Fashion and tech have been uneasy bedfellows at times, but there are a number of designers who are combining the two to great effect. We look at whether it will be the creative output from the fashion industry that puts wearable tech back in vogue

Of the few industries still interested in infusing the things we wear everyday with tech, it’d take a brave man to bet against the fashion industry – rather than VR headset makers, or fitness fanatics – being the ones to make wearable tech wearable.

But making wearables desirable, rather than just functional, isn’t a simple task; it means taking traditionally hard and cold wearable technology, smashing it together with the delicate world of fashion, and hoping that what you come out with is clothing that is fashionable, alluring, empowering and techy.

There are some companies finding ways to do just that, but, as a way of demonstrating the problems associated with combining the worlds of fashion and tech, I just wanted to share some of the more illogical, Derek Zoolander-inspired comments made by representatives for the fashion industry at the Wearable Technology Show 2017 (names have been omitted to save the speakers’ blushes).

Image courtesy of The Unseen

“Fashion is just like skin and wearable technology is just like a vitamin.” It’s not really though is it.

“We all wear clothes of some sort, all the time, whoever we are, whatever we’re doing.” No shit.

“I’m staggered by how many wipes there are in industry today and everywhere you see ‘please do not throw it down the loo’. Why are we using them? What was the matter with old-fashioned tissues, or cloth or anything else. I mean it is really indescribable how big the non-woven wipes market is, and I think it’s very dangerous. I think it’s very, very dangerous.” Yes, this person did take to the stage at a conference about wearable technology to rant about how wet wipes are “dangerous”, “very, very dangerous”.

Innovative or kitsch?

Back in the nineties, Francesca Rosella worked as a designer for the Italian fashion brand Valentino. Now, together with trained artist and anthropologist Ryan Genz, Rosella is creative director of CuteCircuit, a startup fashion label, launched in 2004, that is using smart textiles and micro-electronics to build beautiful, functional garments. The company’s pièce de résistance is undoubtedly its graphene dress, which records and analyses the wearer’s breathing patterns and reacts to whether heavy or light breaths are taken. Deep breaths turn the lights on the dress from purple to turquoise, while lighter ones make the dress switch from orange to green.

While CuteCircuit has been praised for its creativity, some of its other work shows how fine the line is between an innovation and a gimmick in wearable tech. The company was responsible for a haute couture Twitter Dress that could receive tweets in real-time. It’s not too great a leap from a dress that receives tweets to a dress that changes colour depending on your breathing, but to some the Twitter dress is on the wrong side of the gaudy/innovative border.

“Technology for technology’s sake is very gimmicky and very kitsch, and this is no disrespect to Cute Circuit because they’re a fantastic brand. The graphene dress: beautiful, stunning exciting, interesting, intriguing. A dress that you can send tweets to is probably the most gimmicky thing I’ve ever heard of,” said Sanj Surati, head of digital and innovation at communications agency Village.

“There are problems with the fashion technology world because the assumption is technology has to be functional and it has to give you something, and that application of thought when you’re trying to be creative is very stifling. Where the line is, I don’t know because when it comes to fashion it’s all subjective: there’s things you like and there’s things you don’t like.”

On the high street

Although the “we all wear clothes of some sort, all the time, whoever we are, whatever we’re doing,” quote sounds ridiculous to me, there is a serious point being made by that commentator. There’s a great amount of data to be collected from fashion, and that presents a great opportunity to fashion brands. So far, though, it’s high-end and luxury brands who are willing to get involved, while high-street brands appear reluctant to experiment with tech.

“Some of them [the high-street brands], as grandiose as they are, are very risk adverse, very traditional; they don’t want to take chances,” said Surati. “Usually the conversations they have with tech businesses are: look you work with us, we work with you, we won’t pay you for anything, but you’ll get loads of PR from the fact that you worked with Topshop or H&M etc.

I think a lot of those brands have got loads of money, but no ambition. They’re not seeing the value of what these tech startups are coming up with, and what they bring to the table

“I think a lot of those brands have got loads of money, but no ambition. They’re not seeing the value of what these tech startups are coming up with, and what they bring to the table.”

What we’ve seen so far are one-off haute couture dresses that are combined with wearable tech, rather than less expensive alternatives that are available to all. Luckily, fashion does work on the trickle down approach, so items that begin as high-end usually find their way to the high street. To date though, we haven’t definitively decided what the high-end of this market should look like, but as Elena Corchero, director of design research at Lost Values, says, falling costs will allow for more elaborate designs that still allow the conservative fashion industry to maintain the sanctity of, and artistry within, the atelier.

“Technologies in general are looking quite minimalist and quite safe aesthetically just because they try to reach everyone because developing these technologies is expensive,” said Corchero. “The more affordable they become I hope we can then start testing the different markets, some people love the whole blinking, blinking thing.

“I think understanding the market you’re trying to reach instead of trying to please everyone is the next stage.”

Combining art and science

Whether techy textiles make their way to the high street or not, wearable technology will allow the fashion industry to explore new creative endeavours. What it also allows is a romance between the worlds of art and science and that should also be celebrated even if the resultant products aren’t as wearable as they should be at the moment.

“There’s this fantastic material scientist, her name’s Lauren Bowker, she runs a brand called The Unseen,” said Surati. “She wanted to create a dress that basically changed colour depending on what you were thinking. It was a very beautiful piece of clothing, but no one could wear it because the ceramic fibres would heat up and it would burn you, but we basically built this dress, and developed it in partnership with her.

“It was absolutely beautiful,” said Surati. “We PR’d the hell out of it, and everyone started flying in from all over the world to see this dress. That dress wasn’t very practical, but it didn’t matter, this was her trying to express herself. You had to put on a EG headset for it to change colour, and we didn’t know what the colours meant – we didn’t know what emotion attributed to what colour – but it was so cool that the head atelier of Victoria Secret – one of the most profitable fashion businesses in the world – flew in to see this dress because they were interested in this new art form, which is what we’re building today.

“What everyone here is building today is new forms of being creative, and that’s exciting.”

Hearables have been touted as the next big thing for wearables for some time, but will they really have a meaningful impact on our lives? We hear from Bragi CMO Jarrod Jordan about how the technology could transform the way we communicate

For the past few decades, computing has advanced at an incredible pace. Within a single generation we’ve gone from cumbersome desktops to devices that are effectively pocket-sized supercomputers, so it comes as no surprise that technology manufacturers and consumers alike are hungry for the next step.

For many this step is known as ‘the fourth platform’: something that takes us beyond our current screen-based lives, and pushes computing and communication seamlessly into the background.

And while we’re quite not there yet, hearables may very well be that something.

“The hearable is actually the precipice of the very beginning of the start of fourth-platform computing, where people can put a device inside of their ear, they can actually become more productive, they can move more places and they can do more things,” explains Jarrod Jordan, CMO of Bragi, speaking at the Wearable Technology Show.

“This isn’t just happening five years from now; we are talking about 18 months from now, it’s starting to become more and more prominent. People are starting to look at this in the same way they did when they were looking at, for example, when the iPhone first came out.”

Bragi is arguably in a very good place for this oncoming breakthrough. The Germany-based company is behind one of the first true hearables, the Dash, which has developed from a Kickstarter success story back in 2014 to a fully fledged product now available in stores. And with an SDK (software development kit) to allow third-parties to develop apps for the device on its way, it has all the makings of a truly useful device.

Beyond the tethered smartphone

Wearable technology has long been touted as a game-changing space from which the next generation of computing will come, but so far much of what’s been developed has failed to live up to that claim. Most devices remain entirely reliant on smartphones, making them more peripherals to existing devices rather than a technology that truly pushes things forwards in their own right.

Images courtesy of Bragi

Which begs the question: what does a true fourth-platform device need to offer?

“A few things need to happen in order for that fourth platform to exist, or to have that device or item exist on the fourth platform,” Jordan explains. “It has to make the user more integrated into real-world scenarios; it has to make the user be more productive and it has to be automated to help them with predictive behaviours – in other words it has to start doing things on behalf of the user without the user having to think about it.”

For some, virtual reality could be that platform, but Jordan argues that it so far fails to achieve these goals.

“As much as I love it as a form of entertainment, the idea that you have an integration with the real world, or that you can become automated or more productive with a device currently over your head [is wrong],” he says. “[VR] actually brings you out of the world and distracts you from what’s happening around you.”

Another option is the voice-enabled devices such as Amazon Echo, which are arguably much closer to being true fourth-platform devices, but fail in that they are typically in fixed locations with little ability to gather data about their users.

“What’s great about this is it does do a lot of the things I just mentioned: you can actually walk in the room and get things ordered, you can have things turn on or turn off etc,” Jordan says. “But there’s a couple of things: it doesn’t actually integrate with you as a human, it doesn’t understand what your body or your biometrics are telling it and it can go with you but it doesn’t travel with you per se.”

The logical step for some, then, is implanted computers. They’re always there, they can gather data and provide unseen feedback and assistance and they don’t need to rely on a smartphone. But they come with a rather significant problem: how many of us are really up for having tech surgically implanted inside us?

“To a lot of people that bothers them; it even bothers me,” says Jordan. “I don’t necessarily want a device inside of me, but I do need a device that can somehow get inside of me, grab different parts of my biometrics and help me become more productive or more active.”

When does a headphone become a hearable?

For Jordan, true fourth-platform devices will combine the best of these nearly-there technologies into something consumers will actually want to use.

“The way I look at it, there are three ways that these things need to come together to make that fourth platform,” he says. “It needs to be embedded yet detachable: I think if it’s inside of you then that’s a problem, I just don’t think adoption of that by the masses is really there.

It needs to leverage multiple sensors so it’s not only voice, it’s not only eyes, it’s not only touch: its taking in several different components of your body and being able to give output from that

“It needs to leverage multiple sensors so it’s not only voice, it’s not only eyes, it’s not only touch: its taking in several different components of your body and being able to give output from that. It needs to be able to augment your behaviour and predict your behaviour as well.”

Hearables, he argues, are this device, although he is keen to stress that not all technology you can put in your ears is really a true hearable.

“It is not as simply a truly wireless in-ear device. Many of them are excellent: wonderful sound, fun to use etc but they are not a computer,” he explains.

“If you cannot update your device with firmware, just like you get with your iPhone through those OS updates, if you cannot do that with your hearable it is not by definition a hearable. It is a headphone and it may be excellent, it may be fun to use, but not exactly a hearable.

“The second thing is it must be intelligent; the device must be able to pick up what you are doing and give you a feedback loop in order to make you more productive.”

Bragi Dash: in-ear computers

Whether Bragi’s own device, the Dash, fulfils these needs will ultimately be decided by its users, but it does make a compelling case. Because while the Dash looks like just a regular set of wireless earbuds, it is in fact a complete computer in two parts, housed entirely inside the minimal casing.

“We did not go out to build headphones. We actually went out to build in-ear computers; a binary computer, with a left and right side allowing us to make even more datasets and even more predictions,” says Jordan.

“In the building a device we were challenged – first of all we had nanotechnology: how do we push all of these things into very, very little space? We put 27 sensors inside of our device, we put infrared, we put accelerometers, a gyroscope, a 32 bit processor and a 4GB hard drive all in a thing the size of a dime that sits inside your ear.”

And that means that Dash can do pretty much all the things you’d expect from conventional wearable technology, without needing to hook up to a phone or plant sensors across your body.

We did not go out to build headphones. We actually went out to build in-ear computers; a binary computer, with a left and right side allowing us to make even more datasets and even more predictions

“We have tracking heart rate, respiration, acceleration, temperature, rotation, absolute direction: all of these types of things can be gathered through the device. All of those things can also be gathered and put into datasets,” he says.

“You have a headset that functions similarly to how you make normal telephone calls. You have an earphone microphone – that means the microphone is actually inside your ear not outside. You have noise cancellation with audio transparency: that means that you can hear the world around you as well as what’s in your device, so you’re actually able to have an augmented situation there. Speech control in the ambient microphone: again, those are things that allow you to sit there and make things more productive.”

Dash also solves the interaction problem – usually in-ear wearables rely on smartphones – with a mixture of gestures and voice commands.

“Right now on our device you can actually nod your head and answer a call. You can say no and reject that call. You can shake your head three times and make music shuffle; you can double tap your face twice and say ’tell me how to get home’ and the device will tell you how to get home,” Jordan explains.

But that’s not all Bragi has planned for the device. The company is already working with IBM Watson and several automotive companies to build on the Dash’s capabilities, and hopes to be able to utilise the data collected to significantly advance how the device can help you in your day to day life.

“We are collecting biometric data: we know your red-and-white blood cell counts; we know your difference between your scared heart rate and your nervous heart rate and your exercise induced heart rate,” he says. “We can see the difference between all of those so we can actually look to a world where we can start to build apps on top of those behaviours to allow you to then become more productive based on exactly what’s happening with your body, as well as starting to predict what may happen to you in the future.”

A post-screen world

The true promise of hearables lies in their ability to interact with the increasingly connected world around us, and remove many of the increasingly prevalent screens that are carving through our lives. Computers would remain ever-present, but in a manner that would be less intrusive, and more able to respond to our needs without us needing to tell them to.

“By integrating with you and into the Internet of Things, think about all those gestures, think about all that biofeedback you’re getting, and imagine being able to control the devices around you,” Jordan enthuses. “So you yourself become the trackpad.

“Imagine being able to walk into a room and simply control the devices. Let’s say you walk home and you just lift your arms up and the lights turn on, a double snap and a little Barry White starts playing.

“Your temperature is high, you’re on your way home and all of a sudden that air conditioner at home knows to turn on. You can do things that are very different by having the computer integrated into you.”