Wearable Technology with Adafruit's Becky Stern [Q&A]

Becky Stern, artist, Director of Wearable Electronics at Adafruit, and YouTube DIY guru, will headline the “Transforming Wearables” session at Xlab 2015 November 5 in NYC.

Wearable technology is a major force in the new wave of digital technologies enabling connected spaces and places. Using new technologies that monitor, measure, and transmit data, wearables are automating elements of our daily lives, facilitating social interactions, helping us navigate spaces, and enabling “ambient awareness” in exciting new ways.

Becky took a few minutes to chat with us this week about technology, fashion, making, and where wearables are taking us. 

Tell us about your work with Adafruit. What is that like?

Every week, I publish a new do-it-yourself craft+tech project tutorial and video on YouTube Live.I have so much creative freedom at work, and I’m always working on something new. We don't have any investors or sponsors, so our decision-making processes can be focused on what's interesting to us and best for our team members.

How did you get started with wearable electronics and making?

I don’t remember “not” being a maker. My mom taught me hand stitching with a needle and thread when I was 8 years old, and one of the first things I remember making was a copy of my Beanie Baby. I earned my BFA in Design & Technology from Parsons The New School for Design, and did graduate studies at Arizona State University in Arts, Media and Engineering, and Sculpture. I’ve been combining textiles with electronics since 2005, and was an editor and video producer for MAKE from 2007-2012 and a member of Free Art & Technology (FAT) from 2008-2015.

Now you’re working at the forefront of the wearable technology movement. How do you explain the crazy popularity of wearables and DIY wearables in particular?

Wearables are particularly cool because they're so personal. DIYers can make exactly the custom look or device they have in mind, and it can be one-of-a-kind like haute couture fashion. Making your own wearable electronics is also a great way to gain modern technological skills like programming and troubleshooting, and can be more exciting for active tactile learners than, say, writing an app for a phone. We see many artfully inclined novices using DIY wearables as a way into computer science and engineering.

Xlab is in NYC, 11/05/15. Join the conversation.

In the commercial wearables market, we saw prices for sophisticated sensors drop and availability go up when smartphones became popular. That allowed many single-purpose wearable devices to come to market at price points approaching reasonable. Activity trackers are the market's staple at the moment, and that doesn't surprise me because as humans we're always looking for more data to analyze about ourselves and our environments in order to improve.

Xlab 2015is about using technology to create experiences in the physical environment. How do you see wearables connecting to experiences in physical spaces?

I see wearables helping to automate elements of our everyday lives, like sending a loved one a text when you leave work, alerting emergency contacts when you've been in a bike accident, or adjusting the opacity of your sun shade according to the UV levels you're experiencing.

I also can see more expressive fashion wearables being informed by their physical space, whether it's by changing the color of your light-up dress to match the venue's color scheme (Adafruit makes a color sensor for doing just that) or a purse with a morphing designer logo as you hop between fashion week events. Small battery-powered sensor circuits make it easy to measure light, movement, GPS location, temperature, and more, which allows you to have your garment react however you like.

If you look into your crystal ball, what do you see for the future of wearables? How will they impact how people interact and behave in physical space?

I see wearables doing a lot more to combine our digital data streams with our physical selves, like helping strangers discover common interests. They should also help us develop ambient awareness of things we're not good at sensing like UV exposure and air quality, like a sixth sense.

I also think that wearables have huge privacy implications. As it becomes more commonplace for your everyday biometric data to be uploaded to cloud servers owned by private companies, I hope we think critically about who owns that data and what it can be used for. Fitbit data has been used so far in two legal cases, once to support a victim's testimony and once to refute it. Biometric and location data can be used to position targeted advertising, which complicates the relationship between that private company and what it tells you about your own body.

What is the coolest wearable invention you’ve seen lately?

Lately I've been wearing a Ringly. It's a notification device in the form of a cocktail ring. What I like most about it is that I'd wear it even if the battery were dead. This is not the case for most consumer wearables on the market right now, and it's an important hurdle to get over in the next few years. The value proposition for wearables is so related to one's sense of style, and tech companies can struggle to get it right!

>>More on Becky Stern

>>Catch Becky Stern on YouTube Live's "Wearable Electronics with Becky Stern."

>>Join Becky at Xlab 2015, November 5-6 in New York City! But hurry, seating is limited!

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