Other than Michael Bay's already legendary meltdown, the hottest topics of discussion at this year's Consumer Electronics Show are largely wearable and connected. In part, this is just an outcome of consumer expectations: a wearable device is the next step smaller than a smartphone, and we now have the tiny technology to make it work. But after a long morning examining smart bracelets, smart watches, smart headgear, and smart sporting goods on the CES show floor, it’s clear that there’s a much deeper potential hidden in the cracks. This is because small devices with embedded intelligence can do more than just measure; they’re showing their potential to change the way we act.
The idea of using technology to change behavior is something we've been hearing about for a few years now, in articles talking about the surprising effectiveness of "Your Speed" radar boxes on the side of the road, or the subtle tricks video games and social networking sites use to encourage certain actions. Whatever the medium, the conceit is the same: provide someone with fast, understandable feedback on something that's clearly tied to an action he just took, and compare it with expected behavior. It's a powerful way of shaping behavior, and small, smart devices are suddenly making it easy to apply, practically anywhere.
The obvious examples are the dozens of companies at CES this year, showcasing similar-looking wristbands designed to track your physical activity, and encourage you to do more of it. The Fitbit Flex, Jawbone Up, and Nike Fuelband are probably the best known, but they've been joined by competitors from a range of niches, like established fitness electronics brand Polar, gaming hardware maker Razer, and even a kids’ device called ibitz that games or TV time to reward exercise. This focus on physical activity makes sense in that there's a large market of fitness-seekers out there, and the benefit is easy to convey.
The potential, though, is dramatically larger, and a few hints are already in evidence on this year's show floor. Just down the hall from the Fitbit booth, a company called 94Fifty has set up a basketball hoop, and invites passersby to take a few shots. The technology they're demonstrating isn't in the hoop, but the ball, which contains enough accelerometers and other sensors to know the difference between a dribble and a bounce, and to tell you precisely the angle of your last shot when it hit the basket.
The affable retired college basketball coach who explained the details of the Smart Sensor ball to us paints a vivid picture of practice sessions where every pass and every shot comes with instant feedback. It's an approach, he says, that gives rookies a far quicker path to proficiency than verbal feedback and post-game analysis. Paired with a wearable device or smart fabric tracking shoulder and elbow position, for example, the system could make experts of anyone sufficiently willing. This ability to quickly alter a stubborn habit, whether it's driving too fast or missing free throws, is what makes embedded and wearable technology worthy of being the Next Big Thing. The prevalence of such devices shows that we're finally figuring out how to do them right.
Whether it's a bracelet, a pedometer or a basketball, the real trick seems to be a striking a balance between unobtrusiveness, rapid access to feedback, and making sure you're measuring the right thing. The newest member of the Fitbit family—a larger version of the Flex bracelet, called the Force—makes this balance clear. While the Force's digital display lets it function as a watch while also giving an instant read on daily activity, the Flex is actually more popular, especially with women, according to the representative I spoke with; its slender profile and waterproofness allow it to be worn, and ignored, all day. The Smart Sensor ball's biggest advantage over its predecessors, we were informed, is the fact that it looks, feels and plays exactly like any other basketball. Interfere with the core experience, and all bets are off.
This is what makes 2014 a watershed year for smart objects. For the first time, we have in essence a kit of parts—sensors, software, wireless protocols, an ecosystem of smartphones—that makes it relatively easy to balance unobtrusiveness, access and appropriateness in almost any device. The greatest obstacles now are figuring out what to measure, and ensuring that we use the tremendous persuasive power of these new feedback loops to encourage the right behavior.