Mobile computing is moving towards smaller, interconnected devices, and humans are adopting deeper and more personal relationships with their machines. Are technology and fashion becoming forever intertwined, or will wearables be remembered as a quaint fad? 

Fashion and technology are two worlds that not so long ago were light years apart, yet now appear to be melting and molding together in unexpected new ways. Undeniably, tech accessories have always contributed to an individual’s image. But recent developments are indicating a shift in the technology industry.

With recent news of Apple hiring its second top executive straight from the fashion world (Angela Ahrendts from Burberry, and earlier this summer Paul Deneve from Yves Saint Laurent), the company appears to be consolidating its foothold in the fashion world. Consumers and Apple fans alike eagerly await the iWatch.

In a similar move, Google is promoting Glass among fashionistas and the sartorial crowd. Last year, models walking for the Diane von Furstenberg Spring 2013 collection were all wearing Google Glass.

What’s more, this year’s New York fashion week went berserk over Google Glass. The epic September issue of US Vogue featured a photo shoot by Steven Klein with an androgynous model wearing the head-mounted computer. Google is allegedly also working on a smartwatch—they bought WIMM Labs in late August.

With the launch of the Sony SmartWatch 2, Samsung’s own smartwatch, the Galaxy Gear, and the massively popular Pebble smartwatch, the tech world has now officially turned its attention to wearable technology (see Samsung’s trendy ad campaign).

We are being lead towards a world where device proliferation is the new convention, and the label ‘geek’ is eluding all negative connotations. We are premising that, by adding technology, we are making life better—and more fashionable. Indeed, geek is the new chic.

Is wearable technology overhyped?

At this year’s GMIC conference (Silicon Valley’s largest mobile conference and expo), the consensus was that wearable technology is now a reality, far beyond just watches and glasses. In a panel moderated by Robert Scoble, Startup Liaison Officer at Rackspace, three thought leaders offered their views on the future of this industry.

Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky provided evidence of global interest in this market: 45 percent of the backers in the Pebble Kickstarter are based outside the US. He acknowledged that the success of the Pebble watch is due to its durability (it is waterproof and the battery lasts several days). However, he admitted that “nothing has really clicked yet” with consumers, and that a truly emotional connection still remains to be made. HTC’s Chief Content Officer Phil Chen emphasized the need to “amplify human values.”

The age of context

Health, education, and even gaming are the obvious niche industries for wearable technology to capitalize on. Indeed, wearables offer unique values—data that has so far been hard to tap into from remote mobile devices.

In particular, physiological signals such as heart rate, perspiration, blood pressure, and even sleep patterns offer monitoring opportunities inherent to wearable devices (we have already seen the success of products such as Fitbit or Nike+FuelBand). With wearable sensors consuming and creating contextual information, we face whole new types of data sets. The GMIC speakers professed an “age of context.”

However, as sensing and monitoring become more and more ubiquitous and deeply integrated in our lives, we will need to revisit our social norms and privacy standards, experts warn. The panelists at GMIC even went as far as to say that we are trading security for glancibility.

Girl with a modern Internet Smart Watch on grey background

Yet, before wearables really do take off and become iconic fashion, developers still need to tackle the remaining technical challenges. Wearables are typically very restrained in size and shape and have to deal with small batteries that offer limited autonomy.

This makes it very challenging for developers to augment functionalities and enhance user experience, including outward look and feel. Furthermore, more effort needs to go into enabling the inter-operability and connectedness among different devices. Bluetooth LE is slated to play a major role in the establishment of ubiquitous connectivity.

At the same time, developers look forward to exploiting the unique opportunities offered by the challenges of this new form factor. Wearable technology faces the requirement of meshing seamlessly with existing life, and new interaction modes based on natural gestures will mark a new wave of innovation—and widespread adoption.

The fashionable fad

An article in the Swiss economic magazine Bilan pointed out how smartwatches will soon be competing with traditional watches for wrist space. But the authors doubt that this burgeoning industry will have a negative impact on traditional watchmakers.

On the contrary, smartwatches may induce younger generations to wear wristwatches in the first place. On the other hand, as we re-interpret the timepiece, technology evangelists predict a flurry of services enabling the customization of wearable devices (e.g., Watchface Generator), and we are reminded of how personal wearable technology actually is. They are tools and ornaments at the same time.

It remains to be seen how these new forces will affect us and the consumer industry at large, or if wearables will fade away, remembered as nothing but a fad. Bellbottoms, anyone?

Featured image courtesy of Pebble.