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With the explosion of mobile device usage, technology has never been as portable as it is today. But portability alone does not necessarily determine a productive and satisfying user experience.  Mobile devices are infamous for their poor usability and so looking at the emergence of wearable technology; I cannot but feel a little concerned. Not due to the technology itself, but because a similar situation could follow; technology defining the experience rather than design governing technology.  But before we consider what this means to us as designers, lets take a look at some wearable technology out there, and how it’s being applied.

The Emotion Jacket

emotion-jacket-PhilipsPaul Lemmens, a cognitive scientist in the User Experiences group of Philips, is researching the connection between emotion and touch, and how this can be used to evoke a wide range of emotions from excitement to relaxation. A jacket is worn by the user and it responds to signals encoded in a watched DVD. These signals trigger 64 independently controlled vibration motors that are distributed across the arms and torso.  This complex system of touch can then cause a shiver to go up a viewer’s spine or create butterflies in their stomach; and many other emotions to compliment the viewing experience. This kind of experience will heighten viewer empathy, by creating an emotional connection between them and the characters in the movie. Scientifically, this is a relatively unexplored territory, but as humans we have an intimate and innate connection between emotion and touch. Things look very promising for Philips as they strive to create a richer and more immersive entertainment experience for their customers.

The Hug Shirt™

hugshirttimeThis invention became famous when exhibited at Wired magazine’s NextFest and was named one of the best inventions for 2006 by Time Magazine. The Hug Shirt™ is worn and used to send and receive hugs over distance. Embedded in the shirt are sensors that feel the strength of the touch, the skin warmth and the heartbeat rate of the wearer. Actuators (receivers) also recreate the sensation of touch, warmth and emotion of the hug that has been sent from the distant sender. This experience is created by sending data from the shirt (via Bluetooth) to your mobile device, which in turn delivers the hug data to your friend’s phone, and ultimately to their shirt.  Even if one of the two doesn’t have a shirt, the “shirtless” can create and send a virtual hug using HugMe™ software running on their mobile device. Apart from the technology itself being noteworthy, a user-centered approach including prototypes and user testing was part of the product’s design process. Furthermore, this approach moved it to market more quickly with better results.

Shape Shifting Garments

shape-shifting-garmentsIn the spring of 2007, fashion designer Hussein Chalayan exhibited a range of clothing which demonstrated the use of memory shape alloys in haute couture design. Shape memory alloys potentially allow for perfect fit adjustable shaped garments. When you run a particular current through a fabric, a shape is created which is ‘remembered’ when the current is switched off. Apply a different current and a different shape is created. In other words, you have programmable clothing. This allows zippers to be closed, cloth gathered, and hemlines to rise, without human assistance.  Now you have fashion as you see fit, literally.

The Kickbee

kickbeeCorey Menscher, a father-to-be, has constructed a device called the Kickbee that notifies him when his unborn baby kicks inside the womb. The Kickbee is a stretchable band with attached sensors, and is worn by a pregnant mother over her stomach. A micro-controller in the band then captures the movement of the baby kicking, and transmits the signals wirelessly to an application on a nearby computer. The computer in turn broadcasts short messages of “I kicked Mommy!” on Twitter, which can be shared with family and friends. As an expecting father, I see this as some kind of surrogate experience, a substitute for the real thing.

Force Feedback Gamer’s Vest

gaming-jacketTN Games® has come up with an incredibly immersive impact-generating technology that utilizes an air compressor system to fire pneumatic cells, each capable of delivering up to 5 lbs of force. These cells fire at their own rates, force, and duration, giving players a wide set of sensory experiences that include punches, kicks, stabs, bullets, blasts, G-force, and other types of environmental contact effects. So if you were playing your favorite First Person Shooter, and you got hit by a bullet, you would feel the physical impact of the round, just as the game character would. The 3rd Space vest is the first product to harness TN Games’ impact-generating technology. The vest communicates with compatible games to give precise, 3 dimensionally accurate impacts where it happens, as it happens. You have to wonder about the safety of technology like this, especially under prolonged use and its potential for modification.

The Kokoro

kokoroAnaid Gomez Ortigoza, a student at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, is working on a project called ‘kokoro’ which is a wearable play-list generator for the iPod. What really stands out is the device’s ability to play music based on the pace of the user’s heart-rate. The idea is that your heart-rate changes based on your emotion or activity, and through rate change, your heart becomes an interface between you and your iPod. Matching songs to these variable rates will ideally match songs to your emotional or physical state. And while you may want to rely strictly an automatic match, there is still the ability for the user to override their heart’s choice by choosing a faster or slower setting. This works by picking up the wearer’s heart-rate via a sensor, and then transmitting the data to the Kokoro electronic device, which is housed in a textile pouch connected to an iPod.  This is a pretty simple concept but it represents a much more complex idea. That is, our body interfacing with devices on a passive and emotional level, and in doing so, freeing up our attention to focus on work or activities that require cognitive effort.

SmartLife HealthVest™

smartlife-textile-sensorSmartLife® Technology have developed a textile based technology platform that monitors vital health signs such as ECG, heart rate, EMG, respiration, tidal flow and skin temperature. When worn, this technology continuously monitors a person’s vital signs throughout their daily lives on a 24/7 basis. The garments are designed in a very user-centric fashion, whereby the sensors are automatically in contact with the skin, their position is correctly located and the wearer requires little instruction for set-up or routine use. Data collected by the SmartLife HealthVest™ can be transmitted in real time via Bluetooth to a remote computer, PDA, or even a cell phone which in turn can alert medical personnel if necessary. The technology represents a paradigm shift from traditional high cost patient monitoring in hospitals to affordable unobtrusive remote personalized monitoring in the home or on the go; and is also an excellent example of how technology can enhance rather than disrupt life. SmartLife® stays true to their name by following a user-centered design, and turning health monitoring into a pleasant user experience. Now if only this replaced visits to the dentist!

“HAL” Robot Suit

robotic-suitTsukuba University’s professor Yoshiyuki Sankai can stand tall as the inventor of this “Hybrid Assisted Limb®” or HAL. This technology is essentially a robot suit that can expand and improve the wearer’s physical capabilities.  When the wearer attempts to move, nerve signals are sent from the brain to the muscles. At this moment, HAL detects bio-signals on the surface of the skin and interprets the wearer’s intention before they actually move.  This enables HAL to move  as the wearer moves, in a synchronized non-delayed unison. Cyberdyne has embraced the overwhelming potential of HAL, and is expected to produce units for rehabilitation and physical training, disabled people, heavy labor, disaster rescue and entertainment. To own one will set you back nearly $60,000.

Soldier’s Suit

2020-military-uniformWhether we agree or not with how money is being spent on arms, the military is constantly looking to gain the edge through innovation. This desire provides a unique opportunity for technology and designers to save U.S. soldier’s lives. In 2020, the U.S. Army will roll out a suit that integrates nanotechnology, exoskeletons and liquid body armor. The suit’s helmet will house a GPS receiver, radio and network connections which enable each solider to be in constant contact with each other, and act either as individuals or as a collective. Closest to the body, a Warrior Physiological Status Monitoring System contains sensors that monitor physiological indicators such as heart-rate, blood pressure and hydration. This data is then relayed to medics who can determine whether to send in support, or provide feedback, and will be able to easily see where the solider is on a map. As protection, liquid body armor made of magnetorheological fluid protects the wearer. This fluid remains in a liquid state until an electrical pulse is applied. At this point, the armor changes from a soft state into a rigid state within thousandths of a second and protects the soldier by deflecting incoming bullets. Improving the soldier’s strength by 300% is made possible by a lower body exoskeleton made of lightweight composite devices attached to the wearer’s legs. The exoskeleton will also serve as a platform for mounting high-powered weapons. Researchers hope to see this developing technology mature in the next 15 to 20 years.

Invisibility Cloak

Firstly, as ridiculous as this sounds, inventing an invisibility cloak is based on physical laws. We see objects when the light falling on these objects is reflected back from their surface and into our eyes. The idea is to develop a device that prevents light from reflecting back into our eyes. Glass is already accomplishing such a thing, as we look right through it, but obviously wearing glass is not going to make us invisible. So what can possibly make the wearer invisible? Well according to researchers, the cloak design makes use of tiny needles to be fitted into a hairbrush shaped cone at angles and lengths that would force light to pass around the wearer. The major limitation of the current design is that it can bend light of a single wavelength and so only renders the object invisible under that specific wavelength of light. Developing a similar device that can bend lights of all wavelengths is still a technological challenge for researchers, but they have stated that it is possible according to the laws of physics. Even with invisibility under a single  light wavelength, the cloak could shield soldiers from night vision goggles. It could also be used to hide objects from laser designators used by the military to illuminate a target.  Sorry Harry Potter fans, you’re going to have to wait until technology catches up to you.

Bullet Dodging Body Armor

IBM was recently granted a patent for bionic body armor, originally filed last March, that’s intended to enable the wearer to dodge bullets. The device works by constantly emitting electromagnetic waves that bounce off any fast-moving projectiles. If the object in question is determined to be a threat, muscle stimulators activate and cause the wearer’s body to contort in such way to avoid being hit. It works under the idea that a sniper typically fires from a distance, given the armor time to detect the oncoming bullet and react accordingly. You have to wonder if The Matrix was a source of this inspiration.

Wearable Agriculture Suit

The Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology has developed an agriculture robot suit tailored to the 40% of Japan’s farm workers who are over the age of 65. Shigeki Toyama, a professor in robotics who developed the robotic harvesting and pruning suit, sought to make it industry and task-specific in order to generate cost savings in producing the suit. With Japan’s aging population, this solution seems to present a transition between human workers and what will ultimately become fully robotic ones. So you want to retire at 65? Forget it! Put this suit on and get back to work!

So what does all of this mean to us as designers?

  • Firstly, I think it means we need to be aware of what technology exists and what is being developed out there. Think creatively and figure out how it can be leveraged and harnessed appropriately.
  • Big corporations appreciate the massive potential of wearable technology, and are already filing patents, building prototypes and releasing to market. Take note of emerging players and follow them closely.
  • Identify which industries are hungry for this kind of innovation. So far, entertainment, health care, fashion, sports and the military are embracing wearable technology.
  • As designers we should be looking for lifestyle and vocational problems to solve. We have the ability to create experiences that can dramatically improve productivity through highly functional and pragmatic design. Designs can literally save and improve the quality of lives.
  • Conduct ethnographic research by observing users “in the wild”.  This should be done prior to design to get an idea of how they go about their daily lives, and then again once they’re wearing the technology to see how it’s positively or negatively affecting them.
  • Understand that designing wearable technology might be about allowing users to express themselves. This is especially true in the fashion and lifestyle industries.
  • For certain applications, users will expect to experience things emotionally and physically.
  • Identify data points and triggers on the human body. Think of how the wearer’s anatomy can be an interface for technology, in both directions. We are after all, a wonderful showcase of biological, chemical and electrical technology.
  • Become skilled at sketching concepts and storyboarding. There could be many visual ways to communicate an idea, but make sure to place emphasis on storytelling. We may be dealing with abstract user interfaces that do not need wireframes, but rather require visual explanations for how the interface is used and technology works.
  • A new kind of designer will be needed to pioneer and support the advancement and design of wearable technology. A hybrid set of skills will be required, with ideal candidates possessing a deep understanding of user experience principles, industrial design, and perhaps a background in technology too. There might also be demand for designers from specific industries such as fashion, health care, sports, etc.  But either way, designers that are massively out-of-the-box thinkers, will be highly sought after by both start-ups and corporations alike.

With this emerging technology and rapidly evolving user experience frontier, we should not abandon a user-centered approach to designing wearable technology. Staying true to this philosophy will make the transition for both users and designers a less stressful and more enjoyable one.  Yet while we stay the user-centered course, as designers we need to adapt and evolve our skills. Who knows, it might not be long before we’re wearing technology to design wearable technology.

Bradley Hebdon

Bradley Hebdon

Founder & Editor at UXbyDesign
Bradley is a User Experience Leader with over 15 years of interactive experience. He is currently employed as Director of UX at Slalom Consulting's Southern California office.
Bradley Hebdon


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Bradley Hebdon
Bradley Hebdon

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