Like Dance Moms or protein-only diets, wearable tech is one of those things that simultaneously incites excitement, bandwagonning, distrust and disgust. Gut instinct tells us we’re turning into cyborgs, which is either terrifying or great, depending on how you see it. Maybe we will become more efficient, fit versions of ourselves, or maybe we are simply setting ourselves up for the government to steal a new wealth of personal information. As Sarah wrote, the future of wearable tech is nearly impossible to predict, even for those most involved in its development.
These are big concerns. But I have another one: that your wearable tech is making you look like a tool.
An unofficial poll of five TechCrunch writers and editors revealed little faith in finding decent-looking wearables. The most popular suggestion was this followed by this.
But the thing is, sometimes you love what you love, and it’s awesome, so you’re just going to wear it anyway, goddammit! Even those TC eds admitted that they have an affection for dumb-looking wearables. Like USB belts. Wristbands. Cyber pants.
And so we embark on the search for wearable tech pieces that are both functionally great and aesthetically not the worst. Note that a lot of these guys are only available for pre-order at the moment, so you have some time to consider your fate.
Fitbit Flex: Fitness bands are the easiest entry point into wearables, because everyone knows that if you want to be cool, go where the jocks go. All of my athlete friends in college wore plastic stopwatches around to clock their pace on runs, and they worked out smarter and harder than the rest of us who tooled around on the elliptical for half an hour. Fitness bands are a useful extension of that, tracking diet and sleep in addition to exercise. There are a number of fitness trackers out there now, but the Fitbit Flex seems like a winner. Jawbone UP has been prone to malfunctioning, while Nike Fuelband dropped its Android companion app. Minimalist and sporty, the Fitbit Flex also nails the aesthetics of fitness tracking. It’s respectable while still telling the world, “Yeah, I work out.”
Nike Hyperdunk+: Kicking things up a notch, Nike’s Hyperdunk basketball shoes are embedded with sensors synced to the Nike+Basketball app that measure your air, speed and intensity. I would like to know (1) what Lebron, who has a line named after him, actually thinks of these, and (2) how well they work. Depending on their functionality, these shoes could be an awesome piece of undercover sports tech, especially in an industry that values and capitalizes on over-the-top, attention-grabbing design.
Filip: These bands look like cute oversize watches, but they appeal to every parent’s darkest fear of losing a child. Let’s suspend debate of the various pitfalls of our helicopter parenting culture, and focus on the good here: Filip has GPS, Wi-Fi, and cellular capability, so you can locate your child, see if they’ve moved out of designated safe zones, and call and send them short messages, among other things. It’s targeted at 5- to 12-year-olds, an age group that maker Filip Technologies recognizes probably shouldn’t have cell phones because of cyber-bullying and that horrible sexting business. (This is, of course, hoping kids don’t get bullied for wearing an umbilical cord/watch.) As a device it’s quite good looking, so it’s not a bad option if you don’t mind being implicated as a helicopter parent for those who know what it is. But you know what? We all have priorities. According to a PR rep, Filip goes on pre-order this summer and will ship in the fall, with pricing as of yet undetermined.
Last TechCrunch reported, Thalmic Labs had passed the $4 million mark on pre-orders for its $149 MYO armband, so if popularity is your benchmark for acceptability, it’s not a bad bet. Worn around the forearm, MYO translates electrical impulses and muscle motion into gesture control for Bluetooth-connected devices. The potential applications of this are pretty exciting, the most mundane being that PowerPoint
presentations just got a whole lot sexier. It’s okay aesthetically, if a little awkward because of how the band’s links space out as they’re slid onto the arm (Counter point: you could look like this guy.)
Misfit Shine: Hazy silver and the size of a quarter, Misfit’s wearable activity tracker makes the best show of the lot in striving for elegance. Their website suggests that it’s meant to “complement any fashion statement,” a welcome change from tech that strives to be your fashion statement, or at least sit awkwardly next to it. Plus, it can be easily hidden on a sock or bra strap. Shine can be worn in the pool, but it really wins in business or formal occasions. Although Livestrong made it okay to wear a rubber wristband with a suit, it’s nice to not have to be that guy.
So what, are we trying to tell you to not wear something at the risk of not fitting in? To not be disruptive? What is this, high school? Of course not. We need brave souls like the Google Glass lady models to pioneer wearable technology in the mainstream — if, that is, we even want it in the mainstream. And that’s a question worth asking.
It’s more a matter of asking tech companies to really consider product from a style standpoint. If they want us to serve as their ambassador 24/7, they have to return the favor in good taste. At the moment, the most wearable pieces are those that emulate common clothing and jewelry items, because they have the most established benchmarks for design success and because we identify them most readily as something that is, in fact, meant to be worn on the body. The products I listed are good, but they can do more.
If wearable tech companies are going to proliferate and incorporate themselves into our daily lives, they should start hiring fashion directors. Heckled as it is, Google Glass has reportedly made the smart move of talking with Warby Parker about infusing its kickass design aesthetic (and name) into future glasses. What I want to see is wearable tech that accommodates my taste, rather than making me redefine what I would be willing to wear. Unless I’m going for a swim, I don’t want plastic around my wrist.
Mainstream wearable tech is in its early stages. If it’s going to catch on, it needs to step up its design game now.
[Images from Fashion-Allure.com, Fitbit, Nike, Evado Filip, Thalmic Labs, Misfit.]