Is wearable tech in its mature, boring phase yet? SXSW 2017 says hells no

$$$ sunglasses! Telepathy hats! Smart piercings! It's only South By South West
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Think about the last time you felt weird. Really squirm around in it. That feeling doesn't exist for ten or so days in Austin, Texas when SXSW Interactive rolls into town. That's not an odd gadget, it's a future classic design experiment. This isn't a silly hipster shenanigan, it's a nailed on, unicorn making factory.

For the past five or so years, wearable tech and VR have been firm staples of the SXSW line-up and 2017 was no different. For every dance dance, music creating smart bangle, there's also a forward-thinking health tech startup that could save our lives.

Read this: How fitness trackers will look in the future

Here's the weird, wonderful, wacky, warped and wayward connected self ideas to come out of this year's show.

Levi's Commuter Trucker Jacket

Is wearable tech in its mature, boring phase yet? SXSW 2017 says hells no

Not only did Levi's and Google demo the first item of Project Jacquard smart clothing at SXSW, but they also confirmed the price of the jacket - $350 - and the release date. The jacket will go on sale in late 2017 after two years of hype, proving there's more at the show than just kooky concepts. (For plenty of those, see below).

By tapping and swiping a touchpad on the left sleeve, the wearer can control music, get directions and dismiss phone calls. It's powered by a conductive yarn and a rechargeable tag, comes in men's and women's sizes and is aimed at cyclists. Invisible tech in a style focused garment that actually works? Austin went gaga for it.

Open Water's intelligence augmentation

Is wearable tech in its mature, boring phase yet? SXSW 2017 says hells no

Mary Lou Jepsen, ex-Oculus engineering exec, was in town to talk about her new health tech startup Open Water. Her aim is to build affordable, hi-res, wearable MRI machines to help doctors detect all sorts of diseases including cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and mental health illnesses.

This week Jepsen said that her company is working on new kids of LCDs, detectors, software and AI to allow doctors to "see inside our bodies in high resolution". Examples of what's in development include fabric lined with flexible LCDs in a sort of MRI cap which could one day be used for telepathy.

Jepsen also believes that by reading and writing neurons in our own brains we can stay ahead of artificial intelligence with IA - intelligence augmentation. Where do we sign up?

Sony Motion Sonic wristband

As well as showing off its new Xperia Ear Open Style concept hearable, Sony treated SXSW goers to a bracelet that lets you make music with your dancing. Because why not?

Described as an 'experimental device', the band uses sensors and mics to track the rotation and acceleration of your limbs and pick up the sound of the air moving as you move. The Sony device then converts this into musical sounds which play via external speakers: presets include a 'motion sonic' zap, robot, arm jockey for controlling beats, clapping and a filter activated via motion.

Motion Sonic is in the prototype phase, for now, but as ever Sony no doubt wants to know how the world thinks about it.

Visa smart sunglasses

Is wearable tech in its mature, boring phase yet? SXSW 2017 says hells no

Visa's payment sunglasses don't require you headbutting POS machines. Oh no. The sunnies feature a small contactless payment card (similar to Barclaycard bPay) on the right hand frame - just whip them off your face and tap to pay.

Currently in testing at a surf competition in Australia, Visa is looking to see how the concept is received by brands, banks and regular people. We reckon it's a nifty new place to stash a contactless payment chip that's designed to flit about accessories, jewellery and watch straps.

Ceres asteroid dress

Is wearable tech in its mature, boring phase yet? SXSW 2017 says hells no

Parsons School of Design was everywhere at South By this year including a Wearable Tech for Social Good presentation. Ceres (above left) is a smart dress that connects to a NASA near-Earth asteroid API and vibrates/lights up when it senses an asteroid.

The student and graduate design projects were all very experimental. Cuttlefish (above centre) uses Intel tech to transform clothing from daywear to nightwear; Reefstone visualises global temperature change from the past four decades on the garment itself and KG Projects (above right) uses AR - via an iPad - to project stories onto the outfits.

Not everyone's totally on board yet

And still some high fashion designers resist...

Panasonic's social & sleep concepts

Is wearable tech in its mature, boring phase yet? SXSW 2017 says hells no

Panasonic brought a couple of cool concepts to SXSW, again with Parsons design students and graduates - Sleepwise and Gobie.

So Gobie is a bracelet with a bunch of LEDs and haptics onboard which wants to get us all high five-ing and pat-a-cakeing with each other instead of becoming screen obsessed voles.

Is wearable tech in its mature, boring phase yet? SXSW 2017 says hells no

And Sleepwise is a wearable and bedside monitor twofer that checks on how you're sleeping and tells your smart home how to tweak itself (temperature, light, humidity, etc) to help you sleep better. It looks like Sleepwise has a shot at becoming a real product too.

Fujistu's bonkers smart shoes

Is wearable tech in its mature, boring phase yet? SXSW 2017 says hells no

These smart sneakers from Fujistu and SnowRobin create walking games and experiences for the wearers based on activity data. Right now beta testers are being encouraged to try to walk more than fans of rival Japanese baseball teams, for instance.

The idea might need a bit more time in the oven but anything that gets people moving more is a small, good thing. And Japanese baseball is just a delight.

What the what

Thad Starner, the Google Glass guy and Georgia Tech professor who is sometimes known as the 'father of wearables', was at SXSW showing off some (old) haptic learning gloves that can teach you how to play piano and talking futuristic ideas like sensor vests for search and rescue dogs to help them communicate. Starner's manta is "bringing tech closer to the body gets it out of the way." Also this:

Starkey Halo 2 hearing aid

Starkey's Halo 2 hearing aid won one of SXSW's wearable tech awards. It's designed to be used specifically with iPhones, iPads and Apple Watches with a companion TruLink Hearing Control app. As well as improving how well you can hear speech from different directions, it also handles phone calls, has noise cancellation, modes for people with tinnitus and it even geotags memories via your phone's GPS.

Music and space in VR

Is wearable tech in its mature, boring phase yet? SXSW 2017 says hells no

There was a whole bunch of VR, AR and MR at SXSW this week - HoloLens, synaesthesia suits, you name it. One of the most interesting demos, though, was a Sony Music installation using HTC Vives. Yep, no PS VRs here. Gold Rush lets four Vive wearers, with backpack PCs, take part in a local multiplayer experience in which you're all zipped around worlds on a wooden transport.

Also for Vive, apps like Music Room which gives you virtual instruments like a set of drums and a chord harp to play, were on show. It was all go. Fjord showed off a mixed reality experience focused around instructions and none other than Buzz Aldrin debuted a VR app for Rift and Vive called Buzz Aldrin: Cycling Pathways to Mars. It includes the astronaut talking over CG renders of the Moon, Mars and spacecrafts.

How we test


Sophie was Wareable's associate editor. She joined the team from Stuff magazine where she was an in-house reviewer. For three and a half years, she tested every smartphone, tablet, and robot vacuum that mattered. 

A fan of thoughtful design, innovative apps, and that Spike Jonze film, she is currently wondering how many fitness tracker reviews it will take to get her fit. Current bet: 19.

Sophie has also written for a host of sites, including Metro, the Evening Standard, the Times, the Telegraph, Little White Lies, the Press Association and the Debrief.

She now works for Wired.

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