Before I preview the biometric compression shirt that Ralph Lauren designed for U.S. Open ball boys, I’m served a wineglass of blueberry smoothie in a room lined with black-and-white photos of wispy suave men. There is one other reporter waiting with me. With jeans rolled to expose his ankles, a bright summer plaid work shirt, and blonde hair just long enough to tuck behind his ears, he looks like he sprung from one of the picture frames on the wall and materialized here specifically to shame my off-brand attire.
I’m no fashion guru, but I like the orange dress I’m wearing. It’s my accessories that make me feel a bit out of place. On my right hand is a bold 3-D printed black ring with a hint of gold that peeks out from its square face. My left wrist glints with one shiny silver plastic medallion clipped to a black leather band, and, on top of that, I wear what looks like a matte gold mini-macaroon on a black rubber bracelet. A heavy metal pendant on a black chord hangs from my neck.
Combined with the orange, all of these thick black accessories make me look like a second-grade teacher on Halloween.
"What is this?" asks one of the well-groomed PR people in the room, pointing to the gold token.
And so I begin what has become, over the last couple of days, a familiar tour. This is a sensor that tracks my steps, like a Fitbit, I say, pointing to the macaroon bracelet. This silver dongle on the leather-like bracelet tracks my sun exposure. This necklace has a button on it that will trigger a fake call to my phone. You know, in case I wanted to get out of a bad date. And this ring will work as an admission card to the Boston train system. If I were in Boston (I’m based in New York).
It’s all fashionable wearable technology.
Or at least, it claims to be.
I have been wearing this odd match of sensors since the beginning of the week as an attempt to live a vision that Kickstarter projects, technology startups, and big brands like Ralph Lauren all share: wearable technology that blends into daily life: sensors and smartwatches that have evolved past the bulky black rubber contraptions that pioneered the category, the ones that scream, "I’m tracking my steps." A day when smart clothes and accessories aren't "tech products," but rather fashion items that sit right next to "dumb" versions in department stores.
A few minutes after I explain my ensemble, the PR team ushers me into a showcase for Ralph Lauren's first step toward this idea: a tight black shirt that works with an app to show wearers their heartrate, breathing, and activity.
"Eventually it will just be part of your outfit," David Lauren, Ralph Lauren’s son and the brand's head of all marketing operations, tells me. "You won’t even think about it."
To his credit, he does not even nod to the fact that I currently look like a Halloween-inspired Christmas tree.
My hunt for fashionable wearable technology began about a month earlier. Given the number of blog posts and Kickstarter projects I had come across over the past couple of years that promised fashionable twists on tech, I figured hunting down enough products to turn me into a buzzing, connected lab for the genre would be easy.
But that was before I enlisted an intern and started contacting the creators of these advertisements. Last year, investors put $458 million in wearable devices, and I find no shortage of product renderings and pre-sale splash pages. But very few of them seem to exist in a sense that they could actually be purchased.
Clothes that light up with LED lights have for the most part not left the runway. Rings made by a startup called Ringly, which connect to your phone and vibrate when you receive a message, are not shipping until this winter. A smart bracelet that does something similar called MEMI that doesn’t ship until Spring. French consumer tech company Withings debuted a much praised fitness tracker disguised within a sleek swiss watch, but it doesn’t ship until fall. I'll also have to wait to buy Tory Burch’s line of Fitbit-encasing Jewelry or Rebecca Minkoff’s line of smart jewelry and the version of Ralph Lauren’s biometric compression t-shirt that it will sell to those of us who aren’t retrieving balls for pro tennis players.
As I begin the experiment in mid-August, all I can get my hands on are the following:
Sesame Ring: a $25 3-D printed ring, loaded with an RFID card, that doubles as a subway pass. Invented by students at Singapore University of Technology and Design while attending MIT on an exchange program, the ring has been praised as "stylish" and "the ultimate accessory for fashionistas." I can feel the grain the 3-D printer left behind as I slip the lightweight gizmo onto my finger (to use it as a card, I’d need to add money from a transit machine).
Netatmo June: a $100 UV sensor with an exterior, "cut to resemble a diamond," that looks like a small chip of disco ball. It comes with a leather wristband. I connect it to my phone without a problem. The app asks for my hair and eye color, whether I have freckles, and the tone of my complexion. Ostensibly this will help predict how much sunscreen I need.
Misfit Shine: a $100 coin-sized sensor (mine is gold), "crafted by a designer who creates pieces for leading French jewelry names," that measures activity throughout the day. It comes in store-ready packaging that demonstrates different ways to wear it: as a clasp, on a sport band, on a leather band, and as a necklace. The set comes with a watchband and a clasp. I snap Shine into it and download an app to pair with the device.
Guardian Angel: a silver pendant with a button that triggers a fake call on your phone or alerts a friend "when a girl feels the situation or date is becoming uncomfortable." It’s maker, JWT Singapore, donates 10% of the $120 price to an organization that seeks to empower women against violence (a mission that includes conceal and carry classes). The device is supposed to look like a halo, but it reminds me of a long silver cockroach. I download another app that helps trigger a fake call.
By the time I’m done decking myself with tech, I’ve added three new apps to my phone and four new pieces of jewelry to my daily ensemble.
Most reactions to my sudden accessory shift are kind. "You get some new jewelry?" one of my girlfriends asks me skeptically when I meet her for dinner. Someone in my improv class notices Shine lighting up on my wrist and stares at me bewilderedly. "What?" He mouths silently.
Others are brutally honest. "A lot of them are ugly," Ramon Llamas, a Research Manager with IDC's Mobile Phones team, says of wearable tech when I tell him about my experiment. "Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s call something ugly when we know it is."
Some notice the Sesame ring first.
What does that do? They ask. It’s only after I explain that the ring will let me into the Boston T that they feel they have permission to comment about everything else. And comment they do. One time, after I explain the Guardian Angel was supposed to be a good way to get out of a date, a colleague jokes that, "if you wore that on a first date, you might not be the one who would want to leave."
But I don’t know that my wearable technology is actually ugly. What I know is that it doesn’t fit with my wardrobe every day. While I sometimes think that my hardware blends in quite nicely with my outfit, say when I’m wearing something plain and black, there are other times when I feel like I’m making a statement.
I AM WEARING SOMETHING WEIRD. LOOK AT ME. ASK ABOUT HOW EARLY ADOPTER I AM.
Then again, on a day when I’m wearing my high-tech jewelry with a vintage silk dress, which seems weird to me, a coworker assures me that it actually works. "I think it actually goes particularly well today," she says, noting that the black and gold tones of the jewelry, do, in fact, match my outfit. This inkling could be entirely in my head.
I guess a better way to put it would be that, though totally passable, the connected jewelry is not quite me.
Despite my trouble tracking down fashionable technology that I can actually wear, New York City fashion week brings a wave of prototypes to my office doorstep. I sit at a cafeteria desk one morning fiddling with the MICA, the bracelet Intel and Opening Ceremony created together. It’s a thick plastic oval decorated with white snakeskin and a large gold clasp that hides its charging jack. The tech is on the back, a rectangle LED screen that will, in the working version, show notifications from your phone that can be checked discretely. "As a woman, I do care what I wear," says the vice president of Intel’s new devices group, Ayse Ildeniz, who has arrived with the bracelet to explain her company’s investment in wearable tech. "There’s a reason I’m putting this belt on," she nods to a large metallic rose clasping together an otherwise black ensemble.
On the other side of this equation, Intel does the profoundly unglamorous work of building the chips and bits that go into electronics. Its executives, for the most part, wear suits and ties, posing for casual versions of their bio photos with (gasp) no jacket, and though you could argue there’s a certain beauty to a computer chip, the company has never particularly concerned itself with aesthetics.
What has changed is that Intel can no longer remain relevant by focusing on PCs. With the Internet of things—the growing collection of network-connected everyday objects—fashion is another place for the company to stick its chips.
MICA is intended to show that this transition doesn’t necessarily need to be geeky. "Unless smartness goes into everyday things, it’s going to be an oddity, a unique thing out there," Ildeniz says, "So we need to help create a category."
I try the bracelet on. It’s bulkier than my other wearable tech, and with my sweater and jeans, it makes me look like a girl playing dress up with her mothers’ jewelry. But on Ildeniz, with her bold confident accessories, it looks great. Which is why I am secretly happy that MICA won’t be sold at Barneys until fall. Adding it to my accessory menagerie without feeling ridiculous would probably have involved discarding my jeans and flat shoes for a classier wardrobe, something I would never have imagined Intel would inspire me to do.
Impressed as I am with Intel's class, this only highlights the problem of making devices to be worn all the time: how many accessories or garments both look good on everyone and are appropriate for every occaision?
Collaborations like this one also necessarily involve a tug of war between two industries with very different perspectives. Fashion survives on personal choice and self-expression. Gadget companies aim instead for the one super gadget—the smartphone, the laptop—that appeals to as many people as possible at once. The people, the manufacturing processes, and what defines success in technology and in fashion are all completely different.
When designing MICA, for instance, Opening Ceremony wanted a metal bracelet that felt luxurious. Intel’s engineers knew an all-metal band would interfere with the device’s tech components. Intel initially designed a square bracelet. Opening Ceremony nudged toward the oval. It took frequent conference calls, Ildeniz says, to come to a design that satisfied both sides.
The result of this collaboration is a fairly good-looking product that disguises a screen. If it were more fashionable, it would be less functional. If it were more functional, it would be less fashionable. It's an economy of tradeoffs.
About a third of people who bought devices like the Nike Fuelband, the Jawbone Up and the Fitbit stopped using them within a year. Over the course of my week with these more fashionable accessories, I'm learning that a more attractive wearable does not cure all that ails these early devices.
It’s interesting to see my sun exposure via June, and, especially since I have freckled Irish skin that’s susceptible to skin cancer, I want to think about sun protection more often. But most of the time I forget to open the app. And about halfway through my experiment, I lose the small charging cord that came with the device, and it becomes a dead piece of plastic on my wrist that I only notice when I’m explaining it to other people.
I also see the good intentions behind the Guardian Angel. Who could watch the evening news and not want to carry an alarm button with them at all times? But I haven’t yet come across a situation in which it is less awkward to launch a fake phone call than simply walk away. One day, in an improv scene, someone pretends to scare me at a haunted house. I scream and jump, sending the heavy pendant flying off of its black rope and across the room. This probably doesn’t bode well for the trinket’s usefulness as a safety device.
Shine’s battery doesn’t need charging, which I consider a huge improvement over my forgotten Jawbone Up, but I find it kind of ridiculous to complete my five mile morning run, walk the 1.5 miles in my daily commute, and then track my steps all day.
Most of the time, when I’m not wearing an orange dress, these accessories blend into my ensemble just fine. But I’m still wearing a collection of sensors that each do one specific thing—a thing I may only want occasionally—via yet another specific app, and they don’t work together.
It’s not just that many wearable devices on the market are nerdy—something fashion alone might fix. It is also that the sensors, buzzing, and extra screens are not necessarily useful. Why wear them?
Technologists have plenty of plausible but as-of-yet unadopted answers. They’ve come up with devices that help wearers maintain a comfortable body temperature, monitor posture, and make choices based on their stress and eating habits.
For any of this to work, however, you need to put the sensors and computers on your body. So far, tech companies have been wildly uncreative in providing a compelling reason to do so. Many wearable devices contain just one isolated functionality that is meant to be used constantly, but the aesthetics of those devices don't lend themselves to everyday wear. Others try to pack every functionality into one super device, the way a smartphone does, but fail to think intelligently about what works best in the context of being affixed to your body at all times.
"We’re getting things that are like, okay, what is the quickest place to strap a device onto the body," says Amanda Parkes, an entrepreneur who teaches about wearable technology at Columbia University. "The rich and difficult nuances of all the places on the body that have different interactivity are sort of not being addressed yet."
Fashion designers dabbling in wearable tech independently have taken the concept to a place that is not exactly on electronics’ companies radars: vibrating underwear that long-distance partner can control, a dress that glows when someone looks at it , a sweater that changes colors to reflect the mood of its wearer. Many of these designs are created as art for the runway and never make it to a store.
In order to explore the nuances of what technology makes sense to wear—and how to wear it—fashion and technology need to work together in an integrated way from the beginning.
For now, the devices Parkes praises aren’t necessarily the same ones that either technologists or fashionistas might flaunt as the most impressive. She holds up a simple seafoam green ring on her left hand that matches her bright blue trench coat. It’s Ringly—which next to the Apple Watch is practically stone-age technology: 1 LED light, 1 buzzing bit that alerts wearers to messages on their phones. "It’s totally fashion-driven," she says. "You think I’m wearing a ring. Even if it’s not charged, it’s something I want to be wearing. It’s about the right amount of data and information at the same time."
"Not everything has to be a Swiss army knife."
As my deadline approaches, I re-inventory my fashionable wearable technology.
I never did make it to Boston, though I’ve spent a lot of time—most of it while digging through my purse for my MTA card—contemplating how convenient the Sesame ring would be if it worked in New York. But enough to justify wearing the ring every day? Probably not. I’ve gotten compliments on the 3-D printed ring, but it makes me feel like I’m trying to pull off some sort of chunky rock band look when my general style aesthetic has most commonly been described to me as "school marm." It's not worth the trade.
Nor did I ever find a legitimate excuse to trigger a fake phone call with my Guardian Angel. I want to like the idea, but having watched my female friends primp for dates, I cannot imagine convincing them to wear this thick medallion when they’re trying to make a first impression.
I stop wearing both devices after my experiment is over.
Eventually I find June’s charging cord under my keyboard, but I don’t bother plugging it in.
Though I keep searching after the experiment is over, I never find a product that integrates beauty and expression with appropriately placed functionality. But I do stumble across an example of what uncovering it may entail.
Manufacture New York is a social venture aimed at bringing more garment manufacturing to New York, and it also has plans to bring technology and fashion manufacturing together in the same physical space. An R&D lab it plans to launch next year will sit right next to manufacturing resources inside of 120,000 square feet of apparel, accessories, specialty, furniture, and metal working manufacturing space.
Physically connecting the high-concept ideas of fashion designers and the scalable manufacturing process is one step in bringing garments that incorporate technology off the runway. But it's only the beginning.
Instead of starting with only the components that are currently available in fashion and technology—a process that inevitably leads to shirts with hardware clips, jewelry with charging cords, and lots of rubber bracelets—many researchers in the R&D lab will begin at the very start of the process, with new types of materials required for smarter garments.
They will be working on projects like a fiber battery, an interactive textile from Google, and nanotech to make things hydrophobic. Which means that in addition to regular manufacturing, an electronics lab, and fashion designers, Manufacture NY has its own biology and chemistry labs.
Parkes is the project’s chief of technology and research. Bringing all these fields together, she says, is what it takes "to get beyond trying to elegantly glue the electronics to the textile."
What I want most are sensors that blend into my clothes without making me look like Inspector Gadget, charge themselves, and work with each other in one system, with one app.
Parkes delivers a reality punch to this idea. "Even if you’re a technology company that wants to make a fully integrated garment," she says, "It’s not like you can go and buy a fiber battery and put it into your design."
Manufacture NY's lab plans to work on components that could make my imagined wearable technology more feasible. But this summer, Shine was the only device I continued wearing after my experiment. It uses a watch battery, so I didn’t need to remember to charge it, and I liked that I could tap it to see progress toward my steps goal without looking at my phone (a friend’s one-year-old child found this dancing lights feature equally amusing).
I wore it every day until, one day, it clashed with a silver bracelet I was wearing, so I left it at home.
Shortly later, I forget about the device altogether. It’s still sitting on my nightstand—right next to my Jawbone Up.
More from Wearables Week: