How Wearable Computers Force Tech To Think Fashion

Samsung, like many technology companies, has realized that it cannot sell a wearable computer if it doesn’t pay as much attention to the “wearable” as it does to the “computer.”

It is Fashion Week in New York City, and the fact that it is also happens to be Sunday afternoon has not deterred throngs of fashionistas from turning up in four-inch high heels, black leather, and full-length evening gowns. This also is not, to understate the case, Samsung's usual scene.

Earlier in the week, the company announced its new Galaxy Gear Smartwatch to an audience of scrubby tech reporters. But here at Fashion Week Headquarters, behind three security guarded hallways in a blue-lit room, executive vice president of Samsung Mobile YH Lee sits with jewelry designer Dana Lorenz. Instead of specs and processing power, she is there to discuss the watch’s aesthetic.

Samsung Galaxy Gear

On the table in front of her, Lorenz has paired chunky jewelry from her Fallon line in different combinations with Galaxy Gear. Lee points out a charm that slides onto the band of the smartwatch on her own wrist. “Technology can be very difficult,” she says. “It can be very dark and boring. In order to break those stereotype thinking and bring more inspiration to our female consumers, we are trying to work like this with Dana, putting the Galaxy Gear with the fashion items in order to seduce consumers.”

Many a Dick Tracy-loving technologist has toiled away at shrinking down powerful computers until they fit on your wrist. With many of the technology issues solved, the new challenge involves cultivating the market. Samsung, for one, has realized that it cannot sell a wearable computer if it doesn’t pay as much attention to the “wearable” as it does to the “computer.” Its products need to look great, and not just on the arms of geeks.

The company hasn't always thought this way. Its first smartwatch, the SPH-WP10, had a name as about as friendly as its design. It was gray, clunky, and looked like a feature phone with a strap. “The dynamic design for the new millennium conjures up images of adventure,” a press release unconvincingly declared in 1999. The watch sold just a few hundred units in Korea.

The tendency to market smartwatches to aspiring futuristic action heroes extends beyond Samsung. LG, for instance, depicted its Watch Phone, which went on sale in 2010, as an “ultimate spy phone.” Sony’s first SmartWatch launched in 2012 with a softer focus on action and adventure. Its television commercial featured men biking, running, and doing other fit-people things and portrays the watch as rugged, not glamorous (and not for women).

By the time Sony announced its second smartphone device this year, however, its tone had changed. Gone was the action. Suddenly, a haughty British voice informed us that Sony SmartWatch 2 was “designed to impress" as well as “discrete and professional.”

It is not just that Sony's marketing tactics have evolved. It’s that smartphones were once a novelty, and only recently did they bake themselves into mainstream life thoroughly enough to warrant a wearable accessory like a smartwatch. With a majority of Americans tethered to their smartphones, wearable computing finally has the potential to benefit not just those looking to imitate Dick Tracy or geek out their workout, but a wide swath of the population--if only a wide swath of the population thought that wearing a computer were a cool thing to do.

Technology’s courtship of the fashion-forward is designed to help convince them. Following a 12-page Google Glass spread in Vogue's September issue, Google partnered last week with designer Diane von Furstenburg to bring Google Glass to the Runway during Fashion Week. Similarly, models are planning to wear Samusung’s Galaxy Gear watch, with Fallon jewelry, in Dana Lorenz's runway show on Wednesday.

As speculation swirled ahead of Apple's announcement about the new iPhone 5C in five colors, Galaxy Gear announced it will launch in lime green, oatmeal beige, wild orange, mocha gray, jet black, and rose gold (Sony also launched color bands last year).

Pretty colors can’t erase criticisms that Samsung's watch has no purpose, a clunky design, and an unwarranted high price tag. But it does go a long way in making it wearable. “Our R&D made this prototype and was about to make a commercialization that was more gray and black," Lee says. "I influenced the top management that it is wearable, it should appeal to young consumers...It’s wearable fashion, its an expression of style, it is individual choice. I thought it is a must. It is not an option. It is a must that we have different colors.”

“I keep asking for one in gold,” Lorenz adds.

[Base Image: Flickr user Dilia Oviedo]

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2 Comments

  • petabush

    I pleased Samsung are exploring the meaning of 'wearable' but I do not agree that 'pretty colours' go a long way in achieving this. There is so much more that could be explored than simply 'blinging' it up, by having one in gold! I have seen this tired approach too many times in wearable computing & wearable health devices. My PhD research is looking at other ways of innovating such wearable objects and takes an art jewellery approach that bridges with tech materiality & function. I would have expected Samsung to be far more open to other possibilities than they are coming up with here. It's time for 'Concept Devices' that pose questions & answer others no-one knew needed answering. So far wearables are lacking the magic, desirability & style - all qualities I want to see & feel with wearable artefacts.

  • Cultobjects

    >Suddenly, a haughty British voice informed us that Sony SmartWatch 2
    >was “designed to impress" as well as “discrete and professional.”

    The accent is more Irish than British and definitely not "haughty".