The Future of Wearable Technology and Experience Design

Technically, the Apple Watch, Jawbone UP, and Google Glass are nothing new. Wearable technology has been around since the early 17th century, when Chinese mathematicians adapted the abacus as a ring. Soon after, the pocket watch caught on in Europe—offering humans the first wearable, mobile technology that augmented their awareness of time, space, and environmental conditions. But where is wearable technology headed now, and what will it do for Experience Design?

We’ll focus on wearable technology—and why you should care—at Xlab 2015 November 5-6 in New York. Join Adafruit’s Becky Stern and other thought leaders in wearable technology!

In a world that gets more connected every day, wearable technology is a crucial link in the chain, and hordes of tech companies are racing to get in on the game. Wearables fit into some easily defined but sometimes overlapping categories:

Augmented and virtual reality
Perhaps at the top of the wearables food chain, devices like the nascent Google Glass will augment reality with real-time, ambient information, including wayfinding and navigation, traffic alerts, customizable shopping, etc. The primary challenge with this type of technology, thus far at least, has been in the delivery of “seamless” information that does not interfere with social interaction or safety.

Wearables like the Oculus Rift, on the other hand, encourage us to escape from reality. They use virtual reality technology to help us “gamify” life and do the impossible.

Augmented-reality products represent perhaps the greatest promise for Wayfinding and Experience Design, with the potential ability to provide seamless integration of data, environmental conditions, and technologies that aid navigation.

Navigational wearables
GPS and other navigation technologies are showing up in a wide range of wearables. Adafruit,the New York-based company that sells DIY electronics and kits for makers and professionals, sells a simple GPS device that can be sewn into garments like your sweatshirt or jacket. It also creates more elaborate systems, such as bike helmets with built-in navigation systems using FLORA GPS. Riders manually enter the coordinates of their destination, and lights on the helmet flash on the left or right to let them know where to turn.

The Navigate jacket by We:eXis part of a line of city-specific, location-enabled apparel that combines high fashion with high-tech navigation technology. It helps wearers find their destination using integrated LED lighting and haptic feedback. Vibrations inside the shoulder pads indicate turns.

Eventually, nanotechnology will allow fibers to be networked with larger, connected navigational systems in smart cities.

Data-tracking wearables
Highly personalized “tracking” devices like FitBit, Jawbone, and a cacophony of other products help us monitor and track our health and wellness, from diet to sleep to exercise and other metrics.

In addition to the now-ubiquitous bracelets, companies are starting to integrate tracking systems into socks, bras, and other clothing. The start-up Heapsylon,for example, has a sock that it pairs with an anklet to track pressure signals coming from the foot of the wearer. Sensors in the sock communicate data to the anklet, which then relays the information to the user via an app.

Aside from biometrics that help you improve your health, wearable devices (such as, hello?, your smart phone) can also track other types of behaviors, including the places you go, the ads you look at, and the things you buy. This has huge implications for experience design, branding, and of course physical space design. As our behaviors are increasingly trackable and transmittable, how will that impact the spaces where we live, work, and play? In coming years, wearable devices will track a broad array of behavioral metrics, and stores, museums, and other physical spaces will use these metrics to deliver more personalized experiences and customizable functionality.

Protective wearables
As wearables continue to track health and other personal biometrics, new technologies are going even farther, distributing that information to our physicians to protect us and keep us healthy. The concept of devices that track our health is being taken to new heights with devices that help detect conditions such as sleep apnea, test blood for disease, or even integrate embedded biometric sensors and software that provide continuous capture, delivery, and interpretation of health data that is transmitted instantly to your doctor.

Other protective wearables work on a more site-specific basis: a new bracelet, for example, filters the air around its wearer. The Hand Treesucks up and filters polluted air around the wearer and recycles it back into the atmosphere. It was created by Alexandr Kostin, a semifinalist in the Electrolux Design Lab Competition.

Authentication wearables
And other wearables will provide users with a uniquely authentic “signature”—think of your unique heart rhythm, for example—that might make written passwords obsolete in the near future and replace current credentialing methods. Watch-enabled heart-rate monitors, for example, could convert your heart rate into a password, automatically logging you into your computer or letting you in your home.

Social wearables
Other wearable technologies facilitate social engagement, allowing us 24/7, seamless access to social media and messaging. From Pocket Tweet devices to dresses that light up when your phone rings to microphones hidden in earrings, these wearables give users the option to stay connected.

The Internet of Things
These are all bits and pieces of the emerging Internet of Things, the network of physical objects embedded with electronics, sensors, and software that provide connectivity to each other without human intervention. Wearables represent singular digital ecosystems that will someday merge and converge into a massive digital network.

Initiatives like Google’s Project Jacquard,introduced at I/O in May, are moving in that direction, designing smart textiles that allow your clothing to interact with other devices. Project Jacquard gives textile manufacturers the ability to impregnate their cloth with a conductive thread that, when coupled with a Bluetooth controller running on a standard watch battery, gives any garment or piece of cloth the ability to pair with other gadgets and operate like a touch screen.

Whereas thus far, “smart” wearables have been passive—i.e., you wear devices designed to collect data about you—in the future they will collect data without you even engaging with them and will link the data with other systems and allow you to interact with them.

All of these digital ecosystems—and wearable technology in general—pose some fascinating questions about the nature of ubiquitous computing, and how it impacts the way we relate to one another and the world around us. It’s not about the gadgets, but about the data the gadgets are collecting, and what we will do with it.

>>Read here for a short history of wearable technology.

>>Learn more about the future of Wearable Technology--and how it will impact Experience Design--at SEGD's Xlab 2015, Nov. 5-6 in NYC! 

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