What we wear is part of who we are.
One of our 10 Trends for 2013 is Intelligent Objects: the idea that everyday objects are evolving into tech-infused smart devices with augmented functionality. As more ordinary items become interactive, intelligent objects, our interactions with them will get more interesting, enjoyable and useful. While researching our trend in November, we spoke to Jennifer Darmour, design director of user experience at technology product design company Artefact and expert in wearable technology (which she covers on her blog, electricfoxy.com). Darmour lives in Seattle, where she is designing on-body and technology products for brands including Xbox, Microsoft Surface, Windows Mobile, HTC, Blackberry, Google, Lenovo, Panasonic, Sonos and American Eagle. She talked to us about the advantages of tech-infused apparel and some of the opportunities for brands and marketers looking to expand their product lines.
What are some of the key factors you see driving the advent of wearable tech into the mainstream right now?
There are a few areas that are happening simultaneously that are making wearable technology more interesting to both consumers and brands. Bio-sensing technology is becoming smaller and cheaper; it’s easier to integrate into smaller devices that are more wearable. And as technology gets smaller and more performant, it’s easier to start pushing for more wearable technology, as opposed to things you carry with you. And once you start thinking about technology you wear, you start to think about the expressiveness of that object, because what we wear is part of who we are.
I think also consumers are becoming more used to carrying around technology and therefore expecting more. We’re already walking around with the most ubiquitous “wearable” technology device, which is our cell phone. So people are becoming used to the idea of always being connected, always having access to data, having instant feedback, etc. And they understand ecosystems and frameworks, and they’re longing for better experiences that are less bulky or disruptive, and more integrated into their lifestyle. People start to think that taking out the cell phone and launching an app to do something is too much work. So the more educated the consumers are, the more opportunities there are to introduce new types of experiences.
Another area is manufacturing. Manufacturing techniques are continuously evolving, and there are a lot of different areas where manufacturers are looking at how they can integrate technology into everyday objects. As part of that, the entire field of material science is generating a lot of interesting solutions, like flexible batteries that can revolutionize the way we wear computing.
The term “wearable technology” seems very broad, encompassing all kinds of devices, from smartphones to pedometers. What are some of the most innovative examples of wearable tech you’ve encountered?
It’s all innovative right now, because it’s very new. But I think you’re absolutely right—the term is extremely broad. For example, you have the consumer electronics field; they’re looking at how can we miniaturize hardware solutions. Then the fashion industry is kind of independently exploring wearable technology too. One of the foundational fashion designers is Hussein Chalayan, who has created all of these really beautiful technology-embedded runway couture pieces. But they’re not usable in the mainstream and they’re not really solving any real need or problems. It’s more of an artistic expression of how technology can be embedded into clothing.
There’s a lot of work being done in the entertainment domain, where celebrities and the Blue Man Group and stage performers are integrating technology into their costumes and their stage gear. Anouk Wipprecht has been working with a lot of celebrities and musicians in incorporating some great technology into some of the costumes. It’s a lot of garments that light up and shift form and do things like that that creates a more entertaining environment.
What kind of functional value can wearable tech provide?
The sports category is the first industry that is starting to integrate technology in a way that’s adding more value to the mainstream consumer. You take Nike, for instance, which was one of the first in 2005 with the Nike+ and now they have the FuelBand. They’re really taking technology and innovating within that space and trying to add the fashionable aspect to it.
When you’re looking at the lay of the land, wearable technology is still very new, and it’s very disparate. You have these different industries that are trying to figure it out independently and not necessarily playing well together. You’re seeing a lot of light-up clothing that doesn’t necessarily add a lot of value to consumers. They’re more novelties. But then you are starting to see some specialized domains, like medical, that can really help people improve their lives.
Another area that can be broadly applied is the “quantified self” movement. People are more self-aware, and they want to have a better understanding of themselves. The quantified self movement is focused mainly on biometrics and figuring out ways for people to understand things like your heart rate, your movement. But I think it can be expanded further—things like understanding the environment you’re in and how you move through the environment, and how that can impact your experiences with both the environment and people. Then you can apply this to areas like the workplace and then, what if architects were to rethink the workplace design based on the biometric data of teams?
One example of trying to push the envelope with that is what Google is doing with Google Glass. They’re creating this product that really has the potential to change the game and provide this new interaction paradigm that once you use this, you could have a completely different experience with other people and in your environment. It could bring you, if they designed it correctly, it could bring a better understanding of who you are, your own biometrics, your environment and your relationships with other people. They’re not there yet; no one really is there yet.
One of the benefits is this idea of being discreet. We have our phones, which are actually—some of them are getting smaller, but some are actually getting bigger. The phone is becoming more of this consumption device, where you have the optimized screen. Wearable technology has the potential to take some of the moments you would have with the technology you would access on your phone. For example, checking into Foursquare—rather than taking out your [phone], which is bulky, launching the app and checking in, why not wear something that you can easily wave your hand or tap it very discreetly to check in to Foursquare? I think one of the benefits is to have more of these personal discreet moments with your technology and content.
Also, lifestyle integration: Consumers want things that look good and feel good and make them feel good. And when you’re wearing technology, you want it to look good and be cool and be comfortable. Once we start wearing it, one of the benefits is to integrate it into more of our lifestyle and into more lifestyle objects and objects that are more fashionable.
There are also a lot of brand opportunities for wearable technology.
For brands, it seems like there are opportunities not only to provide consumers with data about themselves but to get the consumer to share their data—it’s sort of a feedback loop.
Exactly. A really good example of that is in the insurance industry. Imagine if you had some device where the consumer is opting in to provide data on health care or even in driving. So if you could opt in, would there be a way to change your health care benefit based on good behavior or understand driving patterns or when your heart rate is raised in certain areas of the city or something like that? Could it benefit or could it impact the services and products that companies offer?
While brands might benefit from embedding sensors in more places, do you think consumers will feel anxious about being tracked?
Absolutely. We as wearable technology designers will need to find that threshold, we’ll need to find that sweet spot, because consumers are becoming more savvy, and they are going to be more concerned. Even looking at what used to be trusted brands such as Facebook, people were using Facebook and posting all sorts of pretty secure and private information. Now there’s a huge question around, What is Facebook really doing with all that data and how can I trust them with my data?
That’s going to be an ongoing challenge where, as we’re creating these new experiences, one, we need to make sure that the brand and the experience is trustworthy. Two, always ask for opt-in to help establish that trust.
There’s also this idea of, If I’m wearing this device, I don’t want to look like a geek. So it has to come down to being fashionable, it’s got to look good. It’s got to fit my lifestyle; it has to make me appear as if I’m within a certain lifestyle. So there are a ton of novelty-type products and products on the market today that solve a real problem, but they are just not good-looking.
Price also has a huge impact. Technology is getting smaller and cheaper, but because there are so many variables that are unknown when you’re going through the design and development—such as having to come up with new tooling processes, which can add to expense—some of the products are still quite expensive, so that can deter consumers.
What recommendations do you have for brands looking to get into wearable tech?
You really need to have a designer who understands the language and impact of fashion design—which is a whole design discipline—industrial design, which is a whole discipline, electrical engineering, which is a completely different field, and then experience design. So it’s a pretty rare trait right now, and some designers are starting to come together and explore what it means to pull those disciplines together and create these new types of experiences.
It really comes down to four areas, and that’s this person or central experience designer being able to pull together an experience that is contextual—so, really understanding the context of the user, what they need, what their problems are that they want solved. How to make it discreet? How can you take the technology and integrate it into the objects you already wear or make it small enough that it’s not a bunch of bulky stuff you have to strap onto your body? Making it connected: We don’t want to create a bunch of dumb objects or LED light-up clothes that that’s all it does. We want to create something that can be connected to software services and add more value. And then the last is somebody who can really make that fashionable and bring in the lifestyle aspects and make it just look good.
What do you think about the potential for something like Google Glass?
I think they’ve got a ways to go. There’s a huge opportunity there, and I’d hate to see it missed. There’s an opportunity to change our interaction paradigm. For example, it looks like they’re adding graphical user elements to some of the display UI, which does things like obscure your view when you’re trying to walk downstairs and things like that. There’s an opportunity for them to use the periphery around our natural cone of vision—i.e., move the UI to the sides and also use haptic feedback or sound rather than just graphical elements to provide feedback.
But I think a form factor like that—I don’t know whether it’s going to be Google Glass or not—has the potential to change how we interact with our data and with each other and with our environment. What I mean by that is, if you have glasses against your skin, you have the ability to detect biometric data. You’d be able to understand what’s going on with yourself when you’re moving through the world. Then there’s also a display, so you have the ability to overlay information in the world and also to consume information, and to be notified of things. And then through wearing it, it’s also mobile, so it has the ability to react to your environment and where you’re at or even who you’re talking to.
There’s a video out there called Sight. It’s a vision piece done around the notion of heads-up display. It’s very visionary. They’re using contact lenses that are connected. It’s an interesting vision of how this type of technology can change the way we interact with our environment and people. I personally find it quite scary in terms of some of the scenarios they were showing with how we can interact with people. There was a scene where there’s a man and a woman on a date; the man was wearing the contact lenses and getting all sorts of personal information about his date, and she was unaware. At that moment where you’re hiding that from somebody else and the other person doesn’t know you’re using this system, that’s where it breaks down for me and becomes something that could cause distrust.
Looking to the future, what do you imagine will be next for wearable tech?
Right now we have the chance to define what the best wearable technology experience could be. If it’s defined well and we make good, useful, delightful products, then I think in the next five years we’ll be seeing a lot of wearable technology solutions, and it’ll stick; it won’t be a fad. But we’re at a pivotal point right now where we really have the chance to push this technology to enhance our human experience and not become another object for distraction, disruption and disengagement.