The Future of (Futuring About) Wearable Tech

I was planning to write this text much earlier, soon after I finished my short ‘field report’ about the WoW gathering in Eindhoven. Alas, things started to move a bit slower on this side. Anyway, it is ready now, even if in a very condense form, so read (and look at it) below.

As I wrote earlier, I was offered an opportunity to talk about the ‘future of everything’: of women, fashion, and yes, {smart} wearables, too. The only real constrain was that 1. it should be very short and 2. it shouldn’t be a ‘slideshow’ but a real conversation (itself a gross challenge these days!)

Following our approach at Summ()n, I didn’t plan, of course, to present yet another set of ‘trends’ accompanied with a few freakish pictures (a common currency of future gurus these days). Instead I thought to suggest a conversation about the very way we do our futuring, i.e., thinking about, imagining and eventually making the futures that we want. Following the constrains, I decided to bring with me not the ‘digital slides’, but some real (analogue!) artefacts to talk about.

Before talking about ‘the futures of wearable technology’, my suggestion was to look at the pasts, or more specifically at the way how people imagined these ‘futures’ in the past (the genre known as retrofuturism). In case of ‘smart wearables’ it is always interesting to start a conversation with the question ‘When do you think the first ‘smart’ (or e-) wearables have  been developed?’

It’s interesting that the majority of people tend to think that ‘smart wearables’ are really a very contemporary, 21st century kind of thing. And it’s not an opinion of the so-called ‘lay people’ as you may think. For example, we’ve been to the  PremierVision in Paris last year, and one of the speakers at the Wearables Lab (!) literally said something like “Oh, and I got interested in this domain about five years ago and you know what? – I found nothing written about it before that! So I decided to start writing about it myself!”

That is, of course, a take of a very noobish neophyte, but even the experts in the field would rarely stretch the origin of the domain earlier than 1970s (this has happened with this WoW group, too, many people suggested 1970s as the time when ‘everything has started’).

And then I have shown two examples of the following commercials, of ‘electric corsets‘:

with the suggestion to guess when they’ve been produced 🙂 And the (shocking) answer is… 1882!

{NB: I have learned about these examples from a speech by Prof. Ger Brinks, from the Saxion University of Applied Sciences. I’ve later dig a bit deeper into this fascinating story of these inventions of these ‘electric corsets’ in the end of 19th century, by some ‘Dr.Scott’ and ‘C. B. Harness’.}

“Health”, “comfort” and “elegance” were among many other beautiful things ‘positively secured’ for for ladies by these inventions that claimed to harness the power of Electro-Magnetism. Their rhetoric was stunningly upbeat – these earliest examples of ‘wearable technologies’ had been recommended to “All ladies suffering from Any bodily allment to adopt these corsets without delay. They perform astonishing, cures and invigorate Any part of the system.”

However grotesque these statement may seem, they are not that rare to find today, too; only instead of Electro-Magnetism expect to find Artificial Intelligence or Quantum Blockchain. Alas, they didn’t deliver any of the promised marvels, these corsets, being in essence just a very simple hoax (both models basically used some sort of magnetic stripes embedded into the fabric of the corsets).

Yet the power of persuasion of such promises was apparently very high, as they managed to sell a few dozens of thousands (!) of these corsets in New York alone! (I need to add, though, that these stories are still very murky, I found very little actual data about them in the Internet. The best source I found about the first one, by ‘Dr.Scott’ is here, and a similar model, by C. B. Harness, is mentioned here. Perhaps a better search in good ‘paper’ archive could bring more results.)

What’s a take-away here? That people will always believe in hoaxes? Especially in the ones peppered with the latest ‘technological’ flavour? That too, of course, but also interestingly that one of the earliest ‘e-clothes’ were developed for women! Did they really believe back then that it’s easier to fool women than men?

You would think that we’ve learned to deflect these hoaxes with time, and now have various regulating bodies that protect us agains such blunt pranks by wily con-men? Again, look around and search for ‘healing nano-dresses’ and ‘wearable wellness’.

My next two examples were from a very interesting book, Exit to Tomorrow: History of the Future.

The book is a compilation of the concepts presented at various World Expos, from 1933 till 2005. It is an amazing resource for any serious (retro)futurist. I took the book with me to show not the slides by the ‘actual’ photographs with the concepts (books are good!)

The first one, by Gilbert Rhode, a renown industrial designer from the US, was presented at the World Expo in New York in 1940.  “The man of the next century will revolt against shaving and wear a beautiful beard,” – wrote Vogue in 1939 (hm, they could be right here). “His hat will be antennae-snatching radio from the ether” (and I assume his suite displays a large battery pack to feed the radio.)

In case of woman (the concept by Henry Dreyfuss) the antennae is not mounted on a hat but rather embedded into a dress – but “in 2000 AD woman still wants to be a doll at night… with transparent net top… and a personal portable fan, an ingenious combination of compact and fun”, adds Vogue (February1939).

Well, they got something it right, we do use (and carry) our personal ‘radios’ snatching the news from the ether (that’s your smart phone.) But they got it wrong with the formfactor, as neither smartphones nor their specific details are embedded into any kind of our clothes.

May be it is very difficult to predict such long-term futures and we need to look at a more recent foresighting attempts? The next concepts are from the legendary project (and a book) called Vision of the Future (I have to add here that although I wasn’t personally involved into this project, I spent many years working at Philips Design, the agency that rung this project in 1995-7).

As I said, Vision of the Future was a remarkable project, in many ways: it is one of the earliest one when the designers worked not only with the technological roadmaps but also try to integrate some cultural and social trends, too. And it was also remarkably accurate! The project was conducted in 1995, with an idea to explore the futures in 10 years (i.e., of 2005s). When in 2006 McKinsey was commissioned to check the accuracy of the design exploration, they found that 85% of the concept described in this book were on a market! (Sad story that only 15% of them were developed by Philips… but this is a very different story).

Small issue related to this domain of wearable tech is that all these ‘smart wearables’ were on the wrong side of the foresight. Even today we don’t see any of the ‘musical t-shirts’, or ‘navigational jackets’ or ‘solar-chargeable clothes’ in use.  Sure, many of these things are still being tried (and some may exist in form of nerdy prototypes), but no, the promises are still not delivered. Or may be these were wrong promises?

By that time we could also spot a very characteristic pattern: got new technology, put right on the clothes (or into it, if you can.) Voila, here is your next ‘future of’! What a problem that it does’t work? The ‘future-shaping message’ is already there!

My last ‘tangible example’ was from the Skin project, also by Philips Design, of the concept better known as e-Dress (or Bubelle).  The idea behind the concept was to imagine a dress that would react to an emotional state of a person, and would be able to change its colour and shape accordingly (to illustrate this concept I’ve shown a large poster that I still have in my possession from the years in Philips Design – see it on the left).

This is a very beautiful yet also very controversial concept at the time it was developed (circa 2007, about ten years ago; time flies). The concept eventually became very famous, at some point it elected as ‘the most original lighting concept’ of the year in Eindhoven, and went to the cover of one of the city’s jaarboeken. A copy of Bubelle is now in the Philips Museum in Eindhoven – although immediately after its first presentation it was heavily criticised by the Philips’ ‘brand police’, as it was seen too sensual and frivolous.

And again, neither Philips (nor anyone else to my knowledge) started to produce emotion-sensing apparel. The look and feel of this dress had been copied many times, including by Lady Gaga who commissioned one of the designers behind the dress, Nancy Tilbury, to create a similar outfit for one of her performances.

Sure, the concept did have its impact on many other developments in the company – but these were technology-driven developments (e.g., a formation of luminous textile unit that was eventually sold to Kvadrat (or JV-ed, to be precise).

But no emotion-sensing clothes entered our ‘fabric of life‘; perhaps because no-one bothered to look properly how stretchable this ‘fabric of life’ is, and whether it will let such ‘techno-stains’ on (in?) it.


What was the point of these stories? Do we have to measure the accuracy of our future visions by the amount of products on a market? or by their impact on our socio-cultural mindset? Back then Bubelle was an incredibly inspiring, though also highly controversial concept – and remains to be such, even after all these years.  May be the true purpose of any good futuristic is in teasing our imagination?

All of a suddenly we had a very active – heated even – discussion about the very purpose of ‘doing futuring’, and specifically in the context of the community of Women of Wearables – which was exactly the purpose of the talk! Mission accomplished.

PS: As a bonus track, I have briefly shared the story about Google’s recent moves towards ‘wearable tech’ and ‘smart cloths’. But my story was not so much about their well-known Project Jacquard and a joint concept of Commuter they developed together with Levi’s:

My story was about a less noticed but a way more powerful moves toward collecting all the patterns and costume models that Google is currently doing via its Google Art Institute.

#dataset_of_the_world_fashion_of_all_times #AI #death_of_fashion_design_as_we_know_it  And yes, profit, too.

These hashtag statements also led to an interesting discussion; with all the power of AI fuelled by unparalleled amount of date, do we really need to close the very concept of ‘human designer’? Or rather, what can work as a counterweight to the growing might of machines? A commonly agreed answer was, perhaps, a bit old-fashioned and yet future-proof: it looks like that a good conversation with a group of likeminded people will always be a win! On this note we wished the best luck the growing community of Women of Wearables and their global conversations!

Head image credits: An advertising of ‘Electric Corset’ by C. Harness; Vision of the Future book by Philips Design; collage from Google’s & Levi’s join project Commuter.

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