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Wearable Tech Is Getting There. Next Challenge: Actually Look Good

Can high tech be high fashion? These wearables argue in the affirmative.

Wearable Tech Is Getting There. Next Challenge: Actually Look Good
[Sreenshot: via MeU]

If we’re being accurate about it, “wearable technology” isn’t new. Pocket watches, wristwatches, winter coats, and pieces of ready-to-wear fashion are also examples of wearable technology. Acknowledging this takes a bit of the luster off of wearables like the Apple Watch, which are, let’s face it, essentially tiny smartphones strapped to a wrist.

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But it also raises a crucial question: How will people decide that there’s room on their bodies for a new breed of wearable technologies?

Like the Nike+ FuelBand, many of the products–typically wristbands, but more recently shirts and fashion accessories–organize various types of health data like heart rate, daily footsteps, calories burned, and so on. Predictably, this type of wearable most often finds its way onto the bodies of athletes and fitness fanatics.

But the market for wearables is growing, fast. According to projections by Gartner, some 91 million units of wearables will be shipped in 2016, including an expected 26 million “smart garments” and 19 million “smart wristbands.” By then, a technology that’s now mostly for fitness buffs and quantified-self geeks could be all over you.

To make wearables really take off, wearable tech will need to invade the worlds of ready-to-wear, haute couture, and street fashion. And we’re getting closer.

Ballboy wears biometric Ralph Lauren shirt with OMSignal sensor.Photo: lev radin via Shutterstock

A survey of the wearables world reveals high-tech fashion and accessories that do everything from bringing smartphone app notifications and personal security-enabled rings to immersive 3-D eyewear that produce projection-mapped visuals and LED clothes that display useful urban information for those in proximity to wearers. Other wearable fashion seeks to promote intimacy with products like mood sweaters, or create craft cocktails based on human temperament.

Big questions remain: Will consumers care about these wearable technologies, what kind of functionalities will they want, and what new, yet-unimagined services will be developed from their data? And then, of course, there is the matter of user privacy–a concern that designers of wristwatches certainly never had to worry about.

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Perhaps the best indication of the push toward attractive wearables was Diane Von Furstenberg’s attempt to integrate Glass into her company’s Made for Glass eyewear, which allows users to do things like get weather updates and answer calls. The effort, made with Google lead designer Isabelle Olsson, was an admirable one, but given Glass’s bulky Borg-like design, it wasn’t seamless.

Still, Google isn’t just collaborating with von Furstenberg. Besides working with designers like Amanda Parkes on future wearables, they’re also pursuing Glass partnerships with Ray-Ban, Oakley, and Italian eyewear designer Luxottica, which could yield a variety of Glass products that are more stylish and less bulky. (Not insignificant for fashion mavens: In October, the musician F.K.A. Twigs did an ad for Google in which she wears and shoots video with Glass; but even here, the gadget tends to distract, not add.)

Contextual Design

The Montreal-based company OMsignal, which designs and markets wearable tech, is hoping to make wearables far less obvious to the eye. The company is currently in the midst of moving from their bread and butter, athletic wearable tech, to the worlds of couture and ready-to-wear fashion.

The company’s chief medical officer, Jesse Slade Shantz, told Co.Labs that the trick in pulling it off all comes down to a contextual design approach.

“Our [athletic] shirts have to be really tight to get a good signal, so it’s like a very technical, high-quality compression shirt that not everyone wants to wear,” Shantz said. “It’s good for an undershirt but will you wear it on the outside? Maybe. Which is why we’re working with fashion brands to try to bring our technology to fashion that is branded and not just a technical garment.”

For this year’s U.S. Open OMSignal partnered with Ralph Lauren for a smart T-shirt. Ball boys wore OMSignal-Ralph Lauren smart T-shirts, while the two companies sponsored a training session that featured young tennis professional Marcos Giron in OMSignal-Ralph Lauren gear. All of this, Shantz said, was to demonstrate that wearable technology can be created and worn in a frictionless way. And Ralph Lauren has plans to introduce its Polo Tech into its more casual line of shirts.

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Since OMsignal specializes in health and fitness data, collaborations with fashion designers would likely feature apps that use this data. While Shantz couldn’t give specifics, he said that several fashion companies have approached OMsignal about incorporating wearable tech into their lines. They’re interested in the technology, but not necessarily sure of how to deploy it.

“People are really free with talking about their ideas, figuring them out, and getting help developing them, then getting down to the business of doing it,” Shantz said. “It’s such a new market that it’s hard to know where the interest is going to come from, but it can come from anywhere. I get asked by so many industries about it; even the mining industry and insurance companies have expressed interest in it.”

Urban Informatics

The startup MeU, founded by Robert Tu, is also making a play for high-tech fashion. Using flexible LED panels, smartphone Bluetooth control, and open-source Arduino technology, MeU aims to give people the power to communicate not only their sense of fashion, but useful, everyday information.

As the company’s website notes, the LED panels are able to display “striking visual message[s]” on a person’s body, but also inform those around them about weather, breaking news, and the user’s mood. Their goal is to allow users to change their fashion as quickly as they can send tweets.

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This is part of MeU’s goal of popularizing urban informatics, public information about local urban environments that can be shared with people who may not have immediate access to such information.

“Transit apps are very popular with smartphone users, which inform them of when the next public transit vehicle will arrive,” reads the MeU website. “People without smartphones do not have immediate access to this information. By displaying this information on the body, it enables surrounding passengers to make better decisions regarding transit; should they wait for the next vehicle, walk, or take another form of transportation to their destination?”

MeU believes the idea of sharing this and other types of urban information on bodies will enable the “everyday citizen to participate in improving the public transit experience without having to wait for government investment or intervention.”

But would fashion designers be willing to incorporate flexible LED panels with informatics into couture and ready-to-wear clothing? It’s hard to say, since there’s a fine line between sharing useful information and transforming one’s self into a walking electronic billboard. However, designers might be interested in the cyberpunkish idea of conveying more personalized visual messages in their products.

Big Fashion x Big Data

First, the tech will have to be a bit smaller and less frictionless so that it can be integrated into shirts or coats without being cumbersome or annoying. Software is moving in that direction: Shantz said that context-aware computing will eventually be able to know what our bodies are doing, then tell us how we’re responding to a given situation.

“A person driving a car, for instance, could be frustrated because they’re lost,” Shantz said. “If they have on wearable tech synced with the car’s computer, the car could respond by dimming interior lights, dropping stereo volume, or suggesting the driver pull over.”

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Kate Drane, in her position as head of Design, Tech, & Hardware at Indiegogo, naturally sees a lot of wearable technology projects. Some inspire, others don’t. Fitness trackers like Misfit Wearables’ Misfit Shine and the Atlas activity tracker have impressed, as has the futuristic Skully motorcycle helmet, a smart helmet that gives users critical information in their line of sight.

Drane said crazier wearable tech projects pop up like the Atheer One, immersive 3-D glasses that would essentially projection map virtual visuals onto everyday reality. A quick look at Atheer One’s Indiegogo video reveals a type of wearable that could open up new possibilities in exercise, education, entertainment, and, of course, consumerism. If Atheer Labs could blend this technology with, say, Diane von Furstenberg-type fashionable eyewear, or something like a Ray-Ban design, it would probably sell. As Google’s missteps with Glass’s form factor prove, users don’t just want information displayed in a new way, they want to look good while doing it.

But, it’s not all about looking cool.

“While there’s definitely a cool factor to wearing a computer—the dreams of ’50s sci-fi come to life—I think the most interesting thing about wearable tech will be seeing the new services that develop from this, and the kind of access and data we’ll have available to provide those services,” Drane said. “We’re at the point where wearable tech first meets the market, so we see many sides of it–both the needs of the creators and the wants of consumers. It’s a fascinating perspective.”

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“While sports and activity monitoring are clear needs with active and engaged markets, I think the real question is ‘What types of services will wearable computing empower?’” Drane said. “More than where a device is worn, I’m interested in seeing what they’ll be able to do.”

Despite a mounting push for everyday wearable fashion tech from consumers and businesses, which makes such products inevitable, Drane cautions that mass adoption won’t happen immediately.

Misfit Wearables’ Misfit Shine activity tracker.

“We’ll likely need a drop in size and an increase in battery capabilities before technology can shrink to fit in with most users’ fashion preferences,” she said. “[And] any new data [collected] relies on new sensors… I’m excited to see what new companies come up with.”

Misfit Wearables’ data scientist, Rachal Kalmar, sees wearable tech through a slightly different lens. She is interested in how wearable tech will make possible “the ability to do longitudinal data collection from individuals and populations.” This, she believes, will enable “predictive models of behavior, health, and disease, and [enable] our ability to interact with our environment, blurring the lines between our physical and digital worlds.”

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As Kalmar said, Misfit Wearables operates in what is the current “big” smart jewelry trend. This market includes companies like Ringly, which sells precious and semi-precious stones that send cutomized smartphone notifications via light and vibration, and Sense6 Design’s Artemis, which gives wearers instant access to a private security operator that can record audio and send help.

Misfit Wearables recently collaborated with Chromat, a fashion line exploring “structural experiments for the human body,” for New York Fashion Week 2014. Chromat incorporated Misfit Wearables’ Shine–the watch-like fitness and sleep monitor–into their collection of structural pieces, along with head cages, arm guards, and handbags, among other creations.

“We’ve seen both the tech word starting to focus on the fashion element, as well as the fashion world focusing on the tech element,” Kalmar said. “We see examples of what the convergence of these two worlds might look like through artistic representations, such as the work of Kristin Neidlinger on Sensoree, Anouk Wipprecht, and the examples posted by Syuzi Pakhchyan on Fashioning Tech.”

Sensoree’s Mood Sweater

Sensoree’s Mood Sweater looks like something straight out of science fiction. It uses “futuristic fabrics” that glow, promoting “externalized intimacy,” and is made from, according to its website, “sustainable materials impregnated with sensitive technologies.” Neidlinger hopes the Mood Sweater, and other fashion like it, will allow users to explore the “Sensory Computer Interface (SCI)—tools to enhance proximity, intimacy, telepathy, intuition, and humor between human and machine.”

The Dutch “fashiontech” designer Wipprecht wants to bring artificial intelligence to fashion, but also make them artworks in and of themselves. Wipprecht has crafted dozens of these futuristic creations, which include everything from dresses that emit smoke to those that use hardware, medical technology, and “human temperament” to craft freshly made cocktails. The latter calls to mind the hybrid musical instrument-cocktail maker in Boris Vian’s classic surrealist novel Foam of the Daze (L’ecume des Jours); but, you know, wearable instead. Cool as this fashion might be, it’s not exactly envisioned as everyday clothing.

Chromat incorporated Misfit Wearables Shine activity tracker into its New York Fashion Week line.

“[A] lot of this technology will become invisible, closer to things like MC10’s smart tattoo,” said Kalmar. “But, until the technology is there we’re seeing more people focusing on the fashion element.”

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Whatever forms wearable technology takes in this jig between haute technology and haute couture, it’s bound to be of a great variety. Apps will proliferate. And where there is an explosion in wearable apps, there will be an explosion in data–and in the user privacy concerns that come with it.

While wearable tech awaits its killer app and its break into the mainstream, its still-low profile has allowed businesses, consumers, and even government the opportunity to proceed in an open and experimental way.

“Everyday wearable tech fashion would collect everything we’re collecting now–activity, temperature, location, human-human interaction, human-device interaction, et cetera–but in a more wearable form factor,” Kalmar said. “The purpose? That’s like asking the purpose of your smartphone. Eventually this data will be used for everything, from health care to marketing, from interactive storytelling to mainstream entertainment, and beyond.”

First, though, the shrewder designers of wearable devices will need to embrace a more basic feature: comfort and good looks.

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About the author

DJ Pangburn is a writer and editor with bylines at Vice, Motherboard, Creators, Dazed & Confused and The Quietus. He's also a pataphysician, psychogeographer and filmmaker.

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