Style Meets Technology in the World of Wearables

By Jeff LeBlanc

“You always wear such nice suits.” General Ross to Tony Stark (“The Incredible Hulk”, 2008)

People often talk about thinking “outside the box” but one of the things I find most exciting in modern technology is being able to design “off the glass” — meaning a piece of technology that isn’t bound to a glass screen with a perimeter of plastic. Thanks to Moore’s Law and cheap computing power, we can embed technology into items worn on the wrist to monitor your health, or shoes that count your steps, or rings that can store data. Or, if you’re me, 3D-printed armor with micro-processor controlled servos to open your visor.

Welcome to the world of wearable computing.

Where Did This Crazy Idea Originate?

The idea of having technology that can be worn as an item of clothing is by no means new. The concept goes all the way back to the 1500s when clocks were cutting-edge technology and the ability to wear one on the wrist was so novel that only the Queen of England could pull it off.  

Fast forward to the 1980s, when Steve Mann, a MIT grad and professor at the University of Toronto widely regarded as the Father of Wearable Computing, began experimenting with backpack-mounted computers. With the perpetual advancement of computing power, coupled with near-ubiquitous access to cloud-based data processing, today we now have rings that can track health and watches that can do video teleconferencing. (Check out some wearables start-ups to keep an eye on.)

The goal of wearable computing is to position or contextualize the computer in such a way that the human and computer are inextricably intertwined. — Steve Mann

As designers, this is a very exciting time. We’re going beyond the flat glass, looking at the physical nature of object and deciding how to enhance existing affordances with digital intelligence. Mark Weiser, who coined the term ubiquitous computing, was talking about creating the “invisible interface” to computers way back in 1994. Now that’s become reality as objects and clothing we’re already familiar with become that interface.

In his book Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design, Mike Kuniavsky introduced the concept of treating information as a material with properties that we can design with. Just as traditional materials like steel and plastic have properties such as strength and elasticity, Kuniavsky proposes that information can be thought of as having properties such as capability, possibility and constraint that can influence how we design with it.  

We can think about how physical phenomena can be translated into information with sensors, how information can be stored to maintain state, and how it can be translated back into the physical world by a vast number of actuator devices. For example, consider a pair of smart gloves that can read the ambient air temperature and activate internal heaters when temperature gets lower than a value previously set by the wearer.

A New Challenge for Designers

Our challenge as designers comes in thinking about information, or information processing, as a material property of what we are creating and incorporate it into whatever we are creating in a way that improves the experience. Information as a material opens up infinite design possibilities, letting us enable new behaviors in previously inert objects.  

In my example above, the purpose of gloves is to keep hands warm and dry so the addition of  information processing makes that more effective. Companies from start-ups to Global players are adding information processing in a spectrum of new products. Google and Levi’s teamed up to make Jacquard, a smart jacket for bike commuters, which incorporates conductive threading, literally a material to incorporate information. The left sleeve becomes a touchable surface for interacting with commuter-based services on the wearer’s cell phone, letting a rider skip tracks or check time to destination without taking eyes off the road.

Contrast that to the attempts by appliance manufacturers to create a “smart refrigerator” by basically bolting a screen on the door and adding wifi. These and similar products have failed year after year because those devices didn’t improve the main purpose of the fridge: keep food fresh.

Rather, smart-fridge designers took a “two great tastes that taste great together” approach, and it didn’t work. If manufacturers are going to go to the effort of adding information processing to a fridge, it should deliver value. I’d want the fridge to tell me when I’m out of milk or the lettuce is going bad, and then add the items to the shopping list on my phone.

Some manufacturers understand this need and are coming up with new products to address it. For instance, there’s a smart egg tray that can signal when you’re low on eggs. Problem is, reviews are mixed. That means there is still a lot of work to be done in this space.

Learning to Design for Wearables

Wearable computers are but a small slice of the transformational technological wave collectively referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT). A while ago I mused about how the IoT has been helping people better monitor and maintain a healthy lifestyle. The Fitbit is perhaps the best-known wearable device for tracking exercise and sleeping patterns. While Fitbit was early to market, these days the shelves are crowded. There are smart watches, rings, necklaces, jackets and even shoes, to name but a few, that all integrate with cloud-based systems and help us make better decisions about our diet and exercise levels.

In fact, the global market for wearable medical and health-related devices is expected to reach nearly $19.5 billion in 2021, according to Report Linker. One reason for this growth: 80% of consumers say wearable technology has huge potential for making healthcare convenient (source: Appinventiv). 

Learning how to design for wearables will an exciting challenge for user experience practitioners. We will need to consider use cases that span both the digital and physical worlds, and figure out how best to meld the two. Information is our new material to build with, as pliable as clay in the hands of talented designers and developers.

Look for more on wearable tech in upcoming blogs. Read more about UX design for technology here.