Google Glass Project, Adidas' miCoach, CuteCircuit’s tshirtOS: 2012 has seen wearable echnology move from chunky and clunky design akin to what the booby-trap-loving kid in The Goonies might wear, to something infinitely more sleek and sophisticated. Jen Faull looks at how smartphones, social media and nanotechnology are being used to seamlessly incorporate the gadgets we love with our everyday clothes.
Wearable technology is here to stay and is evolving at an impressive rate, but how far can it go? To find out where this emerging market is heading, we spoke to three of its big players: Sonny Vu, who last year co-founded wearable tech company Misfit Wearables with ex-Apple CEO John Sculley; Dr Sabine Seymour CEO at Moondial, a company consulting with global clients, including Apple, on fashionable and wearable technology; and Victor Knaap, CEO at Media Monks, the digital production company behind the app for the high profile tShirtOS.
So what’s going on at the moment in the wearable technology sector that’s changing the game? “Mainstream attention,” says Vu. “Consumers are spending $100 on pedometers, hundreds of apps are being built to connect to wearable devices, venture capitalists are investing millions in dozens of start-ups in the wearable space all within the last couple years. This wasn't the case even just five years ago. It's becoming not ‘weird’ to wear technology any more, though I get the sense that users are definitely demanding better products in this category.”
Vu heads a small team at Misfit Wearables working to develop wearable technology for the health and fitness industry. “I left AgaMatrix last year in order to pursue an insight I had from the last product I did when I was there, a device that enables people to test their blood sugar on their iPhone. So the realisation was that if we can make technology disappear into people's lives, reduce the number of things they have to carry around, the better off users are. That's why we dove head first into the world of wearable technology. In doing so, one of the first things we realised was that this product category has a bit of misnomer - many of the products are not very wearable either because their bulky or because they're not made to be something that you'd naturally want to wear. So we've been obsessively focused on making wearables more wearable.”
Victor Knaap from Media Monks agrees that right now “we're currently at the clunky, early beginnings of the industry”. Media Monks' recent work on tshirtOS from CuteCircuit is, however, a prime example of how smartphone and nanotechnology is currently being successfully incorporated to make something which is wearable (and, surprisingly, machine washable.) The tshirtOS looks like a simple grey cotton t-shirt but 1,024 LEDs make up a grid, allowing you to share Facebook and Twitter updates via an app on your mobile phone.
MediaMonks was behind the creative digital production for this product. Knaap explains: “This was a revolutionary project for everyone involved which means that the process of each application always started with a “wouldn't it be cool if…", which then turned in to the process of making it possible. If the stars align and the tech becomes cheap enough to mass produce I can't see why all of us wouldn’t want one.”
Cost effectiveness is one on-going problem in the wearable technology sector, but the greatest challenge remains in developing the systems which allow for seamless connectivity. Looking towards the future, Vu says that: “The smartphone will be an integral part of wearables for some time because they enable connectivity, not to mention rich user experiences that just aren't possible in a wearable context.” However, Vu goes on to say that at the moment “standalone wearable devices that have their own internet connectivity built in simply don't have the battery life (6-24 months) that you need to have a great wearable product. You don't have to charge your shirt now so making consumers do that now doesn't seem like a good idea - technology is supposed to serve us not the other way around. I think advances in nanotechnology will enable new classes of wearable products that we couldn't even imagine before. Many of the limitations inherent in wearable technology now are materials related.”
The limitation of materials is something that Sabine Seymour at Moondial has been working on for the past decade. As the company’s CEO she researches and experiments with materials at a lab dedicated to fashionable and wearable technology. “What we’re seeing in the media right now is basically what we’ve been doing over the last 10 to 15 years. It’s really just using a microprocessor, or any type of processor; but it’s still not integrated in the fibre or becoming a second skin per se. It’s just an attachment.
“We’re working on integrating the technology into the actual fibre or material which will then become a second skin, so it is a different approach.”
Speaking on the integration of smartphones with wearable textiles, Seymour states: “I personally believe that phones, the way we have them right now, are going to be dissolved into other means and other potential products that we carry with us at all times anyway.
“Clients are now looking at the second skin, garment and accessory, and asking what type of functionality can that have to send information from the body and then transfer that information to the environment, or vice versa. The things that we are currently working on? That we can’t reveal!”
In the near to medium future Vu sees wearable products breaking out of the niches where they've traditionally been (military, safety, medical, pro athletics, etc.) and into more mainstream, consumer markets, such as health, entertainment, and media.
He explains: “Products will become more wearable, more affordable, and connected to services that users will really want. Just like ‘search engine optimisation (SEO)’ or ‘mobile advertising.’ If you go back just 10 years and talked about SEO and mobile ads, people would have no idea what you're talking about much less think these would become entire industries; they might just be dismissed as hair-brain start-up ideas.”
Knaap believes the future of wearables lies in data collection, which will add layers of insight: “I think there are some amazing creative opportunities for self-expression and we've really only started to scratch the surface. When people talk about the ‘internet of things’ it's surprising how little wearable technology comes up. Fingers crossed that we'll see some things next year to make people sit-up and take notice.”