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At the Cambridge Wireless ‘Unshackling the wearable revolution’ conference last month, David McGookin (@numptygeek) of Aalto University came right out with it stating “Wearables Suck”.  Giuliano Maccioci (@augmentl) also concluded that the current state of wearable technology is poor because of their reliance on the smartphone platform, with most desirable wearable tech being just “a better pedometer”, and “ultimately boring”.

It is certainly a problem with today’s wearable’s that they replicate mobile phone functionality in a wrist based form, rather than defining new experiences only made possible by this new and exciting form factor. David McGookin described today’s crop of wrist based gadgets as not discernibly more advanced than the much loved Nokia 3310.

The ambient data phenomenon

With the advent of the smart phone, a new public ecosystem has come into existence.  Personal devices are creating new data, user driven or otherwise.  This is often geo-tagged by the Smartphone’s GPS so we are creating data that belongs to a physical location, or “ambient data”.  This data can be short lived or persistent depending on its function, or how it’s physically stored.

McGookin’s conducted research that created unique digital experiences that lend themselves to wearable devices through their leverage of ambient data. Participants in one study were able to uncover local knowledge by hearing Tweets played aloud which were composed in their local vicinity: positive and negative comments painted a rich picture of local culture and nightlife, uncovering local points of interest that participants may never have noticed otherwise. In this example, discovering these places was far more compelling in the physical location than sifting through reviews remotely on services such as Trip Advisor or Yelp. This immediacy of discovery greatly enhanced the value of this information, negating problems of subsequently forgetting the 5-star recommendations we found online days or weeks before visiting a new place.

Traditionally ambient data is consumed by users through a Smartphone user interface. This can be a barrier, so McGookin sought to exploit a multi-sensory approach that purposefully bypassed screen based devices. In the geo-tweet example the interface is purely sound based, complimenting what the user can see in the world around them. One can see many advantages to such discrete devices such as low power requirements and the freedom from daily recharge regimes associated with products like  Google Glass.

The appeal of serendipitous discovery was a theme that ran through (quite literally) another of the professor’s studies: RunNav, a tool for runners to discover new places and routes in their local area. The insight being that whilst we have numerous apps for getting us to a defined destination, few if any cater to a desire to amble and meander with no destination in mind. RunNav provides a means to avoid trudging around the same old routes by encouraging its users to head towards points of interest that it suggests. The value it adds is in turning what can be monotonous into a new experience each time.

Both examples provide experiences that are more compelling through wearables. It is these applications which will drive adoption and stop them being relegated to the great wearable cemetery in the sky (eBay).

Val Mitchell of Loughborough University made a case for wearables needing to aspire to build long-term relationships with their owners. As technology iterates in ever decreasing cycles, the constant upgrading and replacing of mobile devices threatens to stop us ever feeling sentimental about electronic devices in the same way as a prized  watch.

Mitchell went on to highlight that fashion and products that we wear upon our person: jewellery, tattoos, charity wristbands and even the loom band have their value deeply rooted in cherished memories and expressions of our personalities. For wearables to displace or co-exist with these items they will surely have to appeal to our emotional as well as functional needs. The likes of Beats headphones and Jawbone’s UP product line already possess a little of this magic, causing them to be cherished and proudly worn by their owners. A combination of a strong brand message and a style which is closer to fashion than technology has helped set them apart from merely being ‘wearable tech’. Whilst these companies represent the high watermark, there is still some way to go before a pair of headphones is handed down from grandparent to grandchild!

Arguably due to the obsolescence of technology perhaps we should focus on our data rather than the device itself? Mitchell hinted at an interesting proposition which is best highlighted in the following example: when you lose your phone are you more distraught at the demise of the device or the years of photos it contained? Perhaps wearables should add value to the data that we cherish rather than be coveted in themselves?

In the industrial sector wearable technology is taking hold more quickly. It is already saving lives in medicine with smart wound dressings, and keeping people safe in hazardous environments with wearable radiation detectors.  These devices might not be high street gadgets, but they successfully serve a specific need.

The use of ambient data in professional settings such as an oil rig or disaster zone could be game changing.  Imagine the search history of each section of a collapsed building being displayed as each new rescue team arrives on site, directing them to where they can provide the most benefit.  This type of user created, geographic, easily consumed ambient data could be a new fundamental tool in saving lives and improving efficiency. Successful devices for professional applications must fulfil a valuable, unmet need.

At Cambridge Design Partnership we have the multidisciplinary skills and resources to develop innovative wearable devices.  Our development teams include research and user experience experts working alongside electronics and software engineers to identify unmet needs and create appropriate technology solutions.  We are currently working on several wearable devices across a broad range of sectors from elite sport, construction safety, patient monitoring and connected consumer products.

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