What is wearable computing? The simplest definition is any electronic device that's designed to operate on your body. A Bluetooth headset would be an easy example, but incomplete. Wearable computing should do more than replace wires. It should compute, communicate, and connect. Thanks to the efforts of companies large and small, wearable computing will soon achieve the potential of its name -- computers so close, they're practically a part of you.
This is the trend that will define the next computing revolution. Your computer will act like an extra layer on top of the world -- an augmented reality, so to speak. The most common system will probably be similar to Google's Project Glass, a cross between eyeglasses and Geordi LaForge's visor. Don't worry; you'll still be able to see.
The software that controls this augmented reality will demand the best efforts of developers, because flaws and bugs will be magnified when they're right in your face. With that in mind, let's take a look at some companies that stand to gain (or lose) the most from a shift to wearable computing.
The wearable revolution comes to life
Everything starts with the operating system, and three rule the world: Android, iOS, and Windows. Google, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) , and Microsoft will have a fierce battle ahead for wearable dominance -- but Google has a leg up in this fight. It has major first-mover advantage with Project Glass, and has some of the brightest computing minds in the world working on developing this technology. It also has the deepest database of complementary technologies, including search, maps, and social. Well, not so much social.
Apple, on the other hand, has the most success with device integration. Computing is already progressing toward unity, as anyone with an iPhone, a Mac, and an Apple TV box can attest. That leaves Microsoft as the odd developer out, since it's only known software strength is the Kinect's gesture-tracking capabilities -- which may be less important than accurately identifying the world around you. Microsoft could lose before it gets onto the field unless its latest Windows mobile push gains traction.
Give me sight beyond sight
The best software will be integrated so seamlessly into your activities that you'll quickly take it for granted. When you need information, it'll be there. When you want directions, you'll see them. This isn't going to please privacy advocates, because predictive software can't work if it doesn't know anything about you. But sharing isn't going to stop.
Social media companies are ideally poised to take advantage of "you" data, and none more so than Facebook (Nasdaq: FB ) . Wearable computing will help fulfill Zuckerberg's Law, proposed by Facebook's CEO in 2008. It's like Moore's Law, but for data sharing -- each year you'll share twice as much data as you did the year before. Your friends may not ever see it, but Facebook's servers will, and it'll be crunched and sliced and diced until Facebook finds a way to use it to market better. The things you see and the places you visit will (with your permission) become part of the stream of "you" data, updated with every step.
This data will also help other companies enhance their analytical capabilities. When a company seems to know when to send you a marketing message, predictive analytics was likely behind its timing. Some companies will build their own analytics software, but existing solutions from IBM (NYSE: IBM ) should find plenty of customers. Big Blue has been developing bleeding-edge artificial intelligence for many years, and the natural language breakthroughs it's made with Watson can help bring more human sensibilities to your augmented reality.
Managing that data will be essential, and few companies have as much riding on big data as Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL ) , which controls half of the database market. Oracle has the resources to keep its lead, but there may be more risk than reward ahead if most data generated by wearable computing goes into the databases of large tech rivals like IBM, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, none of which use Oracle database software.
Can you hear me now?
You've got to control that software somehow. Using a wirelessly connected mobile device might work, but voice commands will probably be a major part of your wearable computing experience. Nuance Communications (Nasdaq: NUAN ) , the brawn behind Siri's brains, has a lot to gain from increased voice-control integration in the wearable experience. It'll also have to contend with competition developed in-house by Google and Microsoft, as well as AT&T's low-cost speech-recognition interface.
Speech recognition is still far from commonplace, despite what Siri boosters might say. It'll have to get faster and more accurate to fulfill the promise of wearable computing, and might even become the biggest roadblock to widespread wearable adoption. A voice-controlled interface that only understands half of what you say is virtually useless.
The pieces come together
Software is vital to the wearable computing revolution, but it's not everything. Sophisticated sensors, which will take in your movement, field of vision, and the state and position of your body, will also be vital to effective wearable interfaces. Those wearable interfaces will require highly efficient hardware -- and good design sure won't hurt when the hardware is your headwear.
I've covered those aspects of wearable computing in companion articles that you can read here:
To get the Fool's full scoop on one of the companies likely to stay at the forefront of wearable technology, you can grab your copy of the Fool's brand-new premium report on the iEverything maker Apple by clicking here. The companies inside the wearable revolution will be just as important as the ones on the surface. You can find out more about one chip maker at the crossroads of this megatrend (and others) in The Motley Fool's free report: "The Next Trillion-Dollar Revolution." Get the information while you can -- claim your free copy now.