The desire to wear wearables is waning. It’s time for the fashion industry to step up to the plate

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.”

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World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”