Wearable Computers Preview the Future at SxSW, With Social as ‘a Key Ingredient’

The South by Southwest tech festival may not be a great place for apps to break out anymore, but a couple of consumer hardware products have generated a lot of buzz and pre-orders at this year's event.

The South by Southwest tech festival may not be a great place for apps to break out anymore, but a couple of consumer hardware products have generated a lot of buzz and pre-orders at this year’s event.

Perhaps the single-most talked about product is Leap Motion, an $80 device that turns any computer into the one from Minority Report. The iPod Mini-sized controller sits in front of the keyboard and reads three dimensional hand motions, allowing the user to interact with the screen without touching it. (The user’s hands have to remain with an 8-cubic-foot area.) Unlike some previous attempts at no-touch interaction, Leap Motion doesn’t require the user to learn artificial movements.

“We think we’ve solved the input problem that a lot of wearables have,” said spokeswoman Elliotte Bowerman.

Hardware devices the user wears have also generated a lot of buzz. They are increasingly popular thanks to the availability of smaller, cheaper sensors and crowd-funding platforms that allow companies to test demand before they manufacture products.

“I’m a software engineer by training and I was just blown away when I realized that you actually can do hardware these days if you find the right people,” said Martin Källström, the CEO of Memoto, the company with perhaps the hottest wearable product at SxSW.

Crowd-funding is “enticing hardware engineers to come out of the prisons of large-scale corporations,” Källström said.

Memoto sits right at the intersection of wearable computers and another hot area, photo-sharing. (Video-sharing services ReelGenie and Koozoo like, Memoto, were featured in the festival’s startup accelerator finals.) The iPod-nano sized device attaches to the user’s clothing and automatically takes a constant stream of photos.

The camera, which costs $279, takes two 5-megapixel photos every minute until it is put face down or in a pocket. The battery can go about two days without needing to be recharged. Memoto automatically stores the photos and creates a searchable timeline. If the user opts in, the photos can be shared to Facebook: An algorithm will pick the best photos from each batch to post to Facebook.

Memoto has avoided facial recognition technology outside of Facebook, Källström said, to protect the privacy of those captured the photos, he said. But police officers have already shown interest in purchasing the cameras for their officers to wear.

“We worked hard to create a trust in the sense that if you see the camera you know that it’s taking photos. There’s no on/off button,” Källström said.

The other popular wearable items are largely health-related. Dennis Crowley was asked about the multiple bracelets he wore during his keynote presentation: a Nike Fuel band, a Jawbone Up and a Basis watch.

“I’m generating a lot of data. That is what nerds do right now and that’s what a lot of people are going to do in a few years. That’s what SxSW is, you get to live in the future for a few days before you go back and live in the present,” Crowley said.

The SxSW accelerator competition featured an entire category of health companies.

sxsw, wearable computers, hardware, health technology, social networks, social media“Everywhere I go now it’s a matter of discussion at a level that I’ve never seen before,” said Jef Holove, the CEO of San Francisco-headquartered Basis. Basis has so much demand for its $200 watch that it has had to suspend pre-orders.

Basis takes the model introduced by Nike Fuel and Jawbone but also tracks perspiration and heart rate. (It does that latter with an LED light that it shines into the wearer’s veins.) Basis doesn’t ask the user to enter any data manually, unlike other similar products. Social science research shows that users simply don’t do that beyond the first few weeks of owning a wearable tracker, said Holove.

The company is also trying to compete by offering more helpful recommendations to encourage healthier behaviors.

Hardware devices give an exciting glimpse of the future, but David-Michel Davies, the executive director of The Webby Awards, feels confident social technologies will play an important role in that future.

“Social is becoming a key ingredient instead of the new shiny thing. It’s enduring, basically,” he said.