illustration by Louise Reimer
by Isabel Slone
It’s London Fashion Week and the first look down the runway at designer Richard Nicoll’s September 2014 show is a glamorous flapper-style mini dress covered in shimmering LED lights. One month later in a decidedly unglamorous classroom in downtown Toronto, entrepreneur Robert Tu delivers a lecture on how to program the MeU, a Lite Brite-esque LED lightboard you can attach to clothing to broadcast images or text. While these garments have precious little in common, they are both examples of a trend that’s reaching peak hype: wearable tech.
Wearable tech is exactly what it sounds like —- any electronic or computerized device that can be worn on the body. Some trace the roots of wearable tech back to the 1960s, when MIT mathematics professor Edward Thorp admitted to stuffing a small computer in his jacket to help him win at roulette while visiting Las Vegas casinos. Since then, wearable tech has become one of the most exciting developments of the past decade, and is expected to contribute $19 billion to the world economy by 2018. Forbes Magazine declared 2014 the “Year of Wearable Technology,” and consumer data aggregator GlobalWebIndex reports that 71 per cent of 16-24 year olds are interested in wearable tech.
“We use technology in general to extend our capabilities, to do more and be more. Wearable technology is just an aspect of that,” says Kate Hartman, director of the Social Body Lab at Toronto’s OCAD University. As a result, entrepreneurs are creating products that only the Jetsons could’ve imagined, like a medical bracelet that can communicate with paramedics, or pairs of gloves that can send signals to one another. The unlikely home of many of these independent developments is Toronto, which many are saying could become the Silicon Valley of wearable tech.
“Within driving distance, we have companies that are focusing on a gesturecontrol armband, a brain-sensing headband, a heartbeat authentication wristband, and biometric shirts,” says Tom Emrich, the founder of We are Wearables Toronto, one of two monthly lecture series for fashionable tech geeks in the city. Emrich notes that part of the reason why Toronto is an epicenter of wearable tech development is because it is home to a “number of game-changing wearables startups.” He namechecks interaXon, whose Muse headband is supposed to reduce stress and improve concentration by monitoring your brain during focused attention exercises. There’s also Nymi, a subtle wristband developed by Bionym that uses your heartbeat as a security authenticator, similar to the fingerprint and iris scanning technology seen in top-secret intelligence movies like Mission Impossible.
Hartman says the wearables scene has changed dramatically since she first arrived in Toronto to head up OCAD’s Digital Futures program. “Five years ago it was more hackers, artists and engineers who were playing around in the space. Now there’s a huge startup culture, and we’re seeing all these products being churned out. There’s so many incubators, hacker events and things that are fostering growth of new industry.”
At the Social Body Lab they’re working on the Monarch, a prototype of a winged body harness that moves to express the wearers emotions. Monarch’s wings open and close when it senses muscle movements to reveal a pink, fleshy-looking maw that bears more than a passing resemblance to Audrey, the human-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors.
The Monarch. Photo courtesy of OCAD’s Social Body Lab.
While these products seem fascinating, it bears asking — how useful are they on a day-to-day basis? “Wearable tech is currently in its adolescence,” explains Hartman. Although creators now have the capabilities to create many of the products that were mere fantasies 5-10 years ago, many of the prototypes out there are, in Hartman’s words, “crude and obvious.” At this early stage in the game there’s a fundamental disconnect between the types of wearable tech being developed, ranging from practical fitness trackers and body sensors that hold the promise of improving your life to more artistic, conceptual projects where the value isn’t clear.
Hartman concedes the Monarch falls among the “goofier prototype(s)” but is firm that there’s power to the concept. “When you’re actually able to get hooks into a person’s personal expression, that’s a very big deal,” she says. The next step at the lab is to figure out how to make the Monarch less bulky and match it more subtly to the wearer’s everyday clothes.
2015 may be the Year of the Wearable, but these gadgets are still a long way from taking over our lives. Wearable tech has to face a number of challenges before it sees widespread adoption. One major challenge is what Emrich calls the “killer app” or showing consumers the value of wearable products. There’s also the issue of battery life; wearables are meant to be integrated into our lives 24/7, yet most batteries lack the capacity. Lastly wearables aren’t particularly fashionable in a traditional sense, so there’s less incentive to wear them. Despite these setbacks, Emrich is still a wearables evangelist; “I totally believe that having more information and being more connected is going to empower us as a species,” he says.
Hartman believes wearable tech will outlive the media buzz, but at somepoint it will shift from flashy gadgets like the Google Glass or Apple Watch to technology that is focused on extending human capabilities. Once we learn how to bridge the gap between practical and the conceptual, “that’s when things will get interesting,” she says.
Isabel Slone gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Ontario Arts Council’s Writer’s Reserve Program. In the print edition of this piece, Isabel’s name was spelled incorrectly. Broken Pencil regrets the error.