helpful."
Gary Calcott, technical marketing manager at Progress Software, agrees that wearable technology may be "one of the next big things" for the IT industry.
"Wearables such as gizmos that monitor your movements, sleep, pulse [and other things] seem to be springing up everywhere," he explained. "The next big wave of innovation will likely come in the area of creating a value chain between developers and service providers offering services and data that they can latch into. Market size is relative, but I think it will be significant and monetisable."
Watch this space
As of now the standard bearer for the wearable tech sphere, at least in the consumer space, is the smartwatch. Backed by money from crowd-sourced funding website Kickstarter, the Pebble smartwatch is probably the most celebrated model currently on the market, but big players including Sony, Motorola and Nike also have devices already on sale.
Recent research from Canalys predicts a boom in smartwatch sales in the coming years. In 2012 about 330,000 units were shipped worldwide, according to the analyst, with Sony and Motorola heading up the vendor rankings. This year the market is forecast to grow by about 50 per cent, with the emergence of Pebble as a major player taking unit sales past the 500,000 mark.
But next year, when a host of top names including Microsoft, Apple, Samsung and Google are expected to enter the market, is when the smartwatch is set to take off in a big way, with shipments set to grow more than tenfold to exceed five million.
Canalys principal analyst Chris Jones claimed that "the market will only really get going once we see the entrance of Apple". He added that there may soon be opportunities for the channel to include watches as an upsell to existing mobile computing customers.
"There might be a shorter-term opportunity for the channel in that watches] can link into people's smartphones and devices," he said. "There are a couple of examples of enterprises deploying a large number of smartwatches. But in a business context, we see watches as an [addition] to your phone, not as a standalone device, and we do not really see companies deploying them much in the first couple of years."
Through the looking glass
Outside of smartwatches, surely the most notorious example of wearable technology is the Google Glass, despite the product being months, if not years, away from being widely available.
"It is really early days for Google Glass; it is still an alpha product, not even beta yet," said Jones. "We are still not sure whether it is going to be socially acceptable."
Beyond the big-name vendors and somewhat fantastical visions of computing platforms of the future, a range of more niche products and applications already exist. Technologies to track movement and exercise, such as Fitbit and Nike FuelBand, and those to monitor sleep patterns are already in use.
And Mark Hyland, Fortinet's regional director for the UK and Ireland, points to some more innovative examples that really do embody the wearable description.
"London-based CuteCircuit has developed a mobile phone dress with an antenna in the seam and SIM card in the label," he said. "Artist and designer Dominic Wilcox's No Place Like Home shoes use GPS and LED lights to give directions. All these examples give rise to a new range of mobile technology that will inevitably have an impact on the workplace in the not-too-distant future."
As with the birth of any new technology, the dawn of wearable tech offers the chance for start-ups, smaller players and also-rans to make their mark with the release of a platform-defining device. But the incumbent giants of the computing world seem determined not to be behind the curve on this trend, with Apple, Microsoft and Dell all reported to be investing heavily in research and development of smartwatches and other wearable tech. Other heavyweights including Google, Sony, Motorola and Samsung are already in the market, or have a concrete timetable for their entrance.
So can a new player take this nascent market by storm, or will the big boys continue to set the tone?
Rob Sobers, director of security vendor Varonis, finds it hard to see a smaller player making big waves.
"[The big players] have stockpiles of cash that let them be daring and experiment with things like glasses," he said. "Not to mention the fact that players such as Apple and Google - particularly Apple - have expertise in hardware design and manufacturing. This is a space that is very hard for a start-up to break into. It's not impossible with some venture capital - see Square or Nest - but it is going to be hard."
But Chris Jones at Canalys cites the example of smartwatch maker Pebble, which is backed by investments garnered through crowd-sourced funding website Kickstarter, as a model that could be replicated by other start-ups to "get projects off the ground" before, in all likelihood, "being picked up... [and] turned into a really successful" business by a larger vendor.
Kevin Curran at the University of Ulster agreed that the market will be defined by the deep pockets and acquisition strategies of the big players. Samsung's dominance of the Android market could give it a headstart, he predicted.
"There will be start-ups, yes, but as with anything [in this industry], the big boys will take over at the first indication of someone building something successful in their bedroom," he explained. "There have been competitors to the Google Glass, but it is really hard without the marketing clout to get a project onto centre stage."
Healthy sales for LDD
Much of the buzz around wearable technology may centre on yet-to-be-released technologies such as the iWatch and Google Glass, but as of today reseller LDD is one channel firm making money from wearable technologies that are already on the market.
The Leeds-based VAR has been an early adopter of Motorola's Smart Badge wearable barcode reader technology, which is aimed at the retail sector. But Adam Bowes, RFID consultant at LDD, claimed that there are a number of radio-frequency identification (RFID) and real-time location services (RTLS) technologies that have applications in the healthcare space.
Technologies such as pagers, ankle tags and bracelets can be used to track staff movements, as well as in environments such as dementia wards, where keeping tabs on patient activities is of great importance.
"In a lot of hospitals, if someone has a cardiac arrest, for example, someone will speak into a public address system to say a doctor is needed in a certain area," said Bowes. "But that is dependent on whether people are in the right place to hear. You may have 10 doctors turning up when only one is needed - or you may have none at all. With wearable tech you can easily locate a certain person, which has huge implications for both patients and staff."
LDD is banking on the wearable tech sphere taking off in a big way next year and providing strong growth and new sales opportunities in the coming years. Wearable barcode readers have already provided business for LDD in the local government space, claimed Bowes.
"About two years ago we did a large project for a council; it had 20,000 individual IT assets and I went in with a proposal of putting an RFID tag on each asset," he said. "Each year they have to do an audit [of their estate], which would take a month to complete.
"I gave them a tablet and a reader and was able to [significantly] reduce the number of hours needed. We see RFID and RTLS as huge growth areas."
Security firm set to become part of acquisitive Shearwater Group
Distributor merges three northern sites into one new hub in Warrington
Activist investor puts forward five director candidates as turmoil continues at security giant
Nima Green asks what is driving public cloud uptake in Germany