Wearable technology isn’t fashionable, and that’s a problem that can’t be solved with better design.
I don’t think the first half of that statement is controversial. Wearable tech may be somewhat cool among a certain narrow demographic, but even then it’s not exactly a fashion statement.
But why can’t design help? Because the problem isn’t what these devices look like, it’s what they do. The reasons people wear them — productivity, health, fitness, even connectivity — are just not compatible with the aesthetics of fashion.
I’m the furthest thing from a fashion expert, but I think this is obvious enough that it doesn’t take an expert to see it. Most of these goals are a form of self-improvement, and self-improvement is almost the opposite of fashion. The essence of fashion is to project confidence, self-assurance and natural beauty — to look like you don’t need to exercise, be more productive, monitor your standing/sitting time or posture or UV exposure, be notified of every like on your Facebook page, or anything else with even a whiff of ambition or insecurity.
Don’t believe me? How many designer clothing ads have you seen that feature models wearing a Bluetooth headset, or a Blackberry belt clip, or even a Fitbit wristband? If the technology isn’t part of what’s being promoted, it’s not an accessory that any photographer wants to add.
Even if it works with a certain outfit, no one who’s really fashion-conscious is going to wear the same accessory day after day with different outfits. It’s as simple as that. Dressing it up with different watch straps or colors just makes it even more obvious. And if you only wear your device on certain days, or only to the gym, it defeats the purpose of much of the long-term monitoring that was the reason you bought it in the first place, and makes it harder to justify the high cost.
If you really want people to wear your gadget all day, every day, your design focus should be to make it less visible and easier to hide. For the manufacturers, hope never dies that people will want to display their devices and provide free advertising, but somehow it never seems to work out that way. Take a look at one of the newest ones, the Lumo Lift posture tracker, which can either be clipped to a bra strap/undershirt, or secured magnetically with a visible metal square that comes in different colors. Any guesses which option more people will choose?
Actually, I predict one of the first popular third party accessories for the Apple Watch will be a clip or case that replaces the strap entirely and makes it easier to carry the device somewhere other than your wrist.
Fashion can embrace certain forms of technology, but it takes a long time, generally long enough for it to be charmingly obsolete. Watches are one example: mechanical watches are still classier than (far more accurate) quartz watches, almost a century after the quartz technology was invented. And they’re covered with marine pressure gauges and other extras that most wearers wouldn’t know how to read even if they needed to. Technology is stylish in inverse proportion to its utility.
Of course, there’s still a market for unfashionable wearable tech. There are millions of Bluetooth headsets sold every year. But they’ll never be as widespread as iPhones, and I think the adoption of the Apple Watch — along with Google Glass and every other visible wearable device — will hit the same ceiling. The first breakthrough wearable that becomes ubiquitous will be one that can be concealed.