Wherefore Wearables Columns / Emerging Media

Wherefore Wearables

Pioneering designers rush to the wearables frontier.

Sam   McMillan
Is this the year wearables go mainstream? Before that carton of milk expires in your fridge, another wearable will hit the market. Currently, the database compiled by Vandrico Inc. tracks 288 wearable devices on the market… and counting. From smart watches paired to our phones to biomedical sensors and fitness trackers worn against our skin, from multifunction jewelry to a new generation of head-mounted computers, cameras and game players, wearables are changing the way we interact with technology, information and even our own bodies. And they will certainly change the way we design.


Christopher Ireland doesn’t surf, but the adjunct professor in the graduate design program at the California College of the Arts (CCA) knows a coming wave when she sees one. “Desktop, laptop, mobile,” Ireland says, summarizing the waves of technology that have transformed our society utterly in the last 20 years. “We can see the wave of wearables coming.”

To help ensure students at CCA don’t miss this opportunity, Ireland recently curated and hosted CCA’s Design of Wearables symposium, a three-week-long series at the college’s San Francisco campus that consisted of eighteen workshops, three meet-ups and five panels. The event brought together innovative planners, futurists and industry experts at the top of their fields, for students and the general public. Discussions covered wearables from the perspectives of user experience design, technology design, fashion design and product design. Panelists discussed the trade-off between graphics and battery performance, the traits of the glanceable interface, the readability of e-paper in daylight, the use of wearables for tracking versus displaying data, and how smart fabrics woven into a jacket might double as a navigation system. As smarter, smaller and vastly cheaper sensors hit the market, the future of wearables seems limited only by designers’ imaginations.

User experience and user interaction designers have already begun to explore this new territory, and symposium panelists repeatedly warned about recapitulating the designs of the past into a new form factor. According to Max Burton of San Francisco–based design firm Matter, “Scale is a huge problem. How do you read a UI while you are running? The same rules don’t apply. It’s a new platform and entirely new approach. You can’t take something and shrink it.”

In other words, a smart watch is not a smaller smartphone. Designers will have to “understand the limitations of the size of the display and the depth of user interaction,” Burton said. “How many steps do you need to get to your goal? You have to respect the rule of three. If it is more than three steps, don’t do it.”

The available real estate for wearables means designers must rethink function as well. “You can’t do a spreadsheet on your wrist,” Burton says. “Instead of accounting, maybe you just need to display your cash account for the day.”

Kurt Dammermann of PCH Lime Lab points out that the technical limitations of data transfer and its impact on battery life are just as important as screen real estate. Designers must determine what’s significant, then display essential information only. “The challenge is to do the most with the least data,” he says.

Brett Lovelady of Astro Studios, designer of Nike’s FuelBand, said his team had to edit ruthlessly until they got down to four or five essentials. “We had to communicate that the device was collecting the runner’s activity. We had to design a font that could work on a 100-micro LED display. And we had to communicate progress in a way that rewarded people.” Ultimately, says Lovelady, successful UX design for wearables hinges largely on knowing what to leave in versus what to leave out.

The pioneering designers making these tough choices are in an enviable position, poised to develop the conventions that generations of designers will look to and build upon. According to Lovelady, “Prototyping tools can create vertical professions. When it comes to user experience, specialization is where it’s at.”

As sensors equipped with functionality open up an entirely new world of interaction, specialized expertise in the field of user experience design will be in high demand. Dr. Andrew Hsu, a technology strategist at Synaptic, pointed out that designers will have to accommodate inputs from touch, force and proximity sensors that can detect your finger even before it touches the screen, “which brings the world of touch and gesture into three dimensions.”

Ask a designer to create a wearable, and they’ll think of ways to make it beautiful, functional and productive. Ask Dammermann, and he’ll tell you all the ways it can break. In wearables, the flexibility of daily use runs headlong into the fragility of electronics. “If you want to charge a wearable with an electric cable, you can’t wear it in the shower, since you’ll need a hole for the charging connector. If you input too much data, you’ll drain the battery. And because data transfer means heat, the device can heat up so quickly, the wearable on your wrist becomes an unwearable.” He says that designers must ask themselves, “What can we do with as little data as possible? What is it that users must know in real time so they can take action?”

A lot, as it turns out. From how we sleep to how we breathe, how many steps we take to how many calories consumed, wearables makers are counting on our willingness to share our most intimate moments—our very skin—with technology. If we can track our well-being, the thinking goes, we can work to improve it. Clip-on device Spire offers guided activities to help us adjust our breathing patterns so we can enhance focus, calm and energy. If mindful breathing is too much of a chore, simply strap on a Philip Stein wearable. These watches resonate with natural frequencies claimed to foster stronger focus, stress relief and better sleep.

In the health-care industry, companies are eagerly awaiting the mash-up of big data and wearables. Consumers will buy a device, but it’s the data that’s valuable to the medical-industrial complex. If you have type 2 diabetes, says tech journalist Gary Wolf, “the knowledge you gain is literally a matter of life and death.” The challenge that designers must take on, according to Wolf, is figuring out how to make these measurements meaningful.

To help users and makers of self-tracking tools address these questions, Wolf and fellow Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly founded Quantified Self. This worldwide community hosts inter-national meetings, conferences and expositions, community forums, and offers a guide to self-tracking tools. Hundreds of tech startups from around the world regularly participate, but all eyes are still on major players Apple, Google and Samsung to herald wearables into the mainstream.

THROUGH GLASS DARKLY
There’s never been a product launch as hyped, or as polarizing, as Google Glass. Three years in the making, the wearable is still “in its infancy,” according to Glass senior product designer Isabelle Olsson. For better or worse, Olsson says, “we are one of the few companies that exposed our development cycle to the world.”

That includes missteps, ranging from industrial design to marketing. Initially rolled out to a select few whom Google called Explorers (early adopters had to write an essay to Google explaining what they would do with Glass), the first iteration looked like it would be more at home at Comic-Con than a nightclub. With a price tag of $1,500 and a marketing campaign that featured elites wearing Glass at exclusive fashion shows, the early adopters were dubbed “glassholes” in the press. Ouch. Last year, Google tried to change that perception with partnerships with frame maker Luxottica and designs by Diane von Furstenberg, which were available at Basecamps, Google Glass retail boutiques. Google recently shuttered Basecamps and announced Glass would no longer be sold to individuals in its online stores, while it works on a redesign, out of the public eye.
 

Some ideas are ahead of their time. Consumers and app developers were waiting on each other to deem Google Glass worthy of investment, and neither made the move in the numbers needed. Diane von Furstenberg’s attempts at making what many consider “creepy” tech more fashionable didn’t help, and neither did the $1,500 price tag. Google suspended public sales in January, while former Apple exec and Nest founder Tony Fadell oversees a radical redesign.

However, at a fitting last November, my Glass Guide explained the gestures and commands required to master the glasses: “Tap the temple to turn on the display. The magic words are ‘OK Glass.’” And they certainly are magic. Utter those words and then tell Glass to take a picture, send a message, get directions, make a video or install an app. Not only has Google made the technology nearly invisible, (although perhaps not invisible enough, which is likely why they are headed back to the drawing board), they’ve made it largely voice-controlled, thanks to a tiny microphone mounted on the inside of the eyepiece. The optical head-mounted display uses a portion of the lens to project a 640 × 360 display. That’s equivalent to watching a 25-inch high-definition screen from eight feet away.

Commands are also gestural. Wink to take a photo. Tilt your head 30 degrees to wake up Glass. One-finger taps on the temple and two-finger forward and backward swipes cycle through available apps and commands. Olsson’s goal was “to put technology as close to your senses as possible, in an attempt to make the technology disappear,” she says. “It’s close to your eyes, your ears and your mouth, enabling you to interact with it in a natural way.”

As Glass transitions out of the consumer market for now, it will still sell Glass to developers and to companies in manufacturing, industrial, and medical sectors. Google’s Glass at Work program now includes ten partners making Glassware apps to support surgical procedures, heads-up displays in industrial environments, guided museum tours and on-demand training.

Was Glass ever cool? In September, Luxottica founder Leonardo Del Vecchio was quoted in the Financial Times saying, “It would embarrass me going around with that on my face.” Three years too late, Google got Glass into the hands of choreographer, dancer and director FKA twigs in a bid to promote the Glass launch in the United Kingdom. In her video #throughglass, commissioned by Google, FKA twigs uses Glass to research, view and learn from street dance styles in order to face a series of look-a-likes in a dance battle. In a breathtaking two minutes, thirteen seconds, #throughglass just might be the coolest how-to demo ever. Despite twigs’ effort, perhaps the one thing Glass couldn’t do was show us the future.

THE RACE TO THE WRIST
People have worn wristwatches for more than a century. British officers popularized them after returning from the trenches of World War I wearing pocket watches strapped to their wrists. So it’s only fitting that wearables colonize the wrist as well. Competing in the race for wrist real estate are fitness trackers like Fitbit, Misfit Shine and Jawbone UP3, a new generation of smart watches like Android Wear and Moto 360, and the Apple Watch.
 

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, fitness trackers like the Fitbit have caught on among the young, wealthy and educated, but only 10 percent of buyers wear them often enough to be of practical use. The next wave of tracking devices aim to follow wearers’ activities 24/7, providing feedback on exercise, eating, mood and sleep patterns to increase your overall well-being. The UpMove by Jawbone (left) easily pops in and out of colorful wristwatch and belt clip accessories. The stone-shaped clip-on sensor Spire (right) tunes in to your breathing, noting moments of tension, focus, calm and activity throughout your day.

“When it comes to fitness, people are fascinated by their own data,” says Yves Béhar, founder of Fuseproject, which designed the UP3 and other wearables. Just ask anyone who runs a triathlon. Strap on an UP3 and you can measure the number of footsteps taken, hours slept, miles run, calories consumed, calories burned—and every beat of your heart.

For Béhar, the UP3 design challenge was to create something so good-looking, so lightweight and so unobtrusive that you can wear it 24 hours a day. In this case, fashion meets functionality in a form factor so slim, wearers hardly know it’s there. The computer on your wrist now weighs only a few grams.

TIME FOR A NEW WATCH
“Instead of going through life in head-down mode looking at your phone,” says Android Wear principal user experience designer Brett Lider, “we wanted to get people back into the present.” Lider and the team at Android looked at the “activation energy” required to answer a buzzing phone: find it, unlock it, dig through the apps menu and answer your call. “People were getting lost in their phones,” Lider discovered.

Android Wear is designed to solve that problem and more. Combine the timepiece with onboard sensors capable of measuring heart rate, breathing, activity and location, tether it to a smartphone via low-energy Bluetooth, design a display that syncs to an ecosystem of Android apps, and the old-fangled watch on your wrist becomes capable of providing notifications, alerts, messages, directions. Android Wear aims to provide an overview of your life delivered to your wrist. To paraphrase Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, we know what you’re thinking about.
 

Wrists currently sport the most popular wearables, from all-capable smart watches like the Samsung Gear S (left), Android Wear and the much-anticipated Apple Watch to simple, lightweight straps that monitor activity sans-screen like Jawbone’s UP3 (right).

Depending on the Google services you use, Android Wear can display information based on your location, calendar, phone, upcoming appointments, weather, e-mail, contacts and notifications. To make life easier and interactions more seamless, Android Wear sends a hint of what’s important in your life in the form of notifications Google calls Now Cards. Arriving on your wrist just when you need it, Now Cards provide a glimpse into your day in a stream of information, presented one molecular snippet at a time. To accommodate the ergonomics of walking, Lider and his team designed Android Wear to be highly glanceable. Lider says the interface designers taped mock-ups to their wrists, then waved their arms around. “If you can’t read it, you don’t have a glanceable design.” Syncing Wear with Google’s services means that when you have an appointment, a Now Card will appear on your wrist ahead of time, letting you know when to leave, based on current traffic conditions. Constrained by the limitations of Lider’s glanceable design ethos, Now Cards are all about single-minded focus. Instead of maximizing the screen real estate, Wear designers simplified it. The interface displays a simple, bite-sized chunk of information, which then can be acted on with a tap or a swipe. Tap the “g” icon on Wear and speak to instruct Google Voice to take explicit actions, such as “take a note” or “send a message.”

WATCH THIS: APPLE WATCH
Raise your wrist and the sensor onboard the Apple Watch wakes the display. It’s a smart way to save on battery life and an inter-active grace note that heralds something magical is about to happen. For the overall interaction design of its watch, Apple combines swiping through key screens with a nifty zoom feature using the dial on the watch bezel. Turning the dial magnifies the content on the display—whether an app, a photo, a contact or a map—without obstructing the screen with your own fingers. Directly below the dial is a small button that enables wearers to message their friends, using something that Apple calls Taptic Feedback, but that Uncle Morty might have called a joy buzzer. Push the button, bring up your contacts, zoom to the friend you want to message and tap the screen. Provided they, too, are wearing an Apple Watch, they’ll feel their wrist vibrate. Additional communication schemes include sharing your heartbeat with someone in real time, and drawing a sketch on the watch face and sending it. In a nod to Dick Tracy comics of yore, a walkie-talkie feature lets users send voice message snippets to friends.

Apple promises a public release of Apple Watch in spring 2015. In the meantime, the Apple promo videos breathlessly detail functions such as messaging, mail, calendar alerts, weather, smart replies and dictation for rapid message response, and—perhaps the killer app—a mobile payment service called Apple Pay. The watch is designed to be used with an Apple smartphone, which is required in order to convey all those messages, photos and maps.

Built-in sensors include a gyroscope and an accelerometer to measure activity, as well as a sensor that detects heart rate. The heart rate detector uses four sapphire sensors embedded in the back of the watch to detect pulse rate. GPS and Wi-Fi capabilities are integrated so the watch can synch to your iPhone’s GPS system to determine distance traveled. All that functionality comes at a cost, though—and I don’t mean price. At 11.5 millimeters, the Apple Watch is thicker than the iPhone 6. A Rolex Submariner is thinner. But then, all that does is tell time.
 

As the form factors of technology recede, wearable designs move fashion-forward. UX designer Kristin Koch experiments in weaving conductive yarns and stretch sensors into smart textiles (left). Fabrics like hers could be used in a stylish riding jacket that lights up to signal an impending turn when?a biker leans left or right. The discreet vibrations and light flashes emanating from an oversized gemstone cocktail ring by Ringly (middle) let its wearer know who is calling them on their smartphone. Arguably the best-looking tracker on the market, Misfit’s activity and sleep monitor, Shine (right), is a sleek disc that’s worn in a variety of accessories, from simple tribal-style necklaces to rhinestone-studded Swarovski bracelets.

And time will tell. Apple released WatchKit, its software development kit (SDK), in November. Now that developers have their hands on Apple’s iOS 8.2 beta SDK and application programming interfaces, they are in heads-down mode building an ecosystem of apps to extend the functionality of Apple Watch. American Airlines is rolling out pre-trip notifications, ESPN is working on live game updates, and Instagram is creating actionable notifications that enable wearers to see their friends’ photos and to react instantly with an emoji.

“The wrist is an amazing place to put technology,” Apple’s senior vice president of design, Jonathan Ive, remarked at the London Design Museum in November. Explaining some of the user inter-action decisions that informed the design of the Apple Watch, Ive said, “The limitations inherent in the small form factor and tiny screen mean that you’re only going to use it a certain way—obviously you’re not going to write a dissertation. But it’s very good to see who just texted you or, if you’re walking, to use it just to see if that direction was left or right. So the watch—just like for telling the time—is very good for these quick in and out things.”

THE NEXT GENERATION OF WEARABLES
What’s next for wearables? Smart fabrics. Dammermann believes we’ll soon see a new generation of electronics that don’t have to be embedded inside a hard case. These include smart textiles capable of sensing the wearer’s activity. Smart fabrics detect which muscles are firing when and can even double as a touch pad. Already companies like Athos and Branch are rolling out biosensing performance wear for elite athletes. Athos jerseys and shorts transmit data to a sending unit called Core, which collects muscle activity, effort and heart rate target zones, then connects to an Athos app for real-time feedback that displays precisely how hard each muscle is working.

Will the new world of smart fabrics mean our underwear is smarter than we are? One thing is for sure: “It’s going to bring up a whole new social etiquette,” Dammermann laughs, “when we say, ‘I can’t go out yet, I have to charge my underwear.’” ca

Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

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