Design in Life: Wearable Tech
When adidas introduced the computer-equipped Micropacer running shoe in 1984, fitness enthusiasts widely panned the trainers as yuppie-targeted objects of “snob appeal.” The $100 heavy leather shoes were a far cry from their more affordable nylon and mesh contemporaries. What is more, the rigid Micropacers conferred no actual athletic advantage. More expensive, less comfortable, but wired to the gills: not the most convincing of sales points.
But the shiny silver leather and promises of whiz-bang gadgetry propelled the Micropacer to icon status. The Micropacer was the world’s introduction to “wearable technology”, and visions of a data-supported fitness future were more than powerful enough to overcome present faults. Adidas Micropacers were as much cultural aspiration as consumer product, and fascination followed: the shoe was even considered iconic enough to garner a 30th anniversary rerelease.
By the time the “retro” Micropacers returned to store shelves in 2014, the “wearable tech” category they pioneered had sprinted ahead. Wearable technology had eclipsed its running shoe roots and found host in a whole new generation of products designed to enhance every moment of every day, not just gym time. Advances in sensory technology, coupled with the ever-evolving field of data science (a discipline that hardly existed in 1984), enabled smaller, lighter, and more capable devices that were unobtrusive enough to be worn on the body. Coupled with the global rise of smartphones (64% of American adults owned a smartphone in October 2014), the average human in 2014 could wear computing power many times the capability of the original Apollo mission without batting an eyelash. Within running shoes alone, the pace-watch capacity of the original Micropacer could be replaced by a simple smartphone app linked to a microchip within any ultralight Nike+ running shoe. Gone were the days of wearable tech as expensive unnecessary bulk: in 2014, companies like Google, Fitbit, and Apple seemed poised to lead wearable tech from yuppie fitness tool to democratic wellness necessity.
A mere two years later, wearable tech is on the verge of yet another revolution. Even though Google’s ambitious Glass project was canceled in January 2015, the segment has once again become a buzzword due to the proliferation of concealable biometric-tracking tech accessories. Passive and hidden have become the new buzzwords: today’s wearable tech gadgets should augment, not replace.
Unlike Google’s conspicuous Glass headset and Facebook’s console-tethered Oculus, wrist accessories don’t require users to drastically modify their behavior. The packaging innovations that allowed such subtle wearables could not have come at a better time: as the athleisure trend gathers more steam, wearable fitness tech accessories have even gained fashion cachet. A sleek, wrist-mounted Fitbit is a far cry from wearing screens on your face à la Google Glass, but the former can be made just as noticeable with the right touches. Noteworthy designer collaborations include Hermes x Apple Watch (left, below) and Tory Burch x Fitbit (right).
In 2016, wearable tech products sit firmly at the intersection of fashion and function. If the next generation of wearables didn’t work, no one would buy them; but if they didn’t look good, well, no one would use them. Herein lies the irony: while Nike, Fitbit, and Apple all place a focus on product concealability, their designs are everywhere – and impossible to ignore.
Following the genealogy of adidas’ Micropacer, sportswear giant Nike entered the wearable tech space in 2006 with introduction of its Nike+ sensor package. When paired with Nike+ running shoes (ex. the elaborately-named Nike Air Zoom Plus+), the iPod-compatible sensor would track metrics such as speed, mileage, and calories burned. This data would be available on request throughout the run, streamed directly to the user through their earbuds without even interrupting the playlist. Compared to the bulky Micropacer and the ill-fated Puma RS “Computer Shoe” (1986), the Nike+ was positively sleek. The only modification required to take advantage of Nike’s wearable running tech: a small microchip inserted into the sole of running shoes you already owned.
Original Nike+ user interfaces were limited by the hardware of the first-generation iPods they called home, but the 2010 introduction of the Nike+ iPod touch/iPhone App provided users a simple, intuitive home for visualizing their run data. While Nike would eventually build in tools to log sleep, food consumption, and daily activity, Nike+ was never intended as a 24-hour lifestyle barometer. Although Nike planned to enter the lifestyle market with its “FuelBand” bracelet, by 2010, a small San Francisco company would soon steal its wearable thunder with an activity tracker of its own. In a David vs Goliath for the ages, a humble pocket clip launched by a 4-year old tech startup would scuttle the best laid plans of one of the world’s largest companies.
Founded in 2007 by entrepreneurs James Park and Eric Friedman, Fitbit would launch its first product (a small clip-on device called the “Fitbit Tracker”) in 2008. Initial reviews wasted no time comparing the Tracker to Nike’s Nike+ system, but cited one crucial differentiator as a predictor of Fitbit’s success. The Fitbit Tracker synced wirelessly with a plug-in “home base” one simply had to walk by to upload fitness data. This data was then uploaded to a data analysis hub run through Fitbit’s website, which tracked a user’s progress towards personalized quantifiable fitness goals. Compared to an iPod screen, Fitbit’s web platform was lightyears ahead. Fitbit quickly became the wearable tech segment leader, a position it holds to this day. In 2014, Fitbit accounted for a whopping 70% of the fitness technology market.
Fitbit’s breakout success can be attributed to the Fitbit Flex, the company’s first wrist-mounted wearable. Introduced in 2013, the Flex is a deceptively simple bracelet that is as much fashion accessory as “rare beakthrough device.” A minute LED display indicates both battery life and daily goal progress; otherwise, the Fitbit Flex is an unlit, matte black bracelet. According to Fitbit’s designer Gadi Amit, the Flex was designed to be as unobtrusive as possible because design must be able to fully integrate into our day-to-day lives. That means prototyping dozens of models to wittle down even the most inconsequential choices to aesthetic - and functional – perfection.
With the Flex, the biggest issue was display size. To quote Amit on his design philosophy: “How much user interface you really need on a wearable is a big, big topic… and the answer is…sometimes more, sometimes less. It depends on the functionality, what’s going on between the interface of the device and the app it’s communicating with.” The Flex, which launched with a dedicated smartphone app and revamped Fitbit website, had screen after screen of data outside of the device. Bluetooth 4.0 wireless support to smartphones even removed the need for the “home base” of years past. The only thing the Fitbit Flex really needed to do was make you want to put in on. Therefore, the device itself could be styled as “the very definition of simplicity,” to quote one elated reviewer who praised its everyday versatility. No surprise, then, that the Flex would go on to dominate 2013 fitness tracker sales and make nearly every Holiday Gift Guide published that year.
The Fitbit Flex launched a cultural phenomenon. Wearable tech had transcended the bulky runners-only hardware of its roots to become streamlined, lightweight, and endlessly capable. However, wearable developments still remained largely within the realm of fitness. It would take until March 2015 for an equivalent everyday product to be announced. This time around was no David and Goliath story: when Apple announced the long-rumored Apple Watch on March 9, conspicuously highlighting the Watch’s fitness app support and optional “Sport” band, the wearable world seemed poised instead for a Clash of the Titans.
The Apple Watch was not the first smartwatch, nor was it the first non-fitness wearable brought to market. However, Apple’s foray into wearable tech is important because it pushed the wearable industry as a whole towards lifestyle applications. First things first, the Apple Watch is unequivocally gorgeous. While Gadi Amit of Fitbit may find his inspiration from more “cuddly” and “squishy” forms, the Apple Watch is as much delicate jewelry as it is an integrated, touch-enabled sensor package. What once was plastic is now polished edges, precious metals, and a slew of luxury personalization options that include Hermes leather watchbands. These features indicate that Apple’s entry into wearables is not a smartwatch, at least in the classic sense – it is a luxury watch that also keeps your phone calendar on task. Samsung’s Galaxy Gear (left) is no slouch, but compared to the Apple Watch (right), just looks banal.
Like the Fitbit Flex, the Apple Watch was designed with obsessive simplicity in mind. The Watch is not meant for heavy-lifting on its own; instead, it is essentially an input/output channel for the computing power of your iPhone. Instead of whipping out your phone to check emails, a slight but distinct vibration pattern on your wrist gently informs you that you have mail. A subtle wrist-flick lights up the touchscreen if just for a moment, delivering push notifications without being, well, pushy. It’s a motion with which you’re no doubt familiar, and one that will save your conversations from the modern malaise of smartphone stares.
In other words, to borrow from Amit again, the Apple Watch integrates into your everyday life. It just also happens to track your steps and calories while it does. With the Apple Watch, wearable tech accessories entered the lifestyle realm in a big way.
In just 30 years, wearable technology has evolved from yuppie fitness gimmick to lifestyle augment for even the most sedentary techie among us. However, even tech watches require some element of behavioral modification – declining rates of watch ownership among the 18-35 set coupled with a global slide in Swiss watch exports means that wearing a wrist-mounted anything may soon go the way of the dinosaur. Wearable makers must adopt to these changes if they are to succeed. Recent announcements from Under Armour (below) and Polo Ralph Lauren may indicate the next wearable revolution lies within tech-integrated clothing.
For now, it’s impossible to guess the future of this young and rapidly-growing category. However, the same technical ambitions that captured the hearts of Micropacer customers in 1984 are alive today. There is now talk of significant public health positives associated with widespread wearable tech adoption. Just imagine a sensor-enabled society’s response to a Fitbit reporting a heart attack. Calls for help would be sent passively, alerting authorities to trouble and completely removing the risk of an injured user not being able to call themselves. It may seem like science fiction, but just consider the diffusion of smartphone ownership: within 30 years, we went from “bag phones” for the few to iPhones for the many. Running shoe to luxury watch to guardian angel doesn’t seem far off.