Mobile phones to evolve out of pockets and onto… faces?

Mike Dano

Five years from now, will we still interact with our phones the same way we do today? Will we still fish out our phone from our pocket and tap on a glass screen to search for a nearby pizza restaurant? Will we still be swiping through LinkedIn profiles to see what our new client looks like? Will we still need to press an "answer" button to receive a call?

A growing body of research indicates the phone of tomorrow will look and act a lot different from the black, rectangular, glass slabs of today.

I'm talking about wearable computing devices and how this trend could well disrupt the smartphone-centric mobile market as we know it. Indeed, Juniper Research predicts the next-gen wearable devices market will be worth more than $1.5 billion by 2014, up from $800 million this year. And IMS Research forecasts wearable computing will grow to a $6 billion industry by 2016.

So how are we going to get there from here? Let's look at some of the early examples of this market movement:

Oakley's Airwave

These Oakley ski goggles pair with a smartphone through Bluetooth and, through a tiny heads-up display, offer all kinds of neato information like speed, elevation, incoming text messages and the location of nearby friends. Yes, $600 is a lot for a pair of ski goggles, and the actual usefulness of the technology is questionable, but it's a clear example of a possible future.

Nike Fuelband

The Nike Fuelband is a wristband that contains an accelerometer and tracks users' every movement throughout the day, measuring calories, steps and other actions. It can also pair with a phone to provide a user with a charted overview of his or her physical progress. Perhaps more importantly, the gadget plugs into Nike's Fuel service, which is a kind of social network that awards users Fuel points and fosters competition among participants. Similar offerings are available from startups including BodyMedia, Striiv and others. The whole trend falls under the "quantified self" movement, adherents of which track and share every possible measurement of their bodily functions.

Motorola Solutions' HC1

Billed as no less than the "the Next Evolution of Mobile Computing," the Motorola Solutions HC1 is a full-blown computer (dual-core processor and Windows CE included) that sits on your head. The thing is targeted at field workers--for example, a repair specialist could dial in to the main office and stream video of what she's seeing, in real time, to a supervisor. It even comes with an SDK and speech-recognition technology for additional, business-specific applications. It's obviously not meant for the consumer market, but I can imagine a number of scenarios where it would aid field workers.

Google Glass

Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Glass project is perhaps the best-known example of wearable computing. The company famously hyped the product with a live, first-person skydive via the glasses. The glasses run Android and could potentially integrate a wide range of Google services including Google Now, Google visual and voice search and Google Maps. Google said it will ship the glasses starting early next year for $1,500--but only to developers.

I think it's important to note that all of the above products are currently available or are scheduled to be available next year. So what's coming next?

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) recently received a patent for a head-mounted display that can create an "enhanced viewing experience." The patent specifically points to an augmented reality scenario where digital information could be laid over real-world objects--for example, a library's hours of operation would be displayed on the side of the building as you drove past.

Separately, the FCC recently voted to allocate 40 MHz of spectrum at 2360-2400 MHz for Medical Body Area Networks (MBANs), "low-power wideband networks consisting of multiple body-worn sensors that transmit a variety of patient data to a control device." Such networks will support wireless monitoring devices that could free patients from the wires and cables keeping them in a hospital bed, and allow doctors to remotely monitor them. It's like a Star Trek version of the "I've fallen and I can't get up" medical alert product from the 1990s.

Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps offers another killer example of a possible future in a detailed column on wearable computing. "Facebook is controversially implementing facial recognition software to auto tag photos from its 800 million users--software that would be a perfect fit with a wearable device," Rotman Epps wrote. "Like that guy on the train? Sorry, he's 'in a relationship.'"

And in his own recent column, the CTO of headset company Plantronics makes clear the company is deeply interested in the market for wearable computers. "Our scenario begins with a person having lunch at their favorite restaurant. It is noon and the restaurant is particularly popular and noisy. When a call comes in for the user, the headset knows the location and the degree of ambient sound in the room and will automatically adjust the noise reduction algorithm to enhance the caller's experience and automatically increase the headset volume for the user," wrote Plantronics' Joe Burton. "Context-aware applications will also be able to predict or infer a user's intentions by detecting or interpreting the environment. Because a smartphone knows that a user is having a conversation, it could withhold incoming calls, for instance."

As the wearable computing market evolves, I fully expect the smartphone to continue to play a central role. However, I think it's clear that the smartphone may not be the sole--or even the primary--gateway between a user and the services they're trying to access.

"The thing you hold in your hand now may be on your wrist later," explained Rob Chandhok, senior vice president of software strategy for Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) CDMA Technologies and president of Qualcomm Innovation Center and Qualcomm Internet Services.

Chandhok is the guy Qualcomm tapped to lead some of the company's most ambitious gambits, including its BREW-based application download service (which offered downloadable phone games close to a decade before Apple's App Store) and Qualcomm's now-shuttered MediaFLO mobile TV business. So what is Chandhok working on now? It's called AllJoyn, and it's Qualcomm's new "proximity based, peer-to-peer mobile application framework."

Chandhok explained that Qualcomm wants AllJoyn to be the mechanism that will allow computing elements to talk to one another quickly and easily. For example, your refrigerator would be able to send a message to your phone that you're out of milk. Or your porch light would turn on as you arrive home from work. AllJoyn, which is an open-source technology, is Qualcomm's attempt to grow the "Internet of things" into a reality.

Of course, not all of these technologies will find a market. Regular people may never get used to seeing computer readouts inside their glasses. But I think there is enough activity in this space that, in five years, it could have a significant impact on how smartphones are used and designed. +Mike Dano