A Wearable Technologist’s Manifesto

The Medium of Wearable Technology

Wearable technology is everywhere, you just weren’t paying attention. It’s on your wrist. It’s on your face. It’s in your shoes. It is your watch, your glasses, your sportswear. It introduces new capabilities and resources to your day-to-day living. Any technology that you wear is wearable technology. But it can be so much more.

Today, wearable technology is most commonly defined as garments and accessories that integrate circuitry, are made of technologically significant materials, or produced by technologically significant means, be it accelerometers (tilt sensors) in your shoes, LEDs (lights) in your dress, peltier modules (heaters) in your jacket, or t-shirts with print patterns designed with a computer algorithm. It is new, it is different, it is undervalued, and all too commonly misused.

The military and athletic industries dominate the wearable technology scene as commercial and research interests to improve user performance and communication. Outside of the commercial mainstream, it appears in tech blogs as a game of “one up” to see how many LEDs a designer can fit onto a single dress.

The Practice of the Wearable Technology

Wearable technology must be three things: it must be small so that it is wearable, it must be attractive so that people will wear it, and it must be functional so that people will have a reason to wear it. All else is needless elaboration.

Wearable technology is of two worlds and too often its practitioners loose track of one side or the other: creating opulent dresses of LEDs-all light and fury, signifying nothing-or fearfully functional works that might aid the body but at the cost of any aesthetics or comfort. Indeed, wearable technology binds two worlds that are too often devoid of interdisciplinary consideration.

Wearable (read: fashion)

Fashion is too trendy for its own good. The paradigm of fashion is one of seated authorities dictating the current style to the masses. And while industry has control of what it outputs, buyers, more than ever, have control over what they choose to consume. Though our tastes are our own, I will stand by the flavor of elegance-not the elegance of opulence but the elegance that comes of optimality. No, I believe in the simplicity of line, the delicacy of cut, the timelessness of rationality.

I leave it to you to choose what to buy but chastise those who similarly choose what to sell. Fashion is not eternally tied to the theocracy of labeled priests and boutique temples. If the Internet has done anything to fashion, it is that it has opened the consumers to a wider range of possibilities than ever before. Though fashion always had a trickle down process to the Kmart clothing racks for the masses, this new means of commercial structure-like that of MySpace music groups and YouTube amateur series before-allows smaller or more niche designers to find a larger audience for limited runs of clothes. Of course, the transition is harder than the transition of already digital goods that can be sampled online. The Internet lacks the convenience of a dressing room with which to try on potential purchases for fit, drape, and complementary colors. Yet people are buying online, and there is little reason to expect that market to do anything but grow in the future.


The technological market place has been historically unconscious of the end user. Computers were initially used by programmers and technicians that knew the inner workings of the computers. For them, the arcane acronyms in commands were adequate to control the computer. It was only with Smalltalk, followed by its adoption and adaptation by Apple, that the concept of the user illusion was introduced to the computing world. The user illusion allows users to create their own experimental narrative of how content on the computer is represented and should be used without knowing anything about the inner workings of the computer. Everything in the computer is just a series of “0″s and “1″s, but we perceive them as metaphors for physical objects that have meaning to us. From the user illusion comes the imagery of desktops, trash cans, folders, files, and documents.

While this approach is gaining ground it still has a ways to go and room to expand. Those not clued in, think that adding a drop-shadow and reflection to their websites and applications will make them like Apple. No, what matters most of all-what should be at the top of our consciousness when creating-is the user.
Wearable technology schematic, in a nutshell

The Potential of the Wearable Technology

Wearable technology is a medium characterized by its closeness to the body-it is the closest we can get to the body short of subdermal implants. This makes it ideal for taking measurement and monitoring body states. Unlike other medical technology, it is also integrated into the day-to-day life of the wearer, so that it can collect readings over a greater period of time and react to body movements and biometric shifts. These capabilities speak to wearable technology’s singular potential to be intimately and innately sensitive. Why is it, then, that these characteristics are so often over looked?

Much of today’s technology employs an overt interface. Users are presented with keys, buttons, switches, levers, knobs, call them what you will-label them if you must-to control their technology. But all these means of entry are abstractions of the message. The medium may be the message that is currently conveyed, but it is far from the intent. Our intent is formed before it was composed into words, typed onto a screen, sent to another screen to be read by another. Our true meaning is something inside of us that has yet to find a means of pure expression. Even our migration to touch screens and finger gestures does not represent a transition from the consciousness but a smoother means of operating with it. And while I do not claim that wearable technology is a means of undiluted communication, it is a means of coming one step closer to it.

Wearable technology can take in the unconscious gestures of a user. By unconscious, I do not, by any stretch, imply that these actions are not meaningful. Much of our functions, actions, and reactions are left to our unconscious to decide and execute. Indeed, “left to” is a bit of a misnomer in that implies that the consciousness has some part in giving over control. If the experiments of Libet on neurological stimulation and awareness prove anything, it is that the consciousness is a final authority that is called on by the subconscious to validate an action. Our unconscious actions have faster response times, unhindered initiation, and more undiluted meaning. Wearable technology is in a, quite literally, unique position to monitor these actions and convey meaning to them.

And so create. Create beauty. Create use. Create usability. Create wearable technology that does more than flash lights, that does more that warm feet. Create wearable technology that inspires, intrigues, and enhances the users’ life. We have a unique medium with as yet unimagined potential.

Elizabeth is a native of California, now exported to New York where she develops wearable technology at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications program. Elizabeth combines her past studies in mass communication and work in web development with her current work on physical computing. She is fascinated by computer mediated communications–transitioning from a computer dominated interaction to one where the computer is an unobtrusive enabler. Her work explores augmented awareness and pieces operating on the threshold of psychological and physiological consciousness. To integrate technology into everyday living in an intimate and innate interface, Elizabeth integrates technological circuitry with garments and accessories.

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