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IT Program keeps pace with evolution of technology

Wearable graphic

Paul Lazar models some of the existing wearable technology available today.

A recent Nielsen poll shows that 70 percent of consumers are familiar with the concept of wearable technology such as smartwatches and fitness bands, and nearly 15 percent of respondents own wearable devices.

“It’s an evolution,” said Dale Musser, MU associate teaching professor of computer science and director of the College of Engineering’s Information Technology Program.

“Mainframes to desktops to laptops to iPads to tablets to phones — computing is getting smaller and lighter. But you don’t wear them; you carry them. Wearables integrate with your activities.”

Chris Shafer

Chris Shafer, a senior IT student, is working on an app for the Sony Smartwatch as an independent capstone with Dale Musser, an associate teaching professor of computer science and director of the College of Engineering’s Information Technology Program.

Musser has been what the Nielsen poll terms an “early adopter” of wearables. He has both a personal and a professional interest in technology’s ever-accelerating trends, especially since he is responsible for preparing students to join a workforce that embraces and initiates technology’s evolution. The IT program has offered a mobile apps class for five years, and this semester, Musser is advising the first MU IT student to develop an app for a smartwatch.

Musser has worn and evaluated several wearables, including the Pebble Smartwatch, the Samsung Galaxy Gear, the Sony Smartwatch 2 and Google Glass. He said he used all of them for at least a month to get a good feel for what people who use them go through.

The independently produced Pebble came out first and is by some measures the most stylish of wearable offerings. Its primary function is as an interface with the wearer’s apps.

“From an IT perspective, the Pebble is a good development platform for wearable experimentation because it is programmable and works with both Android and iOS platforms,” Musser said.

The Samsung Galaxy Gear is the first smartwatch with a camera and an in-clasp speaker and microphone. In the consumer market, it’s the first to be able to take and make a call. It connects via Bluetooth to your cell phone and you talk through the clasp. However, the original version offered no tools for developers. The just-released second version was released with tools — and the first off-band camera. It uses its own operating system, called Tinzen, which is compatible with television and not connected to Google so it is not totally invested in the Android platform.

The Sony Smartwatch 2, however, is programmable. Chris Shafer, a senior IT student, is working on an app for the Sony Smartwatch as an independent capstone with Musser.

“I’m developing a media control system for multiple devices to work together — a system that will link multiple forms of communication to easily control media playback on those devices,” said Shafer. “I’m using music as a demo.

“The smartwatch has a touchscreen as its main form of interaction. In my application, the watch face will display media buttons for touch interaction: next, previous, play/pause and volume,” Shafer said. “The idea is to be able to control devices while not actually interacting with them physically. You can control your media-playing device from a web interface, mobile application, smartwatch application and a desktop application.”

The Sony can be submerged in water up to a few feet, a feature that Shafer especially likes, although he has found the hardware isn’t as usable as it might be. Still, he sees the potential.

“I definitely see the future. With improved hardware and longer battery life, a smartwatch will be a necessary piece of attire,” Shafer said.

The other wearable Musser has put through its paces is the very experimental Google Glass. The actual device is self-contained in the frame that holds the eyepieces, which were added to make the technology less obtrusive.

“Google Glass is stand alone technology,” said Musser. “It’s everything you need: computer, Internet connection, camera, phone and battery. Touch and voice recognition are part of the user interface. You swipe forward and backward for history and to turn off or select things. It can use applications and we can write software for it.”

The frame by itself is off-putting for some, but with the glass eyepieces in place, they look much like regular eyeglasses. Musser said Google has partnered with Ray-Ban and Oakley to design and develop some stylish alternatives. In addition, corrective lenses are available for those who already wear glasses.

There are social, legal ethical and functional issues associated with this technology, Musser said. He cited the pirating of movies in a theatre setting as one example.

“There’s a real privacy issue. There’s a camera pointing directly at anyone or anything in front of you all the time,” he added.

Both Musser and Shafer agree that at this early stage, every day situational uses for consumers are less obvious than job-specific applications, though Musser noted one area with great potential would be language translation, both spoken and written.

Because Glass can be voice-controlled, people with disabilities also are on track to greatly benefit from the technology.

“They would be excellent for tracking stock in a warehouse,” said Shafer of a job-related task that could be simplified with Glass. “You could pull up items on the floor and it would track your progress.”

Musser said there is a need to look broadly at all possible uses for wearables to identify significant use cases.

“Right now, everything that these do, I could do another way. It’s a question of looking at potential benefits. We are still waiting for the magical use case.

“These are a fine beginning, but there will be all sorts of devices in the future,” Musser added.

Newer devices might be modeled as pendant — 53 percent of those who responded to the Nielsen survey wanted wearables to look more like fine jewelry — or sensors could be built into fabric that would track motion in the way a normal device never could.

“Our students are living in a technological age. We want to work with technologies that are relevant and train our students for the future,” Musser said.