When it comes to a vision for wearable tech, Studio XO sees things a bit differently to any other company we've met. XO is best known for its live music 'experience bands', made for artists such as Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas.
These bands were aimed at reading the emotion of the crowd at large scale events – essentially marketing gimmicks created for marketing agencies – but the company has reimagined itself and is now moving into the consumer space with a range of smart clothing.
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It's been working with start-up accelerator Highway1, and has a new product in the form of a connected smart cap. We caught up with co-founder Benjamin Males at Web Summit 2016, to hear about the new product.
Benjamin Males and Nancy Tilbury
"Standing beside the stage at Black Eyed Peas, we looked to the audience to see how they were responding. They were going crazy with their phones in the air. We saw them as 80,000 potential consumers," Males told Wareable.
The plan was simple – to build a wearable device for 10-25 year olds, the so-called 'Generation Z'. What's in the pipeline is a tech-infused luxury streetwear collection.
"We've made a cap, we've going to make a backpack (main image), we're going to make t-shirts and jackets. They will all be connected and appear within the app and have a user interface and experience," Males explained.
We got a glimpse at the smart hat at Web Summit, and it looks very much like its LED dress, packed with light-up fibres, but in the form of a baseball cap. It synced up with the app, which features a host of modes, including one that makes the lights react to sound. The lights flash in time, and the potential for a band-like experience at live music events is obvious.
The Studio XO cap prototype
"We talked to a lot of investors in Silicon Valley. They could see our vision to dress the audience, to dress the fans. A brand for Gen Z," Males said.
In 2014 XO made an LED slip dress for Richard Nicoll and Disney. It got rave reviews from Wareable Tech Awards judge Rachel Arthur, who asked "Is this the first example of truly beautiful wearable tech?" on Forbes.
"Wearable tech has always suffered from being expensive, with components, batteries and sensors, and we wanted to build something cost effective by using fibres, which means that we're able to decode the big challenge: price point," explained Males.
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"It responds to your voice [via the app] and you can visualise music through it. This could be in a live performance. If you're a Taylor Swift fan and get one of our bands you throw that away. We're interested in capturing that pre-existing behaviour into our brand," he said.
"We're for Gen Z - 10-25 year olds, who want to wear the internet. Their clothes don't live up to their expectation of the world around them."
The company's XO band used galvanic skin response in an attempt to read the emotions of the wearer. But Males says that for investors and consumers there's little appetite for 'emotion' sensing bands.
"No-one is really interested in measuring emotion or happiness. That's something we're going to invest in. But right now it's about building the platform."
Males likens the company to Snapchat, which has also moved into wearables with its Spectacles, and he believes that the way young users add their own take on open platforms is a model for XO.
"You only have to look at Snapchat and the way Gen Z is using it in ways that the company would have struggled to predict. And that's really testament to not being too prescriptive at this stage. The one thing we want to do is connect. Connect an app to a garment and users to the things they love," he explained.
Snapchat's Spectacles are aimed at 'Generation Z'
As someone who is building for the youngest generation, I was keen to get Males' take on privacy. How does he see the challenges of Spectacles as a recording device? And why is it not copping the same negative press as Google Glass, which suffered from criticism over privacy?
"I think Spectacles is a really interesting move. It's different. I think it's a nice step into entertainment lifestyle products," Males said.
"For products aimed at us – millennials and above – we look at those products and see how they can be abused. Gen Z see it as a tool for enhancing their lives. Of course, they will know there are times you want to put it down. We're being mindful of that.
"We had to learn what it was to be careful about privacy and heard the horror stories. The rules are built into the platforms they're using," he said.
Studio XO's new smart hat and backpack is currently in development with a release set for early 2017 and t-shirts and jackets to follow.
Would you wear an LED cap to a gig? (Please include your age with your answer).