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Since early 2000, when iRobot (Nasdaq: IRBT ) introduced its first-generation floor-vacuuming bot, the Roomba, robots have reigned supreme on the tech trend front. But this is about to change. With the New Year just around the corner, wearable computers are stealing the spotlight. In fact, Forrester Research expects these consumer gadgets to go mainstream in early 2013. To keep you ahead of the game, let's take a closer look at this emerging category and how investors can grab a piece of the action.
In the blink of an eye
Search giant Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) may have another hit on its hands, as the company is working on a new product called Project Glass. The digital glasses may look strange at first, but a tiny display screen mounted over the user's right eye is capable of everything from taking snapshots and recording video footage to making calls, sending texts, and scheduling events.
Google's glasses use what's known as augmented reality to let users view a computer-generated image over their real-world surroundings. If this concept seems completely foreign to you, think again. Modified versions of this technology are already widely available in the auto industry.
Heads-up display in cars is a form of AR. While heads-up technology was once reserved for luxury vehicles, it has quickly become a staple feature of new cars. For example, heads-up display now comes standard in General Motors' (NYSE: GM ) newly redesigned 2013 Denali SUV as well as many of its other models. But the real focus in the year ahead will be on wearing this technology.
Google's futuristic glasses will work by interpreting voice commands and subtle head movements. For $1,500, developers can get a pair of these digital shades in early 2013. The rest of us will have to wait a bit longer as the company works out the kinks in this new product.
High-tech vision quest
The search giant may be the first to spur demand for such products, but it didn't pioneer the design of smart glasses. Vuzix's Wrap 920AR glasses, running on Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Windows, get that honor. Similar to Google's developer rate, these spectacles will cost you a cool $1,499. At that price, it's not likely that these will sell to the masses. That's why down the road, Google plans to sell its device for between $250 and $600 a pair.
Companies around the world are prepping for this massive new market. Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) for example, has filed several patents related to wearable computers. While the Mac maker hasn't publicly come out with any consumer wearables, insiders suggest that a group of Apple engineers has been quietly creating prototypes of these devices. Could iGlasses be Apple's next big hit? It's not out of the question.
For big tech companies such as Google and Apple, the key is seamless integration of these items with their existing smartphone and tablet devices. If either of these companies were to successfully launch a stylish gadget that we wear, it would probably translate into greater media sales for the company.
Heading into 2013, tech companies aren't the only ones driving us toward wearable computers. Sport-apparel powerhouse Nike (NYSE: NKE ) also has some skin in the game. Earlier this year, Nike released its Nike + FuelBand to great fanfare from health and fitness communities.
The wristband monitors your movements to measure how active you are. Like most popular devices these days, the Nike FuelBand syncs with users' iPhones, allowing them to share the data with friends and set future fitness goals. The bands sold out in record time, even at pricey $149 a pop.
While the gadget is relatively basic equipment, it's a testament to Nike's edge in innovation. In addition, you can bet Nike will release similar products linked to digital health in the year ahead. That's why the sporty stock is a winning pick for conservative investors looking to connect with this up-and-coming tech trend.
Investing in the future
The coming year will be a pivotal time for public companies as they put their patents to use in wireless wearable computers. By 2016, IMS Research estimates that the market for these devices will exceed $6 billion. I don't know about you, but I'd like to play in that arena.
There is absolutely no argument that Apple is at the center of this tech revolution. However, there is a debate raging as to whether Apple remains a buy. The Motley Fool's senior technology analyst and managing bureau chief, Eric Bleeker, is prepared to fill you in on both reasons to buy and reasons to sell Apple, and what opportunities are left for the company (and, more importantly, your portfolio) going forward. To get instant access to his latest thinking on Apple, simply click here now.