The (offbeat) future of wearables


Today’s ‘wearable technologies’ tend to be dominated by smart watches, smart glasses and other sensor-driven companion devices that use telemetry to inform their users of overall health, activity level and their movements over the space of a day, and furnish them with useful information from the cloud.

Popular opinion however is that there’s just too little differentiation in the devices the market is serving up for consumers right now. All you have to do for evidence of this is consider how the vast majority of reports from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this year spoke of ‘wearable fatigue’. It feels like everyone’s got one but nobody’s pushing the envelope.

If researchers, designers and other like-minded individuals hanging out in design facilities and colleges the world over have anything to say about it however, the next three to five years are bound to be different.

And interesting. I’m talking about clothing, prosthetics and fashion accessories all embedded with smart technology.

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As part of the press activities surrounding the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Los Angeles this week, Intel invited journalists to visit  the Art Center College of Design. The tour included a peek at some of the results from a recent ‘lab track’ the College had held, focusing on the possibility of embedding technology into everyday items of clothing and more specifically, the ecologies that surround wearables i.e. how wearable technologies will begin communicating with each other, the things around them and the user over the coming years. And the benefits/challenges that brings.

Participants in the ‘lab track’ were asked to imagine how sensor-driven devices might respond to the context they’re being used in and how by simply being aware of the conditions around them, their (and the user’s) behaviour would change. They were also asked to consider how aesthetics would change in this environment, like for example how a transfer of information between one user and another with a touch of a hand to a shoulder is different to touching a screen.

The results were quite interesting and varied to say the least.

And they paint less of a picture about the actual devices we’re likely to see in the coming years and more a narrative for how the wearables of the future will be used.

High-tech nail art

FutureWearableServices9_oJenny Rodenhouse and Kristina Ortega showed off a concept around wearable services in the form of a pop-up sensor nail salon. According to Ortega, nail art is a big thing the world over and more specifically in her circle of friends. So, she and Rodenhouse explored a new aesthetic in the form of installing sensors onto nails as a service. Some of what this team explored included 3D modelling and printing (from an aesthetic perspective) and experimenting with – amongst other things – nails that either harvest a small amount of energy to drive other sensors, nails that output energy in the form of haptics. What could the ultimate use of this be?

Well, with enough intelligence haptics could be used to guide users’ actions with their hands or to encourage/discourage behaviour, like for example giving the user a small buzz in their fingertip if they picked up a cigarette or a donut while trying to quit smoking or lose weight.

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Digital wind bag

silk_hero_9_oIn an equally off-the-wall concept, Zoe Padget and Gerard Guerrero showed off a suit that inflates with the assistance of a conventional computer fan in different social contexts.

Padget explained how today the quantified self is private and inward. “But what if we could use wearable technology to make it, like a t-shirt that represents the number of times you’ve been touched on the shoulder with an LED that lights up on the lapel?” she asked.

The suit designed by Padget and Guerrero inflates and deflates depending on social context. It could for example be fully inflated when the user has something to say in a conversation (something indicated by you being larger and fuller) and could slowly deflate as the thought is expressed, denoting the delivery of those thoughts or statements.

Another context would see the suit inflating dependent on how much was said by one individual or another, giving a sense for who’s dominating a conversation and not giving other participants a chance to speak. This would be particularly useful, she said, in the context of something such as conflict resolution.

“Could this democratise conflict?” she asked.

“Also how does the fact that a person is reminded of how much or little they’ve said in a situation change their reaction or behaviour in a situation?”

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Heart on your sleeve

Sangli Li explored the concept of clothes as a communications tool, like for example the ability to express the attitude of the wearer without too much regard for current social convention.

The first half of Li’s concept consisted of a set of simple animated sketches that depicted how the wearer’s clothing would change, depending on their mood or some other variable such as their heart rate, blood pressure or the ambient temperature.

If the user was in no mood for physical contact or sought their privacy, their garment could transform to place a barrier between them and the people around them, like rising fabric ‘spikes’ (aggressive), transforming into a birdcage-like barrier (defensive) 0r a more gentle, petal like covering. Similarly, in the context of personal environmental variables, the garment’s colour could change according to the wearer’s blood pressure, shrink (or grow) depending on the whether they were cold or warm, or pulse in time to their heart beat.

To show this in practise, Li built a prototype of a hat that extends a small fan over the user’s eyes when it encounters a bright light and a small fan over the user’s ears when a loud noise is encountered. In reality, these aren’t massively effective in providing any real protection from these external factors, but go a long way towards assisting a user that’s shy or cautious of social convention with expressing their feelings.

Malwearables

1_oThe concept closest to something most users will understand was presented by Marcus Guttenplan and Tim Kim and dealt with the very real possibility of data being stolen or compromised from the wealth of sensors users will in all likelihood be wearing and be surrounded by in the years to come.

It stands to reason that because so much (very personal) data is transferred between wearables and smartphones, and then to the cloud, it’s a veritable gold mine for hackers, data thieves and the like.

“Imagine a subway station with sensors in the doors, fire extinguishers and signs, coupled with all of the sensors users will be wearing on their bodies,” he said.

“It’s an ecology of literally hundreds of devices talking to each other. Criminals won’t be stealing wallets in the future. They’ll be stealing social media logins, credentials and credit card data which they’ll gain access to through hacking the host of devices all over users’ bodies and injecting malware into those devices, smartphones or even the cloud.”

The concept consists of a number of wearables designed expressly to activate the target or mark’s smart devices – like creating motion in the concept of a fitness tracker, light in the context of smart glasses or sound in the case of a voice activated sensor. As these devices are woken up by Guttenplan and Kim’s ‘Malwearables,’ they will begin connecting to the user’s smartphone and onto the cloud. And because these transfers are over Bluetooth (and seldom encrypted) data will be stolen or malware injected.

Guttenplan said the malware wouldn’t be detectable because it would masquerade as an update – and the feedback from the device to the user is often very low sophistication, like a humble haptic buzz or a quick show of lights. Once the malware is installed it’s essentially ‘open season’ on the user’s data.

A view of things to come

While the devices and concepts shown off were sometimes strange and out of left field, they were nonetheless useful in painting a narrative of where wearables could – and should – go in the future. Let’s face it, we need more than smart watches, glasses and fit bands.

And who  could have predicted five or ten years ago that those devices would be the next big thing? We know that wearables are here to stay. Let’s just pray they evolve into more intuitive, more secure and less intrusive devices over time.

[Images – Their owners’ respective websites]

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