Insights from the experts

Three internationally-renowned wearable tech experts will be taking part in our Seminar series on 12th, 13th and 14th of June. We chatted to two of them in advance of their arrival, to get their top tips for this year’s entrants.

With less than a month to go before entries close for this year’s C Prize, excitement is building across the country. But if your team is still working on your idea, or you’re need of a final push, we have just the thing for you! Three experts from the wearables sector are travelling to New Zealand, especially to speak at our seminars on Monday 12th(Christchurch), Tuesday 13th (Wellington), and Wednesday 14th (Auckland) June. Hailing from backgrounds as diverse as wearable computing, biomechanics and textile-integrated electronics, and supported by a new EU project called EPIC, they’ll be on-hand to provide advice and inspiration to all seminar attendees.

Take Prof Paul Lukowicz for example – he splits his time between the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, and Kaiserslautern University. There are few people better placed to comment on what’s happening in Europe’s wearables and AI sectors. As one of the founding experts of smart textile company, Clothing+, Mikko Malmivaara has been an active member in the wearables community since 1998. And Prof Robert Riener’s world-leading work in human motion synthesis has given doctors a new generation of rehabilitation robots.

We spoke to both Mikko and Robert in advance of their journey to New Zealand, to hear more about what’s to come…

How has the landscape of wearable tech / the human-machine interface changed in the past decade?

MIKKO: I've been lucky enough to see two emerging trends of wearable technology. The first one started out in the late 90s / early 00s – people were building computers into jackets and tucking mobile phones into pockets… it was mostly rather silly stuff. The second wave that started out in 2013/14 was a huge step-up in terms of the technology – we started to weave electronics into the fabric of clothing. Despite that leap, it has still proven difficult to put together a waterproof concept of this kind of technology! In addition, in some sectors, companies are still struggling to translate this technology into something that suits their customers. There’s lots still to do.

ROBERT: In some ways, the topic of ‘man-machine interface’ isn’t new, but I think the questions we’re asking have changed hugely. When I started off, the focus was on how we design control panels for devices, but – especially in the rehabilitation space – systems are getting more and more intelligent. Older systems relied on mechanical connections, but today we see powered prostheses, and powered exoskeletons worn by people who need physical support. Because they are powered, these devices can’t just be strong – they also need to know what the user wants to do. That's a new kind of man-machine interfacing, and it’s very exciting.

What does the future hold for the wearables sector?

MIKKO: In five years, people are probably not going to be talking about wearables anymore – the sector is going to look completely different. It’ll be less about the technology and more about implementing their features cross-platform… Basically, the tech will be so integrated that we won't even think about it as a technology. So, it’ll no longer be about building novelty stuff. We’ll see truly smart garments that monitor the body, collect and analyse information, and then react to it via algorithms and features. I can’t wait!

Do you think that a competition like this will help New Zealand to build a more integrated wearables market?

ROBERT: In general, these sorts of challenges can really help to push a research field in that location. We had the same experience with the Cybathlon – some of the teams that formed for that are now working with clinics to offer new kinds of therapy (e.g. muscle stimulation).

Doing a competition like this in NZ can cause market acceleration in two ways. First, it encourages more people to focus on specific areas, so you get a higher number of competitors. And second, every team wants to be the first and/or best, so they push themselves, accelerating the innovation times. In this way, you can produce innovation in the country, while also makings lots of new, successful devices available on the market, reducing prices for consumers.

What advice would you give to someone who's thinking about entering this competition?

ROBERT: Entrants should first check the landscape to avoid reinventing the wheel! This will also help them to identify their niche. When they start on the development, I’d say keep it simple and robust, and don't be overly ambitious, because they risk not getting it finished. My second tip is really important – they have to talk to the users! In my field, the users are the patients and the physicians. If entrants really get to know their user needs and requirements, they can develop something that is truly meaningful.

MIKKO: I'd say that they should absolutely enter this contest! I can immediately think of two reasons: (1) To get engaged in the sector – to start working, prototyping, trying out, testing… that will teach them a great deal. And (2) by entering this contest and mingling with other like-minded enthusiasts, inventors, and product designers, they’ll get a great deal of advice and guidance. Just being around these people will give them an opportunity to absorb information and ideas.

If you’d like to meet Mikko, Robert or Paul, sign up for one our seminars today. You’ll find more details here: https://www.cprize.nz/c-prize-wearable-technology-seminar-meetups

The wearable technology seminars are supported by EPIC – Europe’s ICT innovation partnership with Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. EPIC aims to foster cooperation in ICT research, technology development and innovation-related topics at both the policy and the researcher level. To learn more, visit www.epicproject.eu