The outsiders of wearable tech

Wearables need experts from every discipline, here's the influencers getting in early
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Wearable tech is a special unicorn, not just in the financial sense that companies like Oculus are rushing to huge billion dollar valuations. No, it's special because we can't just treat it like PCs or smartphones. It's different. And as we've seen so far, engineers can't make wearable tech alone. They need some help.

So getting to a definition of wearable tech that works isn't just the job of engineers, product managers and tech CEOs, it's going to need the work of designers, scientists, directors, athletes and retailers.

Here are some of the outsiders who are shaping the world of wearables in Silicon Valley and beyond.

Spike Jonze - the geek director

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Putting aside for a moment the fact that his film Her essentially inspired the promising Moto Hint, Spike Jonze has taken a different tactic to some filmmakers dabbling in VR. Many have gone down the promo route, making marketing shorts for existing movies and TV shows as a way of experimenting. Jonze realised VR's potential as an empathy machine and collaborated with Vice News and Chris Milk's VRSE production company on the first ever VR news broadcast. The subject? The Millions March against police killings in New York.

"When we got the footage back and watched it on the goggles, I was so moved by what we had," Jonze said back in January. "I had this feeling of being very fortunate to be at the beginning of an entirely new storytelling medium."

Joe Santana - the watchmaking mogul

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Santana spent eight years as president and CEO of the Timex Group so he knows a thing or two about the traditional wristwatch industry. He has brought that insider knowledge to his latest venture, Vector, which makes luxury smartwatches such as the Vector Luna.

The outsiders of wearable tech

"With decades of experience in making good quality beautiful watches, we understand what consumers across the globe look for in watch design," Santana told Wareable. "By merging learnings from the jewellery sector with that of the wearable sector, design and technology naturally complement each other and offer the wearer a product that is both aesthetically pleasing and technologically advanced."

"Whilst at Timex I gained valuable business acumen that I can now apply to Vector," he continued. "Building a team from the ground up at Vector, harnessing great talent and developing a new brand in a very fast paced sector is a wonderful position to be in - there is a lot of entrepreneurial spirit to work with."

Afsoun Yazdian - the imagineer

The outsiders of wearable tech

The outsiders of wearable tech

OK so Yazdian isn't technically an Imagineer, an actual position at Disney, but she is product manager for Playmation, its line of connected toys, as well as director of user experience. Playmation is a hugely exciting step for tech toys in that it brings imagination back into play, launching with an Avengers tie-in due in October and with Frozen and Star Wars sets in the works for 2016. Yazdian's focus is on "active play" as opposed to kids sitting around staring at screens, no doubt influenced by her background working in licensing for toys and electronic learning tools at Disney and before that for Sesame Street.

Yves Béhar - the rock star designer

The outsiders of wearable tech

Most recently seen overhauling British Gas' thermostat into the sleek Hive Active Heating 2, Béhar is the Swiss designer behind much of Jawbone's success as a lifestyle brand.

As Chief Creative Officer for the fitness tracker company since 2003, he was responsible for the iconic Jawbone UP form factor as well as the more mainstream look and feel of Jawbone's textured UP2, UP3 and UP4 bands this year. Béhar and Jawbone lead the trend for wearable tech companies enlisting the help of respected product designers.

Richard Nicoll - the fashion modernist

The outsiders of wearable tech

London based fashion designer Richard Nicoll pioneered wearable tech on the catwalks of London Fashion Week back in September 2014. He collaborated with the established wearable tech fashion brand Studio XO and sponsor Disney to create the Tinkerbell-inspired Jellyfish Dress for S/S 15, a slip forged from a network of fibre optic cables.

For all the talk of fashion and technology colliding, events like Fashion Week and Liz Barcelar's Decoded often focus on how tech can help designers sell garments, not create them. Nicoll showed courage in putting wearable tech high fashion in front of in the industry's buyers and journalists.

Blair Palmer - the Good innovator

The outsiders of wearable tech

Innovation is key but making moonshot ideas truly useful and practical is arguably the trickier side of the equation. Blair Palmer is UNICEF's innovation lead for San Francisco and her work involves the Wearables for Good challenge with Frog and ARM, a 2 x $15,000 prize for wearables that address maternal and child health issues in developing countries.

"One of the most important lessons that we have learned at UNICEF when applying technology in the development sector is that the best tech doesn't need to be the latest tech," Palmer told Wareable. "What we're finding is that we're taking the wearables industry down a different – and little-trodden – avenue. When designed specifically for the end-user, in a local context, wearable and sensor technology could revolutionise the way we deliver services to populations at the last mile.

"Our hope for the Challenge is to anticipate this connected world and accelerate the positive effects of wearable tech solutions here and now," she added. "These need to be robust, sustainable, low cost and low-tech."

Cyrus Saihan - the experimenting entertainment boss

The outsiders of wearable tech

VR and AR both need content - apps, films, shorts, experiences, games, whatever you want to make - we just need something to do on the headsets and goggles and glasses when they arrive.

The outsiders of wearable tech

Even the BBC is getting involved via its experimental Taster platform which is offering up to £100,000 for ideas using emerging, immersive technologies - the deadline is midnight on 28 August. Cyrus Saihan, as well as exploring if VR is the future of TV, has high hopes for the Beeb's recent mind controlled TV project which used NeuroSky EEG headsets and MINDRDR software.

"As Head of Business Development for the BBC's Digital division," he said, "one of my areas of focus is looking at how we can innovate by using new and emerging technologies and working with third parties to explore what kinds of new audience experiences might be possible in the future. One area that I am particularly interested in is 'immersive' experiences – that is making you feel not simply that you are watching or listening to a programme or story, but that you are fully immersed in it, part of it and there in person."

Matthieu Lehanneur - the design guru

The outsiders of wearable tech

Lehanneur is the noted French designer brought on board by Huawei to head up its new Paris Aesthetics Center. Its research and 10 strong design team has already contributed to the design of the Huawei TalkBand B2 fitness tracker, launched at MWC and no doubt we will see more of its handiwork at IFA. Lehanneur's previous work includes everything from boats and electric bikes to restaurant interiors and a 20-sided wireless speaker but now in a Béhar-style move, he has stepped up this Chief Designer role.

"We are at a turning point in history," Lehanneur said at the opening of the studio in March. "Technology is no longer simply around us – it is with us, and, in the case of wearables, on us. The challenge now is to give it shape."

Jamie Tyler - the brain stimulator

The outsiders of wearable tech

Thync's CEO Isy Goldwasser comes from a tech background but his co-founder and CSO Dr. Jamie Tyler is an associate professor and expert in non-invasive brain stimulation technologies, the science behind the mind bending wearable. As health and wellbeing merge with wearable tech, we will see more scientists making a big impact on the scene.

When we spoke to Goldwasser about Thync's story, he admitted that he quit his job to build a neurosignalling device but it was Tyler's U+ technology that made Thync a reality. ""I had the belief that we could find those pathways that give people access to their neural circuits and tap into the delivered benefits," he said. "That meant I had to go looking for technology, and a lot of it didn't work. We knew that Dr. Tyler had worked on ways from the outside in to activate nerves and brain cells. And we knew that the pathways and networks make us everything we are."

Lizzie Edwards and Juno Rae - the new educators

The outsiders of wearable tech

The outsiders of wearable tech

With big companies like Samsung on one hand and school groups and teachers on the other, producing an experience that makes the most out of the tech while really educating kids about history is a tight rope that British Museum education managers Lizzie Edwards and Juno Rae have navigated successfully. The latest project to come out of the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre was the Virtual Reality Weekend which allowed visitors to wear Gear VRs to show how Bronze Age objects would have been stored and used.

"By exploring these objects in their original context, children will better understand our full collections," said Edwards. "We hope that after wearing a Gear VR headset or exploring the objects in an immersive dome, families will then visit our Bronze Age gallery equipped with the skills and knowledge better to understand the collection that is on display."

Jeff Norris - the augmented space invader

The outsiders of wearable tech

By far the coolest application of Microsoft's HoloLens AR helmet so far is Sidekick, its collaboration with NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. Dr. Jeff Norris is the project lead for Sidekick and OnSight at JPL and though the two pairs of HoloLens running Sidekick were lost in a SpaceX mishap, eventually astronauts aboard the ISS will get augmented reality assistance with fixing equipment and communicating with Earth while working.

"Our team is excited to be building virtual and mixed reality tools that will make our explorers more efficient and effective," said Norris on the HoloLens project. The mission operations lead is also a fan of VR with other projects including the Kinova Jaco Robotic Arm which is controlled via an Oculus Rift and Kinect set-up. That's Jeff on the right in the picture.

Angela Ahrendts - the retail virtuoso

The outsiders of wearable tech

Apple has hired well to expand its team to incorporate the Apple Watch's particular challenges. Designer Marc Newson has been helping Jony Ive with the product itself and Angela Ahrendts was brought in from her role as CEO at Burberry to help position the Watch, especially the Edition, as a luxury item with a luxury shopping experience befitting of it. The SVP for retail and online stores is the highest paid female exec in the US and for good reason.

Jenny Tillotson - the sensory designer

The outsiders of wearable tech

While the rest of the influencers in this list focus on visuals, audio and touch, Dr. Jenny Tillotson's jam is exploring how our sense of smell affects our wellbeing. Her mood monitoring system eScent creates and micro-delivers fragrance bubbles depending on your mood and context.

The outsiders of wearable tech

Working with Professor Andreas Manz, eScent is a long time in the making for Tillotson and is based on over 10 years of research into how fragrance can improve sleep, mood swings, reduce anxiety and curb appetites. It's a bold new direction for wearables with potential applications for fragrance and fashion brands, sensory AR and VR and mental health and wellbeing.

"My research and background in Sensory Fashion brings a totally new dynamic and sensation to wearable tech," Tillotson told Wareable. "The sense of smell is our most emotional, primitive - and yet forgotten sense. Embedded discreetly in smart jewellery, accessories and clothing (buttons), eScent forms a localised and non-invasive 'scent bubble' around the face; an area of constant, detectable scent for the user based on a timer, biometric feedback or pre-programmed from a smartphone."

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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