Google’s recent announcement that its new wearable interface, Google Glass, would be made in the US generated much hoopla. But here’s a question: does it actually matter where it is made, if no one wants to wear it?
Trend forecasters would have us believe that “wearables” – gadgets that slip on the body like, well, a pair of glasses, allowing the user to log in and boot up without requiring a desk or an outlet – are the next big thing in technology. Statistics from UK-based analysts Juniper Research show that next year will be a watershed for wearables, creating a market worth more than $1.5bn by the end of 2014. And yet, at the moment, it’s hard to imagine. Because truth is, most wearables seem, well, unwearable.
Although Google Glass cannily teamed up with New York fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg for her spring/summer 2013 catwalk show last September, and is rumoured to be partnering with US spectacles company Warby Parker, when Google co-founder Sergey Brin was photographed on the New York subway in January wearing the device, commentators said he looked like an “assassin”, “a jewel thief” and “a bit of a tool”.
“Most inventors fail to ask, ‘Is it what people really want?’” says Swedish industrial designer Anna Haupt. “If it’s hi-tech then it always seems to be nerdy. If I were designing Google Glass, I would design it into something else – like a hat or a hairclip. Google Glass is visible and imposing, as it wraps around the head.”
Haupt has teamed up with business partner Terese Alstin to design an “invisible” cycling helmet called Hövding. She says: “We decided from early on that we didn’t want it to be too hi-tech in appearance.” The result is a fashion-friendly collar that looks a little like the doughnut-shaped knit scarves that Yves Saint Laurent’s former designer Stefano Pilati created a few years ago. Worn around the neck, it contains a folded-up airbag that inflates when sensors are triggered by an accident.
London-based product designer Dominic Wilcox has created another “invisible” gadget: GPS-enabled shoes inspired by Dorothy’s red shoes in The Wizard of Oz. Click the heels together, and LEDs hidden in the tips of the traditional-looking brogues indicate the direction of your destination.
“If technology is to start becoming a common part of everyday clothing, then it should be integrated in a way that it provides a useful additional function while being visually understated,” says Wilcox, referencing the fact that currently, “when we walk towards a door in a supermarket it opens before we get to it. It’s an example of how technology can be both magical and useful when subtly integrated within the things that we use everyday.”
Like a watch? The most-anticipated development in wearable tech is currently the iWatch, a wrist-mounted version of tech giant Apple’s iPhone; rival Samsung is also said to be planning a wearable Galaxy device. Both are rumoured to be due out before the end of this year. And though the house that Steve Jobs built has never underestimated the importance of aesthetics, it will be interesting to see if Apple can replicate its skill for industrial design in accessory design. It may be the difference between a product that is a novelty and one that becomes a wardrobe classic.
Fiona Harkin is senior vice-president of content at Stylus.com, research and advisory firm for the creative consumer industries