Peak hype?

With the dust settling on CES2014, the annual gadget show, it’s clear that the winners of most column inches and excitable headlines prizes were the Internet of Things (IoT) and wearables. 2014 is the year, these articles announce, that these markets take off and change the face of technology, sport, media, medicine and countless other industries.

Some growth areas are already emerging, with sport, fitness and wellbeing leading the way, but the big question is what else will happen when wearable technology works its way deeper into our apparel and ultimately our bodies?  This throws up many profound question (security, privacy and control to name a few) and a broader industry question: how are the worlds of technology and fashion going to learn to interact?

Fashion and technology – never the twain will meet?

A couple of us attended the Wearable Futures event at Ravensbourne, speaking and chairing sessions which explored how the world of wearable technology is likely to evolve.

A central debate surfaced around how tech will impact fashion and vice versa. Apple’s recent hiring of former Burberry boss Angela Ahrendts has signalled the merging of these two seemingly distinct worlds.  We shared some thoughts on how this match up may work in Simon’s talk (view the slides on Sribd).

Clothing is the original social media

In some ways clothing is the original social media. Our clothing and accessory choices broadcast messages about who we are and how we want to be seen.

Our clothing and accessory choices broadcast messages about who we are and how we want to be seen.

Fashion and clothing conforms to longstanding etiquettes and codes. Enabling our apparel with technology will inevitably challenge some of these etiquettes, making the personal and intimate very social. For example, imagine a world where your apparel operates like a screen, throwing out a readable flow of personal data as you move through the city. This world of carefree, careless and mildly creepy data transparency was explored to great effect in Gary Shteyngart’s dystopian novel, Super Sad True Love Story.

But technologies like this already exist. Philips’s Blushing dress (a not-for-market prototype) communicates your moods, and Sensoree’s Mood Sweater interprets the wearer’s emotions and communicates them back to the world.

philips-biometric-dress

If this feels awkward to you then you are experiencing what we see as the wearable market’s big unanswered questions: How do technologists work with fashion’s codes and the norms of human behaviour, and how does fashion create relevant technology innovations that people will feel the urge to buy?

At the heart of the matter lies the question of how wearables work without triggering awkwardness or worse, ridicule.

Wearables need to guard against ridicule

There were several Google glass wearers at Ravensbourne and talking with them felt quite weird. It become easy to understand why on launch this new device had quickly become known as ‘Segway for the face’ and their owners, ‘Glassholes’.

The oddness flowed from the glasses’ capacity to challenge existing norms of behaviour. It feels strange to talk to someone and be unsure if you are being filmed, or if the person is focusing on you or something else in their field of vision. It’s interesting that Google doesn’t seem to have done anything to address these issues. Yes, they haven’t been launched properly yet, yes, it makes sense for Google to learn by doing and yes, everything new seems somewhat odd, but there are risks attached to products failing to navigate etiquette – either by ignoring the fact it exists, or not designing with these norms of social  interaction in mind.

there are risks attached to products failing to navigate etiquette – either by ignoring the fact it exists, or not designing with these norms of social  interaction in mind.

It takes a brave soul to bet against Google, but if it isn’t careful, Glass could become a social outcast relevant to a small number of users and use cases. But it is not alone. Technology products tend to be judged against the ‘needs’ and behaviours they address. If people can’t recognise that a technology helps them plug a gap or augment their capabilities they tend not to adopt it.

diesel-sweeties-wearables (1)

Fashion, a world beyond needs

Fashion has tended to operate at the other end of the spectrum. Fashion doesn’t focus on needs. Vendors of Gore Tex clothing are closer to satisfying functional needs than the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier but, in general, fashion does not focus on delivering against functional needs. It’s focus is elsewhere – in the domains of the symbolic and expressive.

And yet if wearables from the fashion industry are perceived as fripperies or mere adventures with cutting edge fabrics they are legitimate expressions in the world of fashion, but won’t give many technology manufactures a run for their money. Neither will they won’t contribute to the wearables market.

Fashioning a mutual dependency

Fashion and technology are going to depend on each other to make the wearables happen. They going to need to learn to work together. Intel’s partnership with Barneys and the Council of Fashion Designers of America is one indication that this is starting to happen (see this interesting piece on Venturebeat about Intel’s approach). Looking ahead, each industry is going to re-think some  of foundational assumptions on which they are based. For example, that technology is just about needs, performance and function, or that fashion is just about detail that is important, but which functions only symbolically.

The fashion industry is going to have to learn the language and categories of technologies and  internalise issues of importance like ecosystem development and upgrade cycles. Equally, technologists might need to shift from thinking about upgrade cycles to ‘seasons’.

Most important of all, since adoption of wearable is still in the doldrums, both industries are going to have to learn that it takes humans time to work through the disruptions and behavioural frissons that new technology provokes. They ignore the power of social convention at their peril.