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Art & Wearable Devices: The Fitbit

Every year, a new technology paradigm creates opportunities for innovators to bring life to products in an ecosystem of ideas. I believe that this creates buzz-words and new terms that get coined as people become familiarized with new technologies and their potential, even before they get the product in their hands. A decade ago, I think that people knew what a smart-phone was, despite the fact that it did not exist. In the technology world, companies don’t ride like the Lone Ranger. For them, it’s all about collaborations, consortium, standards and special interest groups, but it is up to individual companies to create their own product and fight the competition. It’s good for economics.

Last week, I was in San Francisco for this Wearable Device Convention. It is a conference for any one interested in creating wearable technology products. From individuals to corporations, there was something for every one, but what surprised me most was the complete absence of people with art, design and fashion backgrounds. Though the function and utility of a piece of technology is typically defined by an engineer, how can a wearable device ever be aesthetically-pleasing without the craft and imagination of a designer? With the absence of members from the right-brained fraternity, there was notable gap in discussion about the art aspect of wearable devices.

Wearable technology has existed for a long time.

Wearable technologies existed for decades, though no one named it so. The simplest example of this is the eyewear and contact lenses. Next is hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, headphones, earphone, MP3 players, the list goes on! I must sound ridiculous here, but I tell you, eyewear and contact lenses are forms of optical engineering. Every other device I mentioned is about enhancing human experience some way or the other. The reason it is wearable technology, is because you wear it on your body and carry it! For a long time, the power of computing and application programs existed only for desktops and laptop computers. Now computational power is increasingly being packed inside the small smart-phone. Initially, though used for playing music, watching videos or browsing internet and maybe GPS maps, apart from the base function as a telephone, slowly productivity apps, games and plethora of other stuff took over. Every popular website has it’s own version of smart-phone app for customized usability. Welcome to the new decade after 2010, they are used for tracking fitness, health, sleeping pattern and such things.

Engineering and technology already in place. what next?

Computers are not made differently for different areas of use, from office automation, word processing, internet, games, applications to computational fluid dynamics, or atmospheric physics. The hardware and OS and software frameworks keep evolving to handle any type of computation. So are smart-phones are evolving to meet the need for more processing power, display and graphics capability, storage and particularly wireless connectivity standards such as WiFi and Bluetooth.

Smartphones became an automatic choice for wearable computing. You can exploit the processing power, the display and storage without having those expensive things on your own device. Fitness/activity trackers have a bunch of sensors (like: accelerometers, magnetometers, gyroscopes, pressure sensors, temperature sensors and pretty much any other imaginable sensor you can think of…) built into them that capture that real world signals, digitize them and send them to your phone for analysis and storage. You can see how you are performing right at that moment as well as, how your graph looked like in a month period.

The base level engineering for sensors, the wireless connectivity and other functions are a cracked code. It’s proven the way it works. Just that each company has its own refinement, approach and sensor engineering. But ultimately what makes it wearable is the aesthetics. Something that is so well done at a technological level level but that doesn’t look good either to you or the general public, is no good. When you take the example of simple eyewear, it is not the optics that commands price in the market, but the overall design and comfort which compliment the right choice of optics. The value addition in design and sex appeal is very intangible! People pay dollars for it. It just takes few grams of plastic or metal for Police, Ray-Ban, Oakley, or Armani to value their stuff at anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. When you look into earphones, it is not just that sound well, but that looks good matters for your purchase decision.

Why not apply the same aesthetics and design principles to wearables. There is also an immeasurable opportunity for fashion designers to embed some technology into the stuff they design. I am an artist and technologist too. This gap between the two bothers me!

Why shouldn’t people in art, design and fashion seriously consider wearables?

Basic needs moulded in ‘design’ have value. In a restaurant you don’t pay for just food, but overall experience. So is clothing. Clothing is a old technology. Very very old! Yet the success of brands is by the overall experience they offer when you wear them. Never like in history, technology has come this close, this small and viable like this. The footprint of semiconductor chips, PCBs and batteries has come down drastically. If you embed an intelligent device in a shirt it is not even noticeable. Technology is available abundant. Are you ready for a design?

Also, it was not the big names that made wearable technologies, mainstream and verve. It is smaller enterprises, individual innovators and engineers who made this happen. There is no reason for smaller companies and individual artists and designers to be intimidated into venturing this field. Got a design? there are tools for execution.

At least there is one unambiguously open-filed where art and technology can come together for creating new experiences.

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