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Yesterday niche, today mainstream: Technology is finally becoming wearable

A guest post by John Maeda

Since the 1990s, the challenge of using wearable tech has been to compromise computing power, battery life, and the least ridiculous look possible. A good example of this problem is EyeTapDeveloped in 1999 by inventor Steve Mann, EyeTap is a two-way camera that is worn in front of one eye, similar to a monocle, combining the functions of a camera and a screen. The research project attracted the attention of the media at the time, but could not attract the public’s attention because EyeTab was too chunky and difficult to use. The design was simple and looked like a piece of discarded metal had been put in your face. In addition, the battery weighed several pounds.

Although EyeTap is an extreme example of unattractive wearable technologies, the project underscores the hurdles to successful market establishment. At its core, wearable tech had the following problem in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s: The devices were developed by experts who were great at creating hardware, but didn’t necessarily stand out as big fashion fans. The result was products that were not focused on aesthetics, but on functionality. But the following applies: Even if the functions are without question important, the design is decisive for the success as well as the acceptance by the users. Nobody wants a product that makes us look silly in front of friends and family – especially when cables hang out everywhere.

About the author: John Maeda is Executive Vice President and Chief Experience Officer at Publicis Sapient, the digital business transformation consulting firm. He is also a member of the boards of Sonos and the Smithsonian Design Museum. His latest book, “How To Speak Machine,” was published in November 2019.

Over the past five years, technology companies have been increasingly trying to solve the design problems of wearables. Today’s cloud enables scalable computing power, fast processing speeds, and access to an incredible wealth of data that can be used for artificial intelligence and machine vision. Supercapacitors were able to solve the problem of power supply for certain use cases – otherwise, for example, our Airpods would not last more than ten minutes with one charge. The only hurdle that remains is this: What do you look like and how do you feel when you wear wearable tech?

Wearable Tech Becomes Mainstream

Recently, however, something has happened in terms of design for wearable tech: Latest research the market for wearable technologies will grow by 27 percent in 2020. And it is already booming today: Apple was able to increase in the first quarter of 2019 by 30 percent its wearable sales, while iPhone sales fell. For example, Apple’s Airpods are now practically the uniform for commuters on their way to work – but they initially earned a lot of ridicule. The Apple Watch has also established itself as an everyday accessory. The FitBit brand, which Google recently acquired for 2.1 billion dollars (more than the company paid for YouTube in 2006), is ubiquitous with its fitness trackers. And Intel and Amazon’s smart eyewear (Vaunt, Echo Frame) projects may seem strange to many, but there’s no denying that wearable tech has now entered the mainstream.

The question of which wearables will be successful in the near future depends on three factors: whether the product is useful, affordable and socially acceptable. The first two dimensions are a combination of technology, business and design that work together to achieve a useful result at the right price. The third dimension depends most on the design.

The denim jacket by Levi’s and Google | Photo: Screenshot via Levi.com

An example: The smart denim jacket in trucker look, which resulted from a partnership between Levis and Jacquard by Google, shows how wearables can be integrated into our lives. The jacket can be connected to the smartphone and allows the control of numerous basic functions such as phone calls or navigation without the wearers having to get their mobile phone out of their pocket. Wearables need to be easy to use, integrate seamlessly into our environment and meet our personal brand requirements.

Ethics takes importance to

In the future, when the “coolness” hurdle to success is overcome and product design is appealing, the biggest challenge for establishing wearables will be to allay consumers’ privacy concerns. Technology companies are increasingly in the spotlight when it comes to the misuse of customer data and the invasive use of this data. Thus, after Google’s purchase of FitBit, the network was filled with reactions from people, who threw their devices into the trash. They were furious that Google was now getting access to their most intimate data they had collected over the years.

The questions of battery life, user-friendliness, affordability and aesthetics will become less and less important in the future, as they are mutually similar. In the future, the protection of privacy will be crucial to which companies can compete.

What was once a niche product is now accessible and affordable. What was once chunky and unwieldy is now subtle and unpretentious. What was once unattractive is now sleek and stylish. Wearable technologies have evolved from a useful gadget to an everyday necessity. The future of wearable tech is in the hands of designers and data policy.

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