Photo: Courtesy of Nike.
Apple was on to something when it released the first generation of iPods. Though there was never any need to carry around all our MP3s when there were Walkmen and portable CD players, Apple convinced us that we had to. It nurtured both a want and a need in ourselves that we were carrying around too many things. The iPod was a one-stop-shop kind of invention that influenced our culture to crave the thinnest, smallest, and lightest gadgets out there. Now that Apple has molded the iPod, cell phone, and computer into one handheld device, the only logical way to innovate is to make the technology wearable, right?
Perhaps, but it's going to take a while and whole lot of persuading the consumer that they need the object. You see, good product design — well, good design in general — goes unnoticed. Oxo's apple peeler is a nice example. The ergonomic handle was designed with arthritic hands in mind. There's less irritation and pain when it's in use because the design is intuitive to the wrist; form follows function. (It also doesn't hurt that Oxo's products are pretty, too). Apple's products fly off the shelves because of how intuitive the design is. Sure, it takes a bit of exploring to really know the software, but navigating an iPhone is rather easy. It's conscious to the point of being subconscious — an idea wearable tech designers should learn to embrace.
This year's CES has produced some pretty wacky, amazing, and utterly unnecessary objects. There's design that benefits the people, and then there's design for design's sake. Wearable tech often falls into the latter category. Why do we need a helmet that grows our hair? (Who's going to be the first to play devil's advocate here and ask why don't we need a helmet that grows our hair, huh?) How many versions of a pedometer need to exist? More importantly, however, is not the products themselves, but what problem the designers behind these products tried to find an answer for.
Let's use a rather obvious example, the activity counter (Fuel Bands, FitBit, etc.): wristbands and other accessories like socks that monitor the user's heart rate, steps taken, distance walked, in addition to the time. As we become more and more distracted by our gadgets, we have, rather ironically, designed another gadget to bring awareness to our own daily habits. This makes sense, and the design of these objects is fairly nice. They can become fashion like the iPhone or the iPad has. They also, to harp back to the essential goal of design, go unnoticed when worn.
The smart glasses trend, however, does not. There's a milieu of problems with these products — one of them being why. Many people pay good money to have lasers shot into their peepers so they don't need glasses, so why would they shell out some more Benjamins to wear them again? Secondly, designers have yet to figure out a way to make them look good. Someone needs to want to wear the product, and that really comes down to its aesthetic. The same goes for the smart watch. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, perhaps taking a Tag Heuer body and transforming it into a smart watch is the way to go — iPod-ify it; Oxo-ify it.
Of course, these things are all easier said than done. Wearable tech is showing no signs of stopping, but it won't catch on if designers don't find a way to convince us we need these products. But, from where we're sitting, it's not so much about searching for an answer to a given question as it is about modifying the question itself. Maybe it'll come to us while listening to an audio book on our phone during our commute to work that our activity counter is, no doubt, tracking.