Smart future: the growth of wearable technology in Dubai

With the wearables technology market set to grow by 110 million units in the next three years, Vision explores how Dubai is pioneering these smart technologies

Soon, it will be possible for Dubai residents to pay for shopping, transit, government services and tickets with a touch of a smart watch. It was announced in June that a national mobile payment platform called empay is in the works, which will allow all kinds of payments to be made via wearable technology.

It’s part of a larger initiative to ensure that Dubai is ten years ahead of all other cities in terms of disruptive innovation. “The future belongs to those who affect radical changes,” His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai has said about the “Dubai 10X” plan, “not those who make minor, gradual improvements. The future will not be as patient with us as the present.”

Wearables — digital devices that can be worn as clothing or on the body — are an important part of that progress, and their adoption is growing across the Middle East and Africa. Sales of basic wearables like the FitBit and its Chinese rival Mi Band are increasing in the region, but advanced, connected devices, like the Apple Watch, are in even more demand, with 65 per cent year-on-year growth as of early 2017. These smart wearables integrate with third-party apps, creating infinite possibilities for users.

The Dubai government is taking full advantage of the opportunities offered by this new technology. In 2016, Dubai Customs launched a pair of smart glasses that display data and images to allow super-quick inspections, and an app was released the same year allowing the city’s motorists to enquire about traffic violations and pay fines using an Apple Watch.

Members of the city’s police force were issued with Google Glass as far back as 2014, doctors at Dubai Healthcare City have used the technology to optimise surgical techniques, and Emirates Airline announced plans in 2017 to use augmented-reality smart glasses to display notes on each individual, for improved customer service.

The wearables market is predicted to increase from about 90 million units in 2016 to over 200 million in 2020

All this is just the beginning. At the Dubai Future Accelerator, which concluded its second cycle in April, tech innovators have been teaming up with government departments in order to push forward into new territory. Among the innovators in this year’s cohort was Nathan Ramasarma, co-founder and CEO of ArcSecond.

The company is piloting a system of wireless, wearable motion sensors that can be used to accurately gauge the range of movement of patients suffering from anything from a stroke to a sports injury. In addition to working with the Dubai Health Authority, ArcSecond are also partnered with institutions including Harvard Medical School, UCLA Health and Emirates Health.

The advantage of wearables such as ArcSecond’s devices is not just the frictionless user experience but also the many ways in which data about the user can be gathered and used to improve that experience. By measuring patients’ movements objectively, Ramasarma points out, paperwork can be streamlined, progress can be more accurately tracked, and patients’ rehab can even be gamified, by comparing how quickly they are improving in comparison to others with the same condition.

Remember Minority Report, the Philip K Dick movie adaptation in which Tom Cruise uses hand gestures to sift through data that hovers in the air in front of him? “There are elements of our user experience that look like that,” Ramasarma says, “but we’re taking it to the next level.”

The field is progressing quickly — and growing all the time. Globally, the wearables market is predicted to increase from about 90 million units in 2016 to over 200 million in 2020, according a Frost & Sullivan report prepared in collaboration with GITEX Technology Week last year, with smart watches continuing to dominate. However, sales of smart glasses are expected to accelerate rapidly within the next three years.

Dubai has a big role to play in this story, Ramasarma says, due to the tech talent in the region, and its geographical location, with a billion people within four hours’ flying distance. ArcSecond is currently based in San Diego and Budapest, but Ramasarma is considering opening a third office in the UAE.

What’s next, according to Ramasarma, are a class of wearables he calls “hearables,” which might be nestled in users’ ears, equipped with biometric sensors, microphones and speakers. You’d interact with these devices by talking to them, rather than by looking at a display. “Voice interface is the next big leap,” he says, “it’s where I see wearables going forward.”