The fashionable future of haptics starts with Wearable Experiments

We talk fashion, flying and getting lost with We:eX co-founder Billie Whitehouse
The fashionable future of haptics

This is the year that tech touches back. Haptics is set to completely take over the way we interact with gadgets, gaming and wearables. Pretty soon we'll be moving holographic objects that feel real, stroking carpet on touchscreens and experiencing music through vibrations on our bodies. It sounds like sci-fi but it's coming.

Read this: How wearables work with our bodies and emotions

Even the world's most famous wearable, the Apple Watch, includes haptic feedback features such as a pressure sensitive screen and 'tapping' you on the wrist when you get alerts.

And Billie Whitehouse, co-founder and design director of Wearable Experiments (We:eX) couldn't be more excited.

"This totally validates what I do, how I communicate with the skin," Whitehouse told Wareable. "Having this mass amount of people knowing and understanding how haptics can work is really exciting, as long as people know we're not Apple, we're doing things in a much more intimate way."

Good, clean, vibrating fun

Whitehouse of course refers to herself and We:eX co-founder/technical director Ben Moir. The 'intimate way' refers to We:eX projects from 2013's just-about-as-intimate-as-you-can-get vibrating Durex Fundawear for long-distance couples to this year's Navigate jacket which uses haptic nudges to guide the wearer to turn left and right around city streets. No screens allowed.

"For me, it's always been about getting our eyes back," said Whitehouse. "Being totally dominated by screens does distract you, it doesn't allow you to experience a city, breathe things in and even hear things the same way because you're constantly focused on this one thing.

"Obviously we're not ready to completely step away from this yet and that's why everything we have still has a smartphone application. But we're moving away from it. The skin is a fantastic organ and so sensitive to communication."

That's something We:eX explored with its Alert shirt which uses haptics to allow sports fans to feel the intensity and progress of a game to enhance their viewing, something Whitehouse calls "the fourth dimension of entertainment". It can also keep them in the loop if they don't want to stare at the screen the whole time. Whatever works.

Where do you get lost the most?

The Navigate jacket is extremely fashion focused. Version one of the "urban wayfinding" garment included LED lights but these were iterated out to focus on the simplicity of haptic directions. As Whitehouse points out, plenty of other designers are sticking LEDs on garments and exclaiming 'Wearable tech!'.

We:eX has revealed Sydney, New York and Paris editions of the jacket so far, each with different looks and fabrics, and is on track to announce another city this September. We're hoping for London and Whitehouse admits it makes sense as everyone gets the tube when much of the city is walkable.

The team have avoided a Kickstarter campaign precisely because they don't think their fashion-conscious demographic uses the crowdfunding platform. Wearable Experiments hasn't made any announcements but Whitehouse also hinted that she wants to launch and sell a wearable tech garment in 2015. So far this year she's been on a whirlwind, international speaking tour including dropping by SXSW to tell the audience not to build wearables that do something your phone does.

As for the product, she won't confirm which one just yet. "I just want to start selling products, that's my main goal," she said. "I'm staying in New York, I'm not going anywhere, my main focus is getting one to market."

Our educated guess is the Navigate jacket - potential customers can register their interest (no pre-orders) on the We:eX website now and Whitehouse has been collating information on city, age, size and fabric preferences over the last year as well as asking oddball questions such as 'Where do you get lost the most?'

"I don't want to be this ivory tower designer," said Whitehouse, putting on a comedy haughty designer voice, "I don't want to come and say 'This is what design is, this is what you must wear!' There's a place for that but I'd rather be on the ground and ask what you care about, what tech you are interested in and how I can infuse the two."

Wearable tech can be rad, OK

Spending all day looking down at a screen, that's a problem that wearable tech can help to solve. But We:eX is also putting fresh eyes to use in sectors where there has been a rush of wearables, not all of them useful or especially wanted.

Take snow gear. We've seen plenty of nifty smart helmets and goggles with features such as finding your friends on the slopes. When Oakley asked Whitehouse and Moir to get involved with its Future Sport project in Sydney last October, they asked Olympic snowboarder Scotty James about what he actually wanted to be able to do.

"He was really honest, he said 'The extra technology is such a faux-pas and the only person who can get away with it is actually Shaun White. Everyone else wants to be in traditional baggy skater gear, that's our culture, that's what we've surrounded ourselves with'. So talked about what would make the half pipe more exciting. We talked about more air time."

The result was We:eX's awesome Big Air flying jacket prototype. They customised a snowboarding jacket with turbines to use the wind force and trajectory from a half-pipe jump to accelerate the snowboarder and increase the amount of air time. Hence, the flying jacket.

Sadly, the prototype was damaged with the to'ing and fro'ing at Oakley's event so James didn't get to test out having one turbine faster than the other and rotating in mid-air in a vacuum container, as planned. But We:eX proved it could create a wearable tech concept that had snowboarders salivating over the training and bragging possibilities.

Tech goes to fashion school

Like other successful collaborations, We:eX's work blends fashion and tech in ways that make sense and look gorgeous. Not an easy task. Whitehouse namechecks Studio XO's work on the modern Tinkerbell dress with Disney and Richard Nicoll as a personal favourite but also notes that she and Moir have spent a lot of time looking into manufacturing logistics.

Read this: London Fashion Week - how did wearable tech fare?

The tech industry's obsession with "getting there fast and getting there first" is also at odds with design principles that apply to the fashion world. "Design has this respect for longevity and this respect for nostalgia," she said. "With nostalgia, longevity and softness, the tech industry could build designer brands that last forever.

"Modularity is going to be a huge part of this. There's so much we can do with updating via Wi-Fi, I think people get scared of hardware dying but it's like a pair of shoes. If your soles are ruined because you wear them too much, you go and have them repaired. And there's this funny thing when fashion embraces tech, they forget it needs to be updating every three months. They have to know that it's like a fashion trend, every season it gets updated and refreshed, we invigorate it."

The designer is also hoping that wearable tech's personal, customisable nature coupled with the fact that it is worn on the body will put an end to the idea that there can only be one winner.

"The big tech brands moving into this space are going to realise they're just an accessory," she said. "Yes owning the data will make them super powerful but the fashion brands will own it to and they already own so much of the real estate of the body. There's this Apple versus Samsung thing but in fashion, you can wear Prada shoes, a Dior handbag and a Zara top. It's not competing on the body, it works together because each one puts the body first."

If that doesn't sound like someone who 'gets' wearable tech, we don't know what does.

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