People often talk about thinking “outside the box” but one of the things most exciting in modern technology is being able to design “off the glass” — meaning a piece of technology that isn't bound to a glass screen with a perimeter of plastic. Thanks to Moore's Law and cheap computing power, designers can embed technology into items worn on the wrist to monitor your health, or shoes that count your steps, or rings that can store data. Or, if you're me, 3D printed armor with microprocessor controlled servos to open your visor. Welcome to the world of wearable computing.

Where Did This Crazy Idea Originate?

The idea of having technology that can be worn as an item of clothing is by no means new. The concept goes all the way back to the 1500s when clocks were cutting-edge technology and the ability to wear one on the wrist was so novel that only the Queen of England was privileged enough to own one.

Fast forward to the 1980s, when Steve Mann, an MIT grad and professor at the University of Toronto widely regarded as the father of wearable computing, began experimenting with backpack-mounted computers. With the perpetual advancement of computing power, coupled with near-ubiquitous access to cloud-based data processing, today we now have rings that can track health and watches that can do video teleconferencing. (Here are some wearables startups to keep an eye on.)

For designers, this is a very exciting time. Designers are going beyond the flat glass, looking at the physical nature of objects and deciding how to enhance existing affordances with digital intelligence. Mark Weiser, who coined the term ubiquitous computing, was talking about creating the “invisible interface” to computers way back in 1994. Now that's become reality as objects and clothing people are already familiar with become that interface.1

In his book Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design, Mike Kuniavsky introduced the concept of treating information as a material with properties that we can design with.2 Just as traditional materials like steel and plastic have properties such as strength and elasticity, Kuniavsky proposes that information can be thought of as having properties such as capability, possibility, and constraint that can influence how we design with it.

Designers can think about how physical phenomena can be translated into information with sensors, how information can be stored to maintain state, and how it can be translated back into the physical world by a vast number of actuator devices. For example, consider a pair of smart gloves that can read the ambient air temperature and activate internal heaters when the temperature falls below a value previously set by the wearer.

A New Challenge for Designers

Our challenge as designers comes in thinking about information, or information processing, as a material property of what we are creating — and incorporating it into whatever we are creating in a way that improves the experience Information as a material opens up infinite design possibilities, letting us enable new behaviors in previously inert objects.

In the example above, the purpose of gloves is to keep hands warm and dry, so the addition of information processing makes that more effective. Companies from startups to global players are adding information processing in a spectrum of new products.

For instance, Google and Levi's teamed up to make Jacquard, a smart jacket for bike commuters that incorporates conductive threading — literally a material to incorporate information.3 The left sleeve becomes a touchable surface for interacting with commuter-based services on the wearer's cell phone, letting a rider skip tracks or check time to destination without taking eyes off the road.

Contrast that to the attempts by appliance manufacturers to create a smart refrigerator by basically bolting a screen on the door and adding Wi-Fi. Smart refrigerators (and similar products) haven't gained traction with consumers because the “intelligence” didn't improve the fundamental purpose of the fridge: keep food fresh.

Rather, smart-fridge designers took a “two great tastes that taste great together” approach, and it didn't work. If manufacturers are going to go to the effort of adding information processing to a fridge, it should deliver value. I'd want the fridge to tell me when I'm out of milk or that the lettuce is going bad, and then add the items to the shopping list on my phone.

The wearables market is growing at an exponential rate. (Credit: Andrew Babkin, ICS/Boston UX). Click here to see the high-res infographic.

Some manufacturers understand this need and are coming up with new products to address it. For instance, there's a smart egg tray that can signal when you're low on eggs. Problem is, reviews are mixed. That means there is still a lot of work to be done in this space.

Wearables for Fitness and Health

Also part of the transformational technological wave, collectively referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT), wearable computers are attracting a following. Many of these devices are geared toward health and wellness, helping people better monitor and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

The most common types of medical wearables are, at their core, data collection devices. These clever bundles of sensors and connectivity amass a wide range of biometric data and make it accessible to users by the associated cloud-based services. Heart rate, blood pressure, hours of sleep per night, and even daily caloric intake are among the metrics that can be gathered, analyzed, and visualized. Sensor capabilities and data collection allow individuals to make better choices about their daily lives. For instance, the Fitbit — perhaps the best-known wearable device — tracks exercise and sleeping patterns.

While Fitbit was early to market, these days the shelves are crowded. There are smart watches, rings, necklaces, jackets, and even shoes, to name but a few, that all integrate with cloud-based systems and help us make better decisions about our diet and exercise levels.

These types of health trackers are perhaps the most visible expression of the wearables market to the public. But there's growing innovation in more hospital-grade medtech wearables — devices considered less entertainment and more diagnostic or assistive.

At the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), one of the novel wearable devices that debuted was the Dfree from Triple W. The Dfree, which stands for “diaper free,” consists of a small sensor that is taped to the user's torso to monitor the wearer's bladder-fullness level. When a preset level is reached, the device sends a notification to the tethered smartphone. Targeted at the elderly and the disabled, this device — life-changing for many users — won the Best of CES award in the Digital Health and Fitness Category.

Short for Gait Enhancing and Motivating System, Samsung's GEMS assists users with walking and can also help them strengthen their muscles and improve their mobility and balance. (Credit: Samsung)

Also making its CES debut this year was Samsung's wearable exoskeleton called the Gait Enhancing Mobility System (GEMS), which provides walking assistance and posture correction. While it's not quite an Iron Man-esque flying, armored exoskeleton, it is arguably more useful to the commercial consumer.