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Geek to glamour: Can wearable tech actually be fashionable?

Despite an influx of wearable tech products entering the market this year, embedded tech in clothing and shoes is suffering from a lack of imagination, says Nathan Moody, design director at Stimulant.

Style and fashion communicate something about our aesthetics and values to others. There’s no reason a personal fitness device can’t be Baroque, gothic, or mid-century modern. But more importantly, the industry needs to escape from the current fitness band market to create a true wearable technology market, which fits better into the functionality consumers want, the aesthetics they desire, and nature of our rapidly-changing society.

It’s not that fitness bands and smartwatches don’t have their place, or aren’t in demand. A recent consumer report from Forrester states that wrist-bound devices proved to be the most anticipated wearable products for consumers, with 42 per cent of US and 36 per cent of EU shoppers saying they would opt for a smartwatch or fitness tracker.

However, wearables need to move beyond simply reporting fitness analytics to become more widely adopted by consumers and match the media hype. We need accessories that can produce a different kind of telemetry, and systems that can consume that data and do something meaningful with it.

What if your bracelet hummed when your significant other gets home from work, or sends you a loving message? Would you be brave enough to wear jewelry that reported your emotional state, either online or in person? Would you be willing to be paid to have your location tracked by a public transit agency or private company? When does transparency end and transgression begin? Wearables bring with them a lot of social conventions that may be up-ended, re-contextualized, or challenged…just as fashion has done for centuries.

Conversely, in an era of instant facial recognition, GPS tracking, and the like, privacy is a luxury. We wouldn’t be surprised if one of the most sought-after luxury wearable accessories might someday be an active-electronics “blackout” purse that also jammed wireless signals (passive wallets already exist to protect smart-chipped passports). Being unreachable, uninterruptible, and unscannable may become the ultimate luxury experience. Margiela’s masks and the V. Stiviano’s visors touch on this theme.

Regardless of where consumers land on the broadcast to blackout spectrum of wearable offerings, the unsung hero of wearables is really materials science. This has been the underlying discipline that has made consumer electronics so powerful. Extending materials science to wearables, in conjunction with personal digital devices, could up-end entire categories of clothing.

If the texture, rigidity, or color of our clothing and accessories can be programmed to respond to our moods, environments, and contexts, suddenly a luxury purchase can deliver an even wider value to the consumer. Imagine a summer linen jacket can behave more like a windbreaker at the touch of a button. That’s pretty exciting.

A wearable piece of technology doesn’t need a screen to function or provide value. It doesn’t need to be worn like jewelry or a watch. It can be anything. And that’s the current failure of imagination in the wearable technology industry. Wearables need to be, perhaps literally, woven into what we wear, in order to say something about ourselves and our personal take on the society in which we live.

Nathan Moody is design director of San Francisco-based Stimulant, a design firm that uses emerging technologies to transform static physical spaces into dynamic interactive environments.

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Nathan Moody

Nathan Moody is design director of San Francisco-based Stimulant, a design firm that uses emerging technologies to transform static physical spaces into dynamic interactive environments. www.stimulant.com

All by Nathan