As wearable tech announcements go, the partnership between Frog – the tech design company – ARM and UNICEF is about as worthy as it gets.
Earlier this month, the three organisations partnered to launch a competition called 'Wearables for Good', to find answers to problems faced by some of the world's poorest communities through wearable technology.
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The competition was announced at an event in London, and we spoke to Frog's executive creative director Denise Gershbein after she came off stage.
"Frog's role is to be the translator between the domains, because we can understand the technology, the design and the use cases," Gershbein told Wareable over a coffee. "In our world we're always trying to hear the needs of our clients and that's our special sauce."
The competition aims to find wearable technology projects that could have positive effects for people and communities in developing countries. But don't mistake that for plans to ship thousands of fitness trackers to the Congo – because despite launching 'Wearables for Good', Gershbein doesn't believe the current crop of wearables are very good at all.
The wearable tech fad
"I think [wearables] are a fad and we want to change that," she said.
"Like any new technology there's a lot of excitement around wearables, but there's not yet an understanding about what it can do. So opportunities tend to get abbreviated, and that's why you get so many companies, especially in Silicon Valley, looking at wearables and sensors as trackers, or saying 'where can we stick a sensor?'
"Can we put a sensor in a toothbrush? That's not the future at all – that's a fad. That's technology looking for a use case.
"So I do think wearables are the future, but I think it's going to be a difficult and controversial conversation, which is why we need all the disciplines involved.
"We concluded to create a bunch of fitness trackers and throw them out into communities where they will never be used."
The race to the wrist
Wearables have been the toast of the industry for the last couple of years but it's no secret that, in many cases, the technology has arrived before the consumer need – and Gershbein believes we need to think bigger.
"For the last year or two in Silicon Valley it's been a race to the wrist. We talk about wearables and everyone thinks about the next Fitbit tracker," she said.
"Wearables are the next mobile revolution, but we really need to broaden the way we think about that. A wearable is just one touch point in a system, in it's one kind of object in a sea of data, sensors, people, organisations.
"A sensor could track data about a family, or a community – and that expands the notion of this being 'my tracker' to them being part of a community."
One of us becomes many of us
But what does Gershbein think about the current crop of fitness trackers and smartwatches that we all know and love? Well, they're not entirely spared her design wrath either.
"I think fitness tracking is going to greatly evolve. It's seen as a way for people to self improve, but it's going to expand to become about all of us. Many of us are suffering and striving at the same time, and so what we track and what we're aiming towards might change in the future – it might not be about how many steps we're taking, but am I taking medications on time?"
And it seems as if Gershbein won't be buying an Apple watch anytime soon – not just because of the features, but because she believes the wrist is too valuable to give up to a smartwatch.
"I'm female, I'm five feet tall – I don't wear a watch or a smartwatch. For me, speaking as a creative, it doesn't fit near my lifestyle. I don't have the need to wear a smartwatch – so personally it's not there for me yet," she said.
"The wrist is such valuable real estate in terms of identity – it's my personal space – it's what you do and who you are. To give that up to a piece of technology when you're not sure of what it does or why you need it – I think a lot of people won't want to take that risk.
Wearables that unlock doors
We asked Gershbein whether there was a single wearable that had won her over, and while she said that no device had earned a regular spot on her body – she saved special praise for Disney's Magic Band.
"There's going to be a big split in what smartwatches do. Take the Apple Watch and Disney Magic Band. The Apple Watch is a thing you look at like a gauge, to get information. Disney's Magic Band looks like a dumb object – it has no screen on it, but it's the keys to the magic kingdom," she said.
"You wave it and it summons favours and unlocks things and summons things and that's a different use case for a wearable. It's still really smart at the back end so Disney knows about you and you connect to your profile, and you're using it to gesture unlock the world instead of it being a gauge, and that's really interesting."
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