What we'll wear

A future for wearable technology.

In previous columns I have written about the design of consumer electronics devices and gadgets. However, while I am a research scientist, I am also a futurologist, so I want to look a bit further into the future of devices this time, with a particular emphasis on the wearable possibilities. How might we embrace more natural and integrated methods of interacting with gadgets of the future? What benefits and disadvantages might this bring?

There are already plenty of ways for people to wear electronics. In Japan (more so than in Europe), the humble mobile phone is more likely to be worn on a lanyard around the neck as an explicit and colour-coordinated fashion accessory than to be tucked away in a bag or pocket as is often the case in Europe. 

Many business users of BlackBerries will have their device, perhaps among many others, clipped to their belt in its plastic holster, with some actually feeling quite vulnerable if it isn't there. Apple's first iPod Shuffle was designed to be worn around the neck and the later, smaller edition was fitted with a clip.

Under the careful guidance of its producer and designer, the iPod has spawned a whole ecosystem of accessories. The now iconic white ear-buds were designed to be seen and to stand out as people wore them. The telltale sign of white wires leading to someone's ears did more to market the world leader in music players than any more discreet wireless ear-buds could have. 

Among the iPod accessory ecosystem are a number of items of clothing, including jackets. The jackets not only have a dedicated pocket to keep the music player safe, but also buttons and sometimes a display woven into the sleeve so that the player can be controlled without removing it. The ear-buds may also be integrated into the clothing.

These are the early days of wearable technology, when the smart materials industry is in its infancy. We'll reach a point when the task of making ever-more complex consumer electronics devices simple to use will need to go beyond single areas of evolutionary improvement, such as a touch and point mechanism for the user interface. Designers will need to think again about the whole device, how it presents ideas to the user, and how it fits into people's lives. 

One way that this will be possible is for the functions to be spread across a number of cooperating parts, each of which are individually simple, but which together provide more value to a user than simply the sum of the parts. This will be supported by high-bandwidth, short-range wireless technologies. And many of these device parts will be wearable in future.

So it's possible to imagine a world in which the key identity authentication function is provided by a device that is very discretely and securely worn on, or even within, the human body. The display might be provided by special glasses that the user wears as normal spectacles, or even as active contact lenses projecting directly onto the retina. Gestures may be sensed by the clothing we wear and used to control some applications. Progress is already being made in understanding signals from the brain, in controlling artificial limbs for example - it's not a great leap from this to thinking about what you want other devices to do and for them to be able to respond. 

In the shorter term, we may find jewellers providing the initial high-end forays into wearable device parts. Earrings are an obvious candidate to become handy speakers, and a necklace might make a good candidate for a microphone and camera. Maybe a ring on the finger could provide authentication and secure storage, or even a direction indicator for navigational purposes?

A few issues need to be overcome to make wearable devices practical, in addition to achieving their cultural acceptance. Wearing your gadgetry might be very convenient, but may also be very inconvenient when dressing in the morning. The materials must provide instant snap-on wireless connectivity because, apart from the most incurable technophile, wiring yourself up each time you dress is not an option. And there are lesser aspects of waterproofing and washability to deal with.

Combined with, or maybe being borne out of, the inevitable expansion of ubiquitous sensor networks, perhaps beginning with RFID use after the clothing has been purchased, humans will wear increasing amounts of technology. Let's hope that the winners in the design of wearable technologies are more like those who created the iPod than those behind many of the other products that have hit the streets in recent years - or we could be wearing some very strange stuff indeed. 

Jonathan Mitchener leads device evolution research within BT's chief technology office

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