The Promise Of Invisibles

Editor’s note: Forest Young is an educator at Yale University and a Creative Director in Interbrand’s New York studio. He also serves as a board member of the AIGA/NY and is a member of the MoMA R&D Salon. 

Flight or invisibility? The age-old question about which superpower one would choose unveils a preference for either showboating or stealth. When the same lens is applied to wearable technology, the question becomes rhetorical. We do not want to be overshadowed or defined by our devices. Rather, we want to retain a sense of agency. Technology should serve as a secret helper. Enter invisibles: camouflaged wearables or micro-scale biosensors that are adhered to the skin, ingested or implanted.

Born of a similar premise of stealth advantage in the 1960s, MIT professors Edward Thorp and Claude Shannon invented the first wearable computer — a concealable, cigarette-pack-sized computer that increased their odds at the roulette tables in Las Vegas casinos by 44 percent. The first wearable technology was about winning without being caught.

In the 50 years since wearables debuted on the Las Vegas strip, however, form has largely been informed by fiction and not function.The rugged smartwatches and fitness bands to date reflect a mythic lineage back to Dick Tracy’s two-way TV watch that captured our collective imaginations, but forgotten has been the simple invisible machine that helped you win.

Indeed, the brazen wrist-worn wearables of today will soon be eclipsed by the next generation of ubiquitous technology that will be essentially invisible. Gartner estimates that by 2017, 30 percent of wearables will be “unobtrusive to the naked eye.”

Despite the release of the Apple Watch and all other smartwatches before it, the majority of consumers still harbor skepticism about the nascent category-at-large. Many would welcome a wearable device that promised significant benefit without the social stigma of conspicuous consumption or digitally mediated exchanges. Stealth over wealth.

In contrast to Apple’s wearable strategy, many companies are choosing to develop ‘invisible’ products, lowering barriers to adoption by removing aesthetic considerations and stripping away complex functionality in favor of devices that do one thing incredibly well.

Google’s Smart Contact Lens, in partnership with Novartis, promises to help patients manage diabetes and is a stark contrast to Google Glass, the heads-up display that was met with considerable resistance. The Intel Curie module looks to be the standard integrated solution for developing wearable technology that can augment clothing, rings and bracelets. The AmpStrip by FitLinxx is a waterproof, sensor-filled strip that resembles a tech-studded Band-Aid, designed to stick on your torso and offer 24/7 heart-monitoring without a visible fitness tracker on the wrist.

But realizing camouflaged and miniaturized technology is not easy.

Invisible tech does present obstacles that impede adoption. Devices large and small are always constrained by battery life and connectivity requirements. Always-on monitoring heightens this threshold even more. Tethered solutions provide companion connectivity but compromise the experience of emancipation and increase our dependencies on smartphones.

Invisible technology, although user-centered, presents a brand attribution dilemma. Simply put, how their brands get credit without a visible product. Business models and closed-loop ecosystems are additional limitations to interoperable ecosystems.

Amy Puliafito, Communications at Misfit, showcases the Swarovski Shine at SXSW Interactive 2015 (Photo by Forest Young)

Amy Puliafito, Communications at Misfit, showcases the Swarovski Shine at SXSW Interactive 2015 (Photo by Forest Young)

There are companies developing technologies to overcome these hurdles. The violet Misfit Swarovski Shine uses a patented “energy crystal” technology to allow for efficient solar charging on a small surface to power itself; the wearable itself is camouflaged by jewelry. The PillCam by Given Imaging is a capsule-size camera to help screen patients looking for an alternative to invasive colonoscopies. Grindhouse Wetware has developed Circadia, an implantable chip that can send body metrics wirelessly to a phone or other device.

Despite these emerging solutions, currently, in the mainstream market, we are witnessing a wearables market of tech spec one-upmanship, where brands are choosing showboating over stealth. It is hard not to infer parallels of premium novelty between the 18k Apple Watch Edition that starts at $10,000 USD and its 18k predecessor from 1975, the Limited Edition Pulsar P2 LED watch, which, adjusted for inflation, would be more than $17,000 USD. As eBay auctions later proved ‘heirloom technology’ is an oxymoron.

In short, the wearables category is still nascent, and we have yet to see a groundswell in adoption. Moore’s Law, and continual miniaturization, should help wearables evolve from conspicuous devices to stealth assistive technology.

People will one day easily augment everyday items and even themselves, and in turn, create products directly from their own usage. Stealth advantage will become the requirement, and invisibles the new norm.