Where Are We with Wearables?

Written on 2 October 2014

At Tobias & Tobias, some of our staff wear Pebble watches, Fitbit trackers and tinker with kits to create connected devices. Last week, we attended the IxDA MeetUp on wearables and were keen to see how the space is developing.

Wearables are electronic devices that create reports or recommendations based on physical activity, when worn by the user. We listened to several talks by artists and technologists making waves in the art, fashion and tech worlds about how wearables will become as ubiquitous as smartphones.

Melissa Coleman, curator of the exhibition Pretty Smart Textiles, believes that these devices have a connection to the human experience. Technology is now making it’s way into the world through fashion with dresses with circuits, jewellery with indicators of phone calls or handbags made with solar panels to charge devices. Although the technology is still somewhat limited in application, it expresses our identity through the information captured. As demonstrated by Coleman’s exhibition, the worlds of digital and physical art design intersect. The products may be designed to provide a lifestyle benefit, but they are exclusive and expensive. Despite their practical usages, most wearables are still part of the niche market.

Kevin McCullagh, founder of Plan, talked about what wearables need to do to reach mass market adoption. One of the most popular kinds of wearable technology at the moment are activity trackers such as the Nike Fuel band or Fitbit with 1 in 10 people owning one in a survey of 6,223 US adults. That may sound like mass market adoption, but a third of those individuals stopped using the device after six months. Why is that? They don’t know what to do with the information. As is often said of good design, the key is to add something rather than simply collating data that you already know (you did the run, you don’t need a chart to remind you!) Most people are just not interested in keeping track of all of this information even if they thought they were self-quantifiers. Additions as simple as ‘all time records’, smart calculations and projections must be included for the user to stay interested. Tracking activity or acting as a second screen is very much the start, and to find mass market adoption, wearables will have to find genuine usefulness.

Finding a real use case is important in design. Duncan Fitzsimons, director and founder of 17TH Design and Invention, also stressed this fact, “First thinking through the needs and problems rather than technology first”. By applying this kind of thinking 17TH Studio were able to literally reinvent the wheel by making it collapsible. Applications include easier transportation of wheelchairs.

Helping a large subset of the population is another way to find a use case. Google X Lab’s research on smart contact lens could help those with diabetes by detecting glucose. If these contact lenses were made a reality, they could help up to 6% of the UK population.

After finding a use case, the next question would be how should you design wearables? Becky Stewart, founder of Codasign and Anti-Alias Labs, highlighted some tips to consider when approaching design and wearables.

  1. What needs to be captured?
    Is the data captured complex like GPS information or is it binary (on/off)? Why does this data need to be captured?
  2. Who needs to see the data?
    When do they need to see it? Is it targeted at the user or distributed for multiple people to see?
  3. Power Requirements
    How long does it need to last before recharging, 1 day or 1 year? What kind of safety requirements need to be put in place?
  4. In Betweens
    How will it connect to the network? How do you know if it is on and working? 

Overall our consensus from the talk was that wearables are still in their infancy. As both hardware and software improve, we will start to see the lines blurring to connect us to technology in a more natural way. Most wearable technology at the moment is still heavily dependent on the smartphone as a hub to send information.

Developments like implanted technology may take off because they would allow information to be read in a discrete manner. To break away from the smartphones, our surroundings will have to become platforms to transmit data. This network of connected devices is one where we could see nearables and the Internet of Things leading the pack. The wearables space will force designers to look at interaction not only at the screen level but at all levels from social etiquette, location context and input mechanism. This is an exciting time; perhaps in the near future the term ‘wearables’ will no longer be used because the technology will be ingrained as part of our everyday interactions.


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