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Wearables Week

The Problem With Wearable Technology, According To "Blade Runner" Designer Syd Mead

Mead chats with us about the Apple Watch, Glassholes, and Daft Punk copying one of his designs.

  • <p>Syd Mead was illustrating "wearable" technology before it even had a name. Here we see people wearing motorcycle pants.</p>
  • <p>He designed future fashion to not just be electronic, but to flatter the human form.</p>
  • <p>Here, his concept for Unipods--another wearable vehicle that feels like a Segway crossed with a race car crossed with a beetle shell to me.</p>
  • <p>Mead's "fashion helmet" might be seen as a precursor to Google Glass...or it might be seen as the inspiration for the costuming of Daft Punk.</p>
  • <p>One of Mead's more recent designs for a robot. I dig the bird-beak head that feels organic and inhuman at the same time.</p>
  • 01 /05

    Syd Mead was illustrating "wearable" technology before it even had a name. Here we see people wearing motorcycle pants.

  • 02 /05

    He designed future fashion to not just be electronic, but to flatter the human form.

  • 03 /05

    Here, his concept for Unipods--another wearable vehicle that feels like a Segway crossed with a race car crossed with a beetle shell to me.

  • 04 /05

    Mead's "fashion helmet" might be seen as a precursor to Google Glass...or it might be seen as the inspiration for the costuming of Daft Punk.

  • 05 /05

    One of Mead's more recent designs for a robot. I dig the bird-beak head that feels organic and inhuman at the same time.

If anyone can call himself a "visual futurist" with a straight face, it's Syd Mead, the legendary concept artist behind Blade Runner, Tron, and Aliens. I could think of no one better qualified to critique the present and future of worn technologies for our special theme week on wearables, so I caught up with Mead via email, where he explained to me that "wearables" as a term are meaningless in their scope. And the products on or coming to market today, by companies like Apple and Google, are little more than failed fashion attempts.

Digging deeper, Mead calls into question the very construct of fashion in the first place—claiming that timeless fashion is really a result of garments having utility. His inspiring concept art has established him as one of the greatest futurists of the modern era, but if our conversation proved anything, it's that he's still a function-focused designer at heart.

What do you think the wearable technologies of today—like Nike FuelBands, Jawbone Ups, or Google Glass—are getting right or wrong?

Any consumer technology conversion is directed at consumer acceptance. Sometimes this works splendidly; sometimes all the guesses are wrong. Wearable technology is a term that is mindlessly inclusive. I mean, a special gym shoe with built-in pedometer and duration memory functions is "wearable technology." Wrist devices that monitor heartbeat, general blood consistency, etc., are "wearable technology," as are sweat-absorption clothing, electrically charged gloves, and other cold weather gear, and certainly visual augmentation devices.

I've been rendering many of these "new" ideas for decades. I illustrated both a fashion helmet [pictured below] in the '60s that combined a read-out screen for the wearer, a video pickup, and other functions that enabled the wearer to be reminded, guided, and allowed to upload.

I don't think the recent introductions into this technologically enabled consumer are either good or bad. The consumer acceptance will determine, as always, whether they persist or have to wait for a broader consensus. Google Glass, for instance, has acquired a geeky distinction of its own, becoming, in some social environments a disturbing intrusion into intra-personal ambiance. The more discreet devices, like the new Apple Watch and similar wrist keyboards will serve their purpose, though their usefulness doesn't go far beyond satisfying the early adopters' penchant for showing off how very, very clever they are.

The biggest topic in wearables over the past year has been that technology needs to intersect with fashion. How have you approached fashion design over your career?

Fashion is a temporary affectation. Fashion that's timeless is actually a practical response to need. Stylistic overlays will occur—textures, fabric combinations, and stylistic appendages and accessories create the "look" of the latest fashion rage—but for instance, the core male suit format and basic trousers have been in fashion for hundreds of years. Fashion pretends to recognize a kind of preference but in reality is a fantasy projection of what humans of both sexes should look like in order to wear the creations of the various brand name fashion houses.

I have illustrated fashion stylizations for decades. For male dress I have shown a kind of baroque applique around the left armpit, which accents the arm-to-shoulder mechanics. Another stylistic overlay I've illustrated—again, decades ago—was an emblazoned strip up the left front of the jacket, over the shoulder and down the back. This dramatizes the body proportions of the wearer by creating a vertical embellishment both front and back.

Technology, through miniaturization and material innovation, is becoming transparent in the sense that electronic function can be woven into, applied to, formed, and embedded into practically anything having to do with wearable or personal accessories. When you consider color-programmable fabric materials activated by electricity, it begs the question, does fashion influence technology, or does technology influence fashion?

I came across your Unipods concept recently, and I've been a bit obsessed with the illustration. It's like a wilder Segway that straps on your back. Do you think personal wearable transport is inevitable?

The Unipod was designed as an editorial inclusion in an issue of Automobile Quarterly back in the late '60s. The idea was transport for one. The user would insert a card into a dispenser station slot, the aperture would open, the Unipod would be moved forward, the user would step back into the device, the single wheel would extend with its foot rests on either side of the wheel hub, and the faceplate would be closed, and the user would take off to whatever destination desired.

I see Unipods as a bit dystopian, with glass that separates us from others. Was that intentional?

The glass faceplate, Mark, is to keep bird shit off your clothes or you while in transit, okay?

I illustrated an extension in the middle '70s of an idea I called "wheel pants." The wearer pulls on a pair of pants with an encircling waistband and an extension up to the middle back containing a gyroscope. The wheels are pivoted at the ankle position providing wheeled transit if down, and walking action if rotated up alongside the outer calf. Obviously, this idea would be mostly aimed at an athletic, younger consumer base. The idea was also in response to the fact that over half of the world's population now lives in cities, creating population density that needs a kind of transport that is no more space-demanding than a person's own dimensions.

You'd mentioned your fashion helmet earlier—it's one of my favorite Mead designs. And what I've always wondered is, did Daft Punk ever contact you about adopting or licensing your helmet design? Because Guy-Manuel's mask is a spitting image for your concept.

Dan MacMedan/WireImage/Getty Images

The Daft Punk group as part of the current media world has to continuously invent themselves to acquire attention of the minuscule attention span demographic. They never communicated with me at all. I illustrated the elaborately ormolu'd helmet idea back in the '60s for an article in Automobile Quarterly as a visual comment on future transportation ideas. As I always do, I embed my design ideas into their world to make the whole effort worthwhile as a story-telling environment. Not only is the Daft Punk version poorly proportioned but the ornament is a badly executed variation of Greco-Roman motif. I don't really care at this point.

This illustration was done for a poster series back in the late '70s. It shows my idea for a fashion helmet that would function as a download, upload, communication valet, and reminder readout as part of the laminated face plate.

What’s your ultimate dream technology, and what would you do with it?

The ultimate dream technology is the selective control of gravitational attraction. Now, we interpret this as pure mass. In the future, once we figure out what gravity actually is (nobody really knows). We know that gravitational force activates throughout the universe but there is no definitive rationale as to why it acts at extremely (sub-atomic) distances to intergalactic space. Once we figure out how to manipulate gravitational force (and that will mean we can "store" gravitational energy off-line and then bring it back again as a gradual, controllable process) we can have the ever popular flying cars, movement of goods, and other mass-intensive elements at will.

The conversation has been edited and abridged.

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