Wearable computing is all the rage these days, from watches that connect wirelessly with mobile devices to glasses that project data onto the viewer's specs. We haven't seen the breakout "iPhone" equivalent device that takes it from fringe to mainstream, but we can all see which way the wind is blowing.
But we admit, we didn't see this coming: The next big thing in wearable tech may be a brassiere that brings new meaning to the term "support."
College professors teamed up with Microsoft (MSFT) researchers on a study that used a high-tech bra containing physiological sensors that gathered data about the emotional state of its wearer.
Now, this story would have been a lot cooler if the wearable tech was being put to use for loftier goals. A smartbra could potentially help diagnose potential lumps to detect breast cancer early, for example. It could track the weather and heat up as atmospheric temperatures dip. It could have a feature that looks up the Facebook relationship status of the aggressive date fumbling with the clasp.
Unfortunately, the researchers were only interested in detecting high stress levels that could result in emotional overeating. The study, however, was successful. The paper concludes by showing positive results for emotion detection. And, it was able to intervene -- through an app -- when high stress and other emotional factors were likely to lead a wearer to eat.
That's fine, but now we'd like to see the technology improved and put to better use.
Tech's Cup Runneth Over
The smartbra in its present form would never work. For one thing, study participants had to recharge them every three to four hours. If you think the current crop of smartwatches on the market aren't worth the bother because they have to be recharged every day or two, imagine having to refuel a brassiere.
However, if Nike (NKE), Fitbit, and Jawbone Up can use accelerometers to transform a modest bracelet into a decent health and exercise gauge, just imagine what could be done with a bra -- or even thermal underwear that hugs more of the body.
War of the Wearables
The wearable computing revolution started modestly. Kickstarter-funded Pebble promised to market a $150 wristwatch device that could interact with smartphones to provide notifications, updates, and engage with apps.
Sony (SNE) and Samsung then threw some Asian tech muscle into the platform with pricier devices that do even more.
%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%The revolution isn't ending at the wrist. Google (GOOG) introduced Google Glass, which allows wearers to do everything from recording what they're seeing to calling up streaming videos, GPS navigation, or Web surfing in general.
Why couldn't a Web-tethered bra be next? Sure, Microsoft researchers aren't gong to storm the Victoria's Secret boardroom up with plans for beating the rest of the industry to market with a smartbra for the masses. We'll probably see jewelry, shoes, and perhaps even shirts that incorporate some form of wireless tech before we see a commercially available Bluetooth brassiere.
However, a lot of the innovations that we take for granted today started from modest initial implementations. Now that we know the technology can work, it's only a matter of making it more effective, which will mean far more than just extending what is now a pretty restrictive battery life.
But the wearable revolution is on the move -- in more ways than one.
Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Google and Nike. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google, Microsoft and Nike.
6 Ways Google Glass Will Change the Way You Shop
Forget Smartwatches: The Future of Wearable Tech Is the Smartbra
We don't know which, if any, will be available for Glass. But assuming one of these apps gets ported over to the new hardware, you'll be able to get price comparisons just by picking up a product and looking at the barcode.
And it doesn't end there. A couple of those apps -- including Google's own shopping app -- are able to recognize the covers of books, DVDs, CDs and games, which means you don't even need to find and focus on the barcode. So, for example, if you find a book on the shelf and want to see if it's cheaper online, you could just look at it, whisper a command, and immediately have a bunch of price comparisons floating in your field of vision. And you'd also be able to call up reviews, too, so you won't have to rely on those selectively quoted blurbs that publishers choose.
Want to buy those jeans, but aren't sure if you're close to the limit of your monthly clothes budget? Several personal finance tools allow you to keep track of your budget, and this strikes us as a perfect use for Glass. Imagine if you could just say, "Okay, Glass, bring up Mint and show me how much I've spent on clothes this month."
And sometimes it's not just a matter of budgets -- you also want to make sure you don't overdraw your account or spend so much that you don't have enough left over for food. If your online banking app becomes compatible with Glass, perhaps you could see your checking account balance floating before your eyes with equal ease.
People tend to behave better when they know they're on video, and if you're wearing Glass, the person behind the customer service desk has to assume they're being filmed.
Hopefully, that doesn't lead to people harassing put-upon customer service reps by demanding preferential treatment, lest they post videos of their bad experiences on YouTube. But insofar as it keeps companies honest and helps ensure they follow their own stated policies, perhaps the knowledge that employees are on Google's candid camera can be a good thing.
But the contribution Glass could make to customer service goes beyond just filming disputes: Customer service technology firm Genesys recently floated a couple of scenarios in a blog post. A customer trying to assemble a cable box, for instance, could beam his or her field of vision to technical support staff, who would then be able to see the problem and direct the customer on what to do next. They also suggest that a hotel guest out and about with Glass could send live video to a concierge, who could then identify what part of town he was in, and recommend restaurants and attractions on the block.
Google+ hasn't exactly taken off like the company might have hoped, but the social network did give us one great feature: live group video chats, known as Hangouts. While they usually consist of an array of faces, Hangouts on Google Glass are turned inside-out, allowing you to instead share your point of view with the other participants.
In demos of the feature, Google used it to dramatic effect, showing a hangout with a group of skydivers as they jumped out of a plane. But we're envisioning a more mundane application: Trying on clothes.
If your friends couldn't join you on a shopping expedition, you can put on that dress, initiate a Hangout, look in the mirror and then get live feedback from a panel of friends. We see this being a particularly potent tool for personal shoppers who can't always be physically present with their clients.
One application of Glass is having your grocery list right there on a heads-up display, which means you don't have to look down at a list on your smartphone or on a piece of paper. But no one's going to spend more than a thousand bucks on Google Glass just to replace a sticky note on their shopping cart.
Fortunately, the most recent demos of the product have touted the inclusion of Evernote. The popular note-taking app allows you to put together to-do lists that include voice memos and photographs, and they can also be shared across multiple users. We imagine you could go to the grocery store with your wife and split up to divide and conquer; as each of you picks up items, you can tell Glass to check it off the list, and the other person will see that it's in the cart.
There are other ways it could help you coordinate your grocery shopping expedition. Let's say your wife sent you to the store to pick up pancake mix, but you don't know which kind she wants you to get. Instead of calling her and reading off every brand and variety in front of you, you can just initiate a video call and look at the pancake section; she'll see what you see, and be able to tell you which one to get.
The grocery store applications don't end there.
Perhaps you get to the grocery store and see they're having a big sale on chicken thighs. Being the frugal sort, you decide to pick some up, but you're not sure what to do with them.
Tell Glass to run a Google search for recipes featuring chicken thighs. Scroll through, pick one, then copy the ingredient list to your shopping list. Now you can get all your ingredients.
Once you get home, you can have the recipe right in your eye when you need to reference it, with no need to have a laptop or cookbook taking up valuable counter space or getting sauce spilled on it. And if you don't know the proper technique for deboning those chicken thighs, you can cue up an instructional video on YouTube without ever having to touch a computer with your slimy chicken hands.