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Is wearable technology worth buying yet?

You may have noticed the onslaught of wearable technology in the news and on store shelves -- from the controversial Google Glass to clip-on pedometers and biometric data collection devices such as the Fitbit One or Jawbone UP24.

But are wearables worth buying today? That depends on what you want to use them for.

"There are three categories for these types of devices: health systems, as part of the added functionality of a smart watch, and in specialized markets," says J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. "These products weren't possible before the smartphone revolution."

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The mass adoption of smartphones, such as the iPhone -- which has 40 sensors embedded in it and has been through years of costly development -- has pushed the cost of developing wearables down.

"This is allowing entrepreneurs to start up and create products via Kickstarter or Indiegogo," Gownder says. "We are now talking to random, individual people who have a great idea."

Wearable-tech sales expected to rise fast | Male and female silhouette: © Ficus777/Shutterstock.com; Cloud icon: yulias07/Shutterstock.com

More than just smart watches

Right now the prototypical wearable is a smart watch, which puts notifications from a Bluetooth-linked smartphone onto your wrist. That's great, but Intel's upcoming "smart shirt," measuring everything from vital signs to your emotional state, could do more for your daily life experience than anything with a screen on your wrist.

"We are very much used to looking at screens," says Forrester's Gownder. "But we are going to go through a cultural change; we need to change what we expect to see. The devices will be invisible."

Wearables may also have financial applications. Bionym, a Toronto-based company, has developed the first wearable authentication device, called "Nymi," which utilizes a user's unique electrocardiogram, or ECG, readings in order to authenticate an individual's identity.

Memorizing health data numbers? Maintaining a keychain of retail store loyalty cards? Carrying a wallet while also using a mobile wallet via your smartphone? The Nymi would have all of that covered.

Medical uses

Wearable devices may soon shorten the gap between clinicians and their patients.

Nadine Dexter, director of medical informatics and the Harriett F. Ginsburg Health Sciences Library at the University of Central Florida, is working on a study assessing the utility of wearables in health care.

For the study, Fitbit Ones were distributed to faculty and staff at the university.

Participants were able to track data and set goals regarding steps taken each day, meals eaten, calories burned and sleep patterns -- information that could be taken to a physician.

"(The devices are) tracking the information so people don't have to guess. Doctors can look at this as a tool to support and work with patients," Dexter says.

There are certainly privacy implications to consider when dealing with patients' data, but there's a wealth of potential to use the information devices can already track for patients for preventative care.

Will consumers benefit?

The possibilities are exciting, but the X factor is, will people actually use them consistently enough to really benefit?

That depends in part on designers, says Malin Eriksson, director of public relations for Sweden-based Northcube AB, developer of the application Sleep Cycle, a "bio-alarm" clock that analyzes sleep patterns and wakes you in the lightest phases of sleep.

"It's the habit. People like to incorporate things in their daily lives that do not require them to form new habits. They like things that simplify and bring added value to their existing routines, rather than forcing them to create new ones," says Eriksson.

The more regular the data collection, the better to spot trends and patterns, Eriksson says.

A different way to interact with gadgets

In some ways, wearables are fundamentally different from other consumer electronics.

"What do we want from a wearable? We want to get away from constraints of a screen and a mouse," says Rahul Mangharam, associate professor of electrical and systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, and one of the faculty behind Penn's new Experience Design and Technology Lab, or xLab, an interdisciplinary effort dealing directly with the "Internet of Things."

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