In a world of smartwatches and colour-changing clothes, technology and fashion are closer than ever. So why is it so hard to get wearable tech right?
It's 2015. We're living in the future.
On the way out the door, you step into your shoes and they lace up on your command. It's going to be a hot one, so your shirt automatically adjusts for maximum sweat capture and drainage, while your pants fade to a lighter colour in order to reflect sunlight and keep you cool. Down on the street, some kids are blasting music out of their hats. You get an alert that your Facebook "friend" Jeremy – the one who posts constantly about conspiracy theories – is heading in your direction, impact time t-minus 30 seconds. You hear a subtle chime from your wrist: "Anxiety levels have increased." Not wanting to get into a conversation, you surreptitiously twist your ring in order to turn your digital profile to private, effectively making yourself invisible. A short hand gesture to your Google Glasses to call yourself an Uber, and you're out of there.
Well. Not exactly.
While everything around us is becoming increasingly connected and computerised – I mean, Internet-connected fridges are a thing – fashion is, for the most part, resisting that change. We love our tech, but most of us don't want to wear it on our bodies.
But it's not for lack of trying. There's plenty of wearable technology out there, but the majority of it just hasn’t caught on. The most notable failure was that of Google Glass a couple of years ago. Why didn't it work? Well, one of the major problems was that Google Glass was simply not cool. While there was a lot to be learned from the mistakes of Google Glass, many wearable technologies still acknowledge their own unfashionableness, with Silicon Valley hosting its first ever "Fashion Week?" – yes, that question mark was a part of the title – last year. It was all LED jackets, vests that play music and light-up bodysuits, and unsurprisingly it didn't revolutionise fashion as we know it.
But it did get me thinking: Is there any wearable tech out there that has the potential to break into the fashion world and properly integrate with our wardrobes? Let's have a look at both past and current examples of wearable technology, and explore why they may not have become a part of the fashion world just yet.
Stress accessories and fat belts
First, there’s Moodmetric, which is essentially a glorified $300 mood ring. One could argue that it’s more scientific than that, as it uses the galvanic skin response to– no, it’s a mood ring. Or that the autonomic skin response relays your emotional state back to an app where– no, it’s still definitely a mood ring.
And much like a mood ring, this device attempts to turn a physiological trait – in this case, electrodermal activity – into something meaningful about complex moods and emotional states.
On the theme of helping you relax, Melomind is a piece of wearable tech that claims to lower your stress and clear your mind. And you achieve this by strapping on a rigid, $400 headset and sending electrical signals from your brain to your phone, which then plays you some relaxing music. Or just, you know, cut out the middleman and play yourself some relaxing music – minus the dorky plastic helmet.
Then there’s Thync, which works in a similar way to Melomind, except it also sends signals or “vibes” literally back into your brain to change how you feel. Even as someone who readily embraces technology and one day aspires to be a cyborg, this is terrifying. Unless it’s part of a medical study, I am not comfortable wearing a device that has the potential to mess with my brainwaves, no thank you.
Further down the body, Belty is a computerised belt that measures your waist all day long, features a built-in pedometer and literally buzzes your stomach if you’re sitting on your backside for too long. The one feature I like is that it automatically readjusts itself to be comfortable if you’ve had a big meal – but other than that, I am fairly certain that this wearable tech is 100% awful. If you’re struggling with your weight, the last thing you want is a constant update on exactly how many inches you gained on your waist after eating breakfast. It also happens to be incredibly ugly.
Jewellery that keeps you safe, or tells you when you’re ovulating
Cuff is a series of pleasant-looking bracelets and necklaces that aim to “keep you safe”. If you feel like you’re in danger, discreetly press your necklace to send out emergency alert messages to the people you trust, who also need to have the app installed on their phones.
Siren features a similar idea, but instead it comes in the form of a ring that you twist to activate a piercing alarm in order to deter potential attackers.
Despite the glaringly obvious problem with feminised personal protection devices, the designs are actually pretty nice, discreet, and you can’t tell from just looking at it that it’s a piece of wearable tech. All in all, these wearable technologies have the potential to become popular.
And then there’s Leaf, which does it all. Not only does it monitor stress levels, it also works as a fitness tracker, and tells you when you’re ovulating and when your period is due. It even tracks and monitors your sleep. With all the data it collects, it then tells you how to live your life to get the most out of each day, and feel as good as possible. This is all under the guise of “wellness”, another big theme in wearable technologies.
Fitness trackers and smartwatches
Now this is one that you’ve probably seen, or even own for yourself! Essentially, fitness trackers like FitBit are step counters that you wear on your wrist. Many also correlate activity and even heart rate to calories burnt throughout the day. They can also set you back hundreds of dollars (although the cheaper ones can be bought for around $50). They've increased in popularity as the "sports luxe" fashion trend has become increasingly popular on the high street.
But that is essentially what they are: A luxury status symbol, connected to a fashion trend. My prediction is that their popularity will pass when the fitness fad and its associated fashion fades.
Thanks to the launch of Apple Watch earlier this year, "smartwatch" is a common term nowadays. But it’s not just Apple driving this market – Pebble, Samsung and Sony are in there too. Smartwatches are (supposedly) all about creating convenience. The main appeal to smartwatches seems to be that you don’t have to use your phone as often when you’re wearing them – they can send you important notifications, give you directions and tell you the time, all without having to get your phone out of your pocket.
But while these devices were designed to give you some time back in your life, many consumers, including myself, remain skeptical. How exactly do you solve our addiction to technology by adding in yet another piece of technology? And also... what exactly is the point of them?
While Apple definitely learnt some lessons from the mistakes of Google Glass, and created a wearable with a simple, elegant design, I am still yet to be convinced that there’s a good reason to own a smartwatch when the phone in my pocket still seems pretty convenient to me.
Clothes that can change colour on command
Now this is some wearable tech I am excited about. Turn up to a party wearing exactly the same thing as someone else? Don’t have a pair of shoes that match your dress? Not a problem. Smart fabrics and conductive inks move wearable tech away from kitschy light-up clothing and into a realm of practicality. It allows both fashion designers and their consumers to work with clothing whose colours and patterns can be changed at will.
For example: the iShuu is a pair of high heels whose colours and patterns can be altered through an app. Shift Sneaker is another exciting wearable, albeit currently only a concept. These sneakers allow you to take a picture of your outfit, and have your shoes automatically change colour to match what you’re wearing, which is way too cool. Or, you can purchase a whole bunch of different packs like “pastel” or “vibrant”, even “comic book” designs, to customise your shoes with. You can even make your shoes light up for safety if you’re riding your bike at night.
I believe that wearables like these have the potential to work purely because, while they give you all the benefits of wearing a computerised item, they don’t look like technology.
So what works with wearables?
So, from what we’ve seen, what does a wearable technology need to do in order to be something that people actually want to wear on their bodies?
If you want to give your wearable tech a shot at being successful:
- It can’t look like tech, or at the very least it shouldn’t stand out. Although this seems like a contradiction – it is tech! – it's also the main reason for wearable technologies being barred from the fashion world. The item in question needs to start with a pleasing, successful design first, then have the technology built around it.
- The person should be able to forget that they’re wearing technology. Again, this sounds like a bit of a contradiction – but even the Apple Watch was designed with the aim of distancing its wearers from their phones.
- It can’t require a connection to 50 different apps to work. Even requiring it to connect to one app might be too much. The wearable should be as hands-free as possible, and you should be able to perform the majority of functions without needing connection to an app every time you use it. I think that this is one reason why the Apple Watch and other smart watches are seeing some success.
- Make it customisable. People like personalisation.
- There needs to be a reason for the technology to exist. It seems obvious, but I’ve come across too many examples where this doesn’t seem to be the case. The wearable needs to have some kind of practical function that people aren’t already able to achieve on their smartphones.
Overall, it seems that technology will only be able to fuse with fashion when the technology part fades into the background – when not only the people around us don’t realise that we are wearing technology, but we ourselves forget that we are wearing it as well.
Wearable tech that doesn’t look or feel like you’re wearing wearable tech. That’s the way of the future.