11 December, 2014

Wearable Tech Doesn’t Have to Be Ugly

Mediamatic Hybrid Wearables
Mediamatic Hybrid Wearables (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wearable electronics – often a dull representation of function over form – are finally getting a fashion-industry makeover.

Fitbit, the maker of the Fitbit One and Flex, has teamed with the designer Tory Burch to make new trackers that look like jewelry. In January, Intel started a wearable design competition that will award $1.25 million in prize money. And a few companies are already shipping wearable gadgets that look like well-chosen accessories.

The Shine tracker by Misfit Wearables is a small aluminum disc with a magnetic clip for attaching it to clothing or shoes, and a black rubber wristband. Accessories that hold the disc, like a leather wristband and a necklace, are options to change the look.

Sonny Vu, Misfit’s chief executive, said his team spent months researching wearable tech. Neither men nor women wanted to clip devices to their shoes when they weren’t cycling or running, he said, because “your shoes are the foundation of your fashion.” Many women also said they wouldn’t wear a wristband because it created tan lines.

“If we only think about the wrist, we will definitely be limiting our imagination,” Mr. Vu said. “You can do a heck of a lot at the wrist, but you will be limiting the people who will use it. The body is such a sacred place that you really have to think this through.”

The wrist is where wearable gadgets first got noticed. Nike’s introduction of the Nike+ FuelBand in 2012 spurred a wrist-based rush that spread to smartwatches, an idea that has had varying degrees of nonsuccess since the 1980s.

The earliest activity trackers were clips that were meant to be worn on a waistband, or clipped to a sports bra or pocket.

When companies like Jawbone and Nike released wristbands like the Up and the FuelBand, Fitbit said its customers started to ask for bands in addition to clips.

“The wrist is good and bad,” said James Park, Fitbit’s chief executive. “The great thing is that once you put a band there or some other device, you have the option of not having to take it off and not forgetting it. But it’s much more difficult to track things like motion, steps taken, calories burned –filtering that out is a lot tougher than it is on a clip.”

Some exercises won’t count if you’re wearing a wrist tracker. Burn 1,000 calories in spin class, for example, but your FuelBand might never know it because your wrist stays stationary.

Consumers are also asking for devices that can measure heart rate, which is difficult with a wristband.

Then there’s style. Many athletic wristbands are simply athletic-looking or ugly. Even beautiful ones like the Jawbone Up look inorganic. The Shine comes closest to a wardrobe addition. It costs $120 for the disc, clasp and wristband, and $50 each for the necklace and leather band. Neither is high-fashion, but it’s a start. Shine lets the wearer specify that they’re swimming, cycling or playing other sports, a feature that is supposed to help get more accurate measurements.

The Shine shows that there’s no need for wearable devices to be tied to the wrist, or to any single part of the body. The little sensors inside the devices are simple and are the key to the next wave of wearable evolution.

They will power devices that “are going to continue to grow on us, on the body, and around the body,” said the creator of the Jawbone Up, Yves Behar, adding, “People will pick and choose what fits them.”

Taken from TODAY Saturday Edition, March 29, 2014