February 05, 2015

Wearable tech always seems to be on the verge of breaking through. Almost, but not quite. Remember Google Glass? The Virtual Boy? Or something called the Xbernaut Poma? (If you don't, it was a wearable computer from the early 2000s. Here’s the thing in action.)

Wearable technology isn’t mainstream, at least not yet - largely because “there needs to be design-inspired innovation,” explains Ryan Raffaelli of Harvard Business School. “If you go back through history, this is what moves innovation from just the early adopters and the techophiles, to the mainstream. It’s because it becomes accessible.”

In the 70s and 80s, Raffaelli explains, Swiss watch manufacturers were faced with the challenge of introducing quartz digital watches to the public. Japanese companies had already cornered the market because they figured out a way to make the watches cheaply, but the public didn’t find them cool or sexy. Enter Swatch, which, in the 1980s, infused their quartz watches with an aesthetically pleasing, of-the-moment look. (Very of the moment, as this ad, perhaps the most 80s thing ever, demonstrates) It’s that merging of design and technology that Raffaelli hopes to see moving forward. 

In some ways, that synthesis is already happening in this new wave of wearable tech. At the 2014 London Fashion Week, star designer Richard Nicoll debuted a dress that glimmered and twinkled as if its model were Tinkerbell. That was, in fact, the intent. Nicoll and Disney had partnered to create a dress that, through high-powered LEDs and Fiber Optic cables, looked like this:

“Ultimately, fashion is an emotive subject, it’s something you have to feel that desirability for,” says Matthew Drinkwater, one of the brains behind the Tinkerbell dress. He sees projects like this as a way to demonstrate the importance of using technology to enhance fashion, to make pieces beautiful rather than just functional. 

The functional aspect of this techy clothing also can't be overlooked. One of the fastest growing segments of the industry is in the medical field. Google is even building a contact lens that would let diabetics monitor their glucose levels. And biometric data collected in a device like the Fitbit can be used in preventative health care. Doctors could get data on patients' heart rate and sweat levels, information that could be used as warning signs for a myriad of health concerns.

“We are working on projects right now that would be focused on delivering content into clothing. For example, you could walk into a store, an eye-beacon could trigger your clothing, and you could download some exclusive content from that retailer,” explains Drinkwater, who’s also the Head of Fashion Innovation at the London College of Fashion. In the future, a dress or a shirt could shift designs, and you’d be able to purchase the ones you liked most.

Raffaelli adds that for more customers to clamor to get these items off the shelves, the "tech" part of wearable tech needs to be unobtrusive: “When we really know that we’ve got this right is when the technology disappears.”

And as computer chips and sensors becoming more and more advanced, smaller and smaller, and easier and easier to fit into the clothes and jewelry we wear, that day comes ever closer.

technology, fashion, Culture, Matthew Drinkwater, Ryan Raffaelli

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