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What’s In Your Wearable?

By now, you’re either wearing something that monitors your activities or you’ve witnessed such gadgetry on someone’s wrist, shoelace or belt. We’re now about five years into the rise of wearable tech.

By the numbers (fresh from NPD Group), Fitbit owns a 68% share of the market, with Jawbone at 19% and Nike at 10%. Last year, consumers spent $330 million on smartphone-enabled activity trackers.

That’s expected to double again this year. That means it’s time to take a brief walk through the jargon jumble describing what’s inside the gadgetry of trackers — because it’s thick.

Take the “Kiwi Move,” for instance. Introduced at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, it’s a piece of plastic, about the size of a book of matches. Inside it: A gyroscope, magnetometer, barometer, accelerometer, thermometer and microphone.

The microphone is easy. In the Kiwi demo, a woman says aloud the type and amount of ingredients she’s putting into a blender: One apple. One Kiwi (of course). An avocado. And so on. The microphone hears the data, and calculates the nutritional value of the smoothie.

Likewise for the thermometer, which can work in tandem with the on-board barometer to predict the weather. Barometers, which became mainstream in the mid-1600s, measure atmospheric pressure. (Happily, the barometers found in digital devices don’t use mercury, which is still poisonous.)

The magnetometer came to life in the early 1800s as a way to find things, using magnetic fields: Submarines, coal, auroras, minerals. In digital gadgetry, magnetometers use a three-axis orientation (vertical, lateral, longitudinal) to detect motion. A compass app is a good example.

Accelerometers are the reason we can turn our gadgets sideways for different image orientations (landscape vs. portrait). And, acceleration being acceleration, they power the pedometer part of wearable technologies.

A companion acronym to all of this is “MEMS,” which stands for “Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems.” It categorizes the work of very small things — 20 micrometers to a millimeter in size. (Last week, it was revealed that most smartphones now contain more than 12 MEMS chips, and will go to 20 “soon.” The report went on to stress the importance of the adhesives used to package the chips — with impressively nerdy names like “glob tops,” “cap bonding” and “ASIC die attach.”)

Last but not least: The gyroscope, which also falls into the MEMS category. It measures orientation, based on the principles of angular momentum. In essence, it’s a self-spinning top, just like the toy. In the mid-1700s, gyroscopes were put to use as levels, to locate the horizon in foggy conditions. Nintendo’s Wii, and all of the devices powered by companies like Hillcrest Technologies, put gyroscopes to work as high-end pointing devices.

That’s a quick walk through the thick jargon of what’s inside the stuff on our wrists and waistbands, to inform us about how active we are, or aren’t.

Stumped by gibberish? Visit Leslie Ellis