It is an exciting time to be in wearable technology. No longer the domain of sci-fi fiction, the gadgets we carry with us to monitor our movements are not only becoming more prevalent but beneficial to our well-being.
I have been designing new consumer electronics and wearable tech for years, with a focus most recently on creating equipment that helps Pilates students to perform their exercises correctly. I avidly practice Pilates but have found it quite time-consuming. It also requires you to work with instructors, which can get very expensive. Over the past year or so, I have been working with my Seattle Pilates studio to explore ways in which technology can help me improve even when I’m not able to meet with an instructor. The outcome is Move, a garment with integrated technology that allows for input and output, wireless connectivity, and software that runs on a mobile device. When the elements are synched, they guide you toward optimal performance and precision in movement in a discreet, networked, and beautiful way.
Through the successes and failures of my research and design in the consumer electronics and wearable technology fields, I have developed four foundational principles, which I believe, if adopted, would take wearable tech into the mainstream.
There is a lot of innovative technology out there that is disruptive and pushing the boundaries on what we can do. But moving the ideas from the lab into the hands of consumers and their context is challenging and sometimes just doesn’t work. Effective technology respects the context of the user, her environment and lifestyle, and addresses specific pain points. Take Emotiv’s brain-controlled computer device, for example. It allows someone to control interfaces with her mind, but the form factor is a hindrance to asking people to wear it in public or while doing an activity like running. Who would want to wear this device while walking down the street?
No one wants to be weighted down by a mountain of electronics strapped to their bodies. For wearable devices to be broadly adopted, they need to recede into the background, so we can focus on our activities while still being connected. New manufacturing techniques and materials are giving us the ability to do just that. For example, Kickstarter-funded ZionEyez is creating video recording glasses with hidden technology that’s barely perceptible. In order to achieve this, the designers are using a manufacturing technique called insert molding that allows them to embed the circuitry directly into the plastic of the eyewear frames.
New materials are also allowing us to further conceal technology. For example, companies like Textronics (owned by Adidas) have been developing e-textiles that have electronics woven directly into the fabric.
Not that technology should always be totally discreet. There are some moments where you want your wearable technology piece to be front and center—when wearing it is a statement in and of itself. The GoPro camera is one such example: You bolt this thing onto your head and suddenly you’re a hero flying through the air doing a 360.
Based on the first principle of understanding the user’s context, this works in the context of extreme sports, but if you are a diabetic or suffer from hypertension, you might less obtrusive wearable pieces—something that can fit into your lifestyle and doesn’t draw attention to itself, like the Pulse concept shown in the slide show, a heart-rate monitor that is shaped like a ring.
Like Pulse, Move relies on discreet inputs and outputs to provide immediate, uninterrupted feedback, so you don’t have to interrupt your activity by pulling out your phone to see what you need to do. And the garment is fashionable enough to slip seamlessly into one’s lifestyle, i.e., I can wear it working out, or I can throw a jacket on and wear it to work.
The most ubiquitous wearable technology today is the smartphone. It is always with us and always connected to software, apps, and services. Using the phone’s processing power, sensors, storage and data capabilities, and services creates huge new opportunities for wearables. The Nike+ platform is an exemplary model for how connectivity can extend the value of wearable technology. For example, they don’t just embed technology into their shoes and wristbands. These wearable technology accessories connect with software and an entire community that allows you to do more than just monitor your performance. Another, lesser-known example is Angella Mackey’s beautifully executed Vega jacket, which lights up for bike safety.
In the Move example, connecting the garment to a mobile device not only allows you to see your progress and adjust your workout, it can connect you to social networks for encouragement, or even connect to a health care provider like a physical therapist who can take into account the workout or modify some exercises for an even more effective routine.
A handful of great thinkers and experimenters, such as Steve Mann, have pioneered this new wearable technology space. But for all of their technological advancements that they have explored in the lab, they have created images of wearable tech as geek-wear, not consumer-wear. We now have the chance to rebrand "wearable technology" for consumer markets by making it not only functional but stylish.
Fitness apparel makers are already embracing the trend. Sports companies such as Adidas are partnering with fashion designers like Stella McCartney. We’re also witnessing a shift in fitness clothing from purely gym wear to versatile items that can be worn to run errands, such as the entire Lululemon brand. I wear Lululemon while working out and while at work.
As a new industry, how can we follow these principles and make wearable technology more compelling to consumers? The products that we’re making today are fairly industry- or domain-specific: What works in one facet of life, doesn’t work in another. But as a consumer, I don’t think of my life in terms of domains, and as a designer, I believe products should seamlessly fit into our lifestyles. Following the four principles I’ve outlined will guide us toward creating technology with long-lasting value, objects that we want to wear no matter where we are or what we are doing.