Only a crisis causes change, and without the fashion innovation of waistcoats, as well as army funding to support the creation of the wristwatch, no doubt we would be still wearing our watches like the Nuremberg Egg on a pendant. Bringing new wearables into mainstream use may not take 200 years, as it did for the transition from pocket to wristwatch, but it is going to be a helluva journey, not to mention an endurance test for the investors, if the history of wearables is anything to go by.
A FLASHBACK TO THE OLD DAYS
A few days ago I spotted a top creative guru from a well known ad agency dashing across London, sporting a three-piece suit and a pocket watch on a lovely old gold chainlet. Was this a sartorial nod at Steampunk, with its fascination with Victoriana, or a logistical necessity, as his wrists were already taken up with other wearables? I couldn’t tell.
Wearables today are undergoing seemingly the same convulsions that FashTech did back in the days of Peter Henlein, who invented the wearable watch in 1510. As he came from Nuremberg, the watch was known as the Nuremberg Egg, and looked like a small drum that was worn as a pendant. Not the most ergonomic piece of tech perhaps, but if you wanted to be fashionably on time in the 16th century, then the drum was the only choice.
As glass was scarce those days, the pendant watch was covered with a grid, with a visible hand showing the hour (minutes have not been invented yet). The watch also featured a small container to be filled with perfume – to counter the odours of human waste which filled London’s streets.
After Henlein’s breakthrough there was very little progress in watch technology for around 200 years, until the late 17th century when fashion came to the rescue, with the invention of the waistcoat. It had a little pocket, which was the perfect location for the watch, but necessitated a new shape. Inventors reshaped the old fashioned drum, and the flat pocket watch was born.
In 1851 a Polish watch-maker Antoni Patek entered into a tinkering and design business with a French colleague, Philippe, and the most famous wearable tech company was born – Patek Philippe – leading with the pocket watch. The Polish-Swiss duo went on to make The Supercomplication watch for a competition, as those days rich aristos used to compete with watches as Larry Ellison now competes in yacht-making.
During WW1, officers in the trenches lost battles (and tragically, many lives) due to mistimed actions. The British army realised their soldiers desperately needed a hands-free way of telling the time, and the wrist watch, also known as the ‘wristlet’ or ‘trench watch’ was commissioned by the military. It went into production shortly after, and spread like wildfire to other continents.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
The Wearables World conference took place in London recently, so it’s a good opportunity to remind designers that wearables are not just software or hardware but ‘objects of desire’. They are beautiful, sensual creations that we are going to place on our wrists, heads, use on our hands as place for projections or wear as glasses.
Samsung is making improvements in design by adding a light and bendable battery, but we need new keyboards to be able to use the smartwatches in real life. The five keys keyboard is making a strong case for solving the ergonomics with its minimalistic, wrist-wrap setting context.
To paraphrase Bill Thompson from BBC Click, try as they might, venture capital and enthusiastic investors can’t create a culture or fashion for wearables any more than they can create happiness.
Buying a large amount of pizza for a bunch of developers can help to create a great software product, but not a great wearable product. Fashion creates looks, visual dreams originating from the subconscious, not individual objects that detract from the look instead of enhancing it.
DEVELOPERS CAN'T SLEEP A WINK
Few of us can predict what style, trend or fashion fad will take off in the summer any more than a Hollywood studio exec can predict the success of his next movie. As the screenwriter William Goldman said about the movie industry: ‘nobody knows anything’, and he could just as well say that about wearables now.
Who knows what digital product will take off on the UCL campus or amongst Shoreditch or Berlin hipsters? But we can try to define where the audience is, and here is my 10 pence worth on where we should be looking for the new wearables markets.
Wearables’ designers have so far created only objects that are led purely by optimising functionality. These designs seem detached from the aesthetics of fashion, do not create a ‘look’, or evoke a mood or fire your imagination by hinting at exotic inspirations. So far, smart bands, watches and pendants are inspired by medical and health devices like the Fitbit wristband, or the Glassy Pro One Smartwatch.
We need to start thinking like Conde Nast photographers, follow the legendary Cecil Beaton, reflect on certain (rare) movies, or music giants like David Bowie, and observe how can they create and drive the desire for the new look that the rest of us will meekly follow.
WE ALL HAVE A WEARABLE MOMENT
But even in the sports and medical context there are opportunities – this morning I went for a hack with my son, taking his beloved pony across the meadows for a long walk on a lovely but chilly day, and both of us were wearing jackets with battery-powered warm panels, commonly used amongst the horsey lot.
Adding an app that would support my training for riding would be a fairly useful addition, as I am carrying a battery on me anyway and trust the brand to provide a safe product that will not harm me or my horse. There are a million horses in UK, horse enthusiasts are gadget mad, as well as used to wearables since battery-powered massage pads for horses appeared on the market about 10 years ago.Solve their problems and you have a market. Sky-diving, kite-surfing, roller-blading and countless other sports are waiting for their niche solutions. Designers just need to accept that this market will be like fashion, niche-based and specific to the context.
PROTECTING OUR DIGITAL PARTS
Apart from missing the sport niche markets for wearables, product designers have seen yet another spanner in the wearables works. Even if we can find designers who are willing to think about wearables as fashion and create inspiring collections that we can sell in fashion stores and merchandise visually as fashion inspirations, the big elephant in the room is the issue of privacy and personal data protection. This has not been resolved, and it needs to be addressed urgently, and reassure consumers about their safety, if wearables are to become mainstream.
Considering EU personal data protection is strong, the Californian investment community and product designers would be well advised to seek legal clarification in regards of terms of real ownership of the ‘data exhaust’ coming out of your personal wearables in Europe.
We are talking about data and locations not just of ourselves but our children, our friends’ children, our parents-in-law and other elderly people connected to us. These are vulnerable communities that need protection by a legal structure, and it is not beyond the wits of our digital designers to provide a full and comprehensive answer about how to ensure location privacy for users.
A SLOW AND ETHICAL APPROACH WILL GO A LONG WAY
If we want to create as enduring a wearable object as a wrist watch (the ‘trench watch 2.0’?) perhaps we should remember Warren Buffet’s comment: ‘Time is the friend of the wonderful business, the enemy of the mediocre’.
Wearables are a great opportunity to redefine our approach to health, personal productivity and connectivity, but unless we proceed slowly and ethically, no amount of perfume included in our smartwatches will disguise the nasty stink coming out of data-bait business models for wearables.