The social age of wearable tech: From Quantified Self to emotional second skin

Think wearables are just for information? Think again
The social age of wearable tech

On a crisp Sunday, as Public School models glided down a New York Fashion Week runway in oversized shirts and cropped leather jackets, their wrists were adorned with metal and nylon wearable technology accessories built for the Fitbit Alta. What Fitbit's collaboration with Public School makes clear is that hardware companies are waking up to the fact that they can't ignore fashion. What's not clear is what that means exactly. Are we talking about the industry, with its catwalk shows, editorial calendars and elite circles? Are we talking about a consideration for aesthetics and form factor? Perhaps what we really mean when we talk about "fashion" is design, and with that, a consideration for the body that goes beyond just counting its steps.

Up until this point, wearable technology has been stuck in the information age. Our devices have counted our steps, measured our heart rates and brain waves, and tracked everything from our sleep habits to our breathing patterns. This data-focused phenomenon, known as "The Quantified Self," was crystallised by Wired editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly when they coined the term in 2007. The rush to translate the human body into data sets that can be processed by our machines has resulted in an explosion of hardware devices – many of which do the same thing and aren't always that technologically interesting.

While these wristables may have catapulted wearable technology into mainstream consciousness, they haven't resonated within fashion circles. Even in headline-grabbing collaborations (think Apple Watch x Hermès), fashion seems slapped on top of hardware like an afterthought. In their focus on function, wearables have lacked a deeper appreciation of form.

The social age of wearable tech

We've only begun to scratch the surface in terms of what it means to wear our technology. As Manufacture New York CTO Amanda Parkes put it, "Where we are with wearables is about where we were with the internet in 1993." If, as Parkes suggests, the history of online media can provide a roadmap for thinking about wearable technology, then we should be able to get a sense of where we're headed, at least for the not-so-distant future.

In 2009's The Social Factor, IBM's Maria Azua describes our transition from the Information Age towards the Social Age. Azua says the Information Age was marked by "increasing efficiency in the dissemination of information via the internet from producer to consumer." Instead, the Social Age which follows is marked by "a fundamental change in the way we communicate and socialise." While Azua is talking about the evolution of computing, this model can be useful in thinking about the evolution of wearables. The wearable technology we've seen up until this point belongs to a kind of Information Age – data-driven, aiming to be as efficient as possible and primarily one-to-one in its focus to deliver wearers information about their bodies.

The next wave of wearables promises to usher in a Social Age, which is marked not necessarily by a movement away from information, but towards communication and self-expression.

"I think the notion of the Quantified Self was for a very specific demographic,"says garment engineer Billie Whitehouse, the co-founder of Wearable Experiments, a company which creates social wearable concepts and clothing. One of its recent projects is the Fan Jersey, a Bluetooth enabled shirt which connects sports fans to their favourite players by delivering impacts via haptic feedback.

Read this: The fashion future of haptics starts with Wearable Experiments

"The skin is the largest organ on our body, and it's an under-utilised communication system," explains Whitehouse. "Technology can be used to play songs on the body." Much of her work leverages sensors and haptic feedback to connect people to one another.Her Fundawear project, for example, is a set of his and her underwear for couples in long-distance relationships. The smart pants facilitate a kind of virtual play where touch gestures on a smartphone screen are translated into vibrations in the underwear.

Designer and architect Behnaz Farahi says the transition in wearable tech from data towards emotion parallels what she's seeing in other areas of technology.

I dreamed of an emotional second skin, something that is sensory

"If you look at the latest advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics, you can see there's a shift moving away from quantitative data and logic design and a greater emphasis on emotions and feelings," says Farahi. She is most known for her work Caress of the Gaze, a 3D printed cape which reacts to the gaze of others. A small camera inside the cape records the wearer's surroundings, including the age, gender, and orientation of the gazeof anyone looking at it. This information is conveyed toa micro controller, which is able to control various nodes in the garment. The project aims to rethink our relationships with our bodies and their surrounding environments.

The two sets of work are different in nature with Whitehouse bringing consumer wearables to market and Farahi creating conceptual art pieces. But both invite us to envision a future where wearing technology isn't just about measuring and monitoring, but instead about enhancing our body'sability to communicate, express, and empathise with others.

Towards an emotional second skin

It's no coincidence that it is female designers who are cultivating an empathy towards the body in wearable technology. Women are socialised to be more interpersonal and have long been associated with the flesh (see Simone de Beauvoir, Elizabeth Grosz). As more women break into an industry that has traditionally looked predominately white and male, they bring not only their experiences of inhabiting bodies but also of expressing and analysing emotions.

"When I started to combine fashion and technology together I dreamed of an emotional second skin – something that is sensory, something we can use to breathe new life into fashion," says fashion designer Anouk Wipprecht.

Wipprecht's "speaking" garments, such as her Spider Dress and Smoke Dress, are social wearables that react in proximity to other bodies. Come too close to her Smoke Dress, and you'll find it emitting a substance, not unlike an octopus spraying ink. Similarly, her Spider Dress explores notions of proximity and personal space by including an embedded protection system which keeps others at bay with animated robotic arms that look like the legs of a spider. Wipprecht has in the past remarked that traditional fashion "felt dead to her." She imagines a future of clothing that has a mind all its own: "When fabrics are combined with sensors, they become something we can express and communicate with."

Hyper-social wearables

If you're looking for evidence that the next wave of wearables will be hyper-social, look no further than the companies and devices targeting Generation Z (kids born in the late 90s and early 2000s). The Snapchat generation cannot get enough of their friends, and startups like Gemio are paying attention.

Its first product is a smart friendship bracelet for young girls, branding itself as a social wearable. The bracelets are made of plastics, die-cast metals, LEDs, and customizable charms that snap on and off for gifting and trading. Gemio bracelets won't count teen girls' steps, but they will play special light sequences when paired and in proximity with other friend's bracelets. "We think there's a much bigger market in friendship than in fitness," says Michael Bettua, the Seattle-based startup's CEO and co-founder, of the choice of features for his line of smart jewellery.

Read this: Hands on with Gemio's smart friendship bracelet

Meanwhile, Studio XO is working away at the hardware accelerator Highway 1 in San Francisco, to develop commercial wearables for the masses. The studio has made a name for itself executing large-scale wearable tech projects for stage performances with artists such as Lady Gaga. It is now turning its attention to how commercial wearables can connect fans in an audience. While further details of its work at Highway 1 is still under wraps, what we do know is that – much like Gemio – Studio XO is looking towards a horizon where wearables enhance a shared experience.

Cultivating empathy for bodies

None of these experiments and new directions undermine the value of the Quantified Self. Holding a data mirror up to our bodies will undoubtedly change how we train for fitness and administer healthcare. The Information Age of wearables will allow us insight into our physical selves in new and unprecedented ways. This next social wave will emphasise that we're not just physical bodies, but social ones, too.

The social and expressive body has been the mainstay of the fashion industry for a long time, but that's not to say that fashion has it all right. It, too, is an industry that requires radical change in its cultivation of empathy towards bodies.

Social wearables ask us to remember that we're more than the sum of our parts. They remind us that we are more than ones and zeros, more than whether we hit or miss our weekly activity goal. Rather than focusing primarily on internal data signals, social wearables gesture outwards, and offer up new modes for human communication and connection.

If up until now consumer wearables have mechanised humans by turning our bodies into digital content, the Social Age of wearables promises to humanise our machines and make them more like us: softer, friendlier, and sure, more fashionable.

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