Introduction to the World of Wearables
Wearables are expanding into all facets of society. The industry around this field is growing and many companies have specialist workshops, prototyping spaces, and research and development facilities. The call for meaningful wearables now includes partners in medical, sports, safety, and many other sectors. There is a pressing need for adapting skillsets to include prototyping abilities, and a keen understanding of the process to create successful wearables. This involves integrating electronics into garments, understanding what wearables are, and how their unique properties can be incorporated. All these factors help us build a picture of new and exciting ways to create wearable technologies that will improve people’s daily lives.
In this chapter, you will learn about the context of wearables and their evolution. This will provide a launchpad for understanding exciting new e-textile and prototyping tools. We will explore past projects and the application of wearables in a variety of different domains, including medical, safety, improving quality of life, or fitness purposes. We’ll also discuss ethical considerations, which are an essential part of the process of wearable development. Understanding the definitions and constraints of the tools we have will help us develop interesting and useful wearable tech.
We will also look at current research; what are scientists, technologists, engineers, and designers exploring at these intersections? Also, what ethical considerations do we need to be aware of when designing for and with people?
In this chapter, we are going to cover the following main topics:
- What are wearables?
- Terminology, applications, and constraints
- Exciting ideas, concepts, and projects to motivate
- What does the research tell us?
- Cultural and ethical considerations
Let’s explore the history of wearables. This is only a small cross-section of what has been developed. Having a foundation in their history will build your appreciation and excitement for the field. As we progress through the artifacts, ask yourself how they can be modified, developed further, and explored in other ways. How can you adapt designs for different parts of the body? How can you push wearables further and for what purpose?
In this section, we will cover the following topics:
- Wearables definition
- When were wearables created?
- Informed wearables
The definition of wearables can vary based on the field and application. Most definitions include a continuously worn device. Typically, augmenting humans for memory, communication, or a physical improvement is an aspect of a wearable. Wearables are seen as portable computing power, worn on or near the body. A wearable is in our personal space. It can be controlled by the person wearing it. I, often, interchange the term wearables with wearable technology or wearable computing. Also, because this field is very different from the traditional programming-only computer field, it can be described as a part of the physical computing field. This can include smart clothes or textiles, body-worn devices, and interactive accessories. The term encompasses a broad range of devices, and the definition grows and shifts as new technologies and techniques are created. It’s exciting!
Generally, for this book, the wearables you will be making will use the human body in some way. This could be to communicate with or support the technology in question. Typically, wearables have the following properties:
- Garment/material/accessory on or ‘near body’
- Embedded electronics
- A power source
- Inputs/outputs of some description
Inputs and outputs will be discussed in detail later in this book as they are essential for our designs. For now, we will say that input is a way to receive data or information in our system. The output is a way of relaying that information or responding in a way to that data. Often, wearables are used to gather data from the wearer, which can provide information or connect to services. Improvements in batteries, miniaturization of components, and new ways to create textiles, garments, and accessories have contributed to their popularity. Though, I’m sure when most people hear the word “wearable” they think of a watch. That’s okay, but that’s not the full story. So, although we will discuss watch-style devices, we will look at many other interesting wearables. There is so much more to the incredible products and services that companies, makers, and researchers are creating.
When were wearables created?
There are a considerable number of valuable resources online that follow a historical timeline of wearables, so I won’t cover it all here. One example is https://www.media.mit.edu/wearables/lizzy/timeline.html. A recent paper (2021) that also focuses on connected devices is available online at https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S1389128621001651. I wanted to touch on some interesting thoughts and items to shake up your thinking and consideration when planning your wearables. Remember, we can use the term loosely and adapt it to the projects we are making.
One of the earliest considered wearable “computers” is considered the Chinese Abacus. This small ring has moving parts so that a person can perform calculations on their finger. There are seven rods, with seven beads on each rod. It is considered to have been created and used in the 17th century. The beads are too small to be used with fingers, so a small pin is used to move them. Since the pins that were used were worn in ladies’ hair, could this have potentially been for them? This isn’t strictly a wearable, in that it doesn’t have computing power or a programmable aspect, but we should consider the idea of making jewelry out of an abacus, an item that’s not worn and whose purpose is for calculating and combining those two aspects. Around 1907, the first wearable camera was created by the pioneer Julius Neubronner. This was for pigeon photography (an aerial photography technique). It was activated by a timing mechanism that activated the shutter. The camera was strapped to a pigeon!
In the 1960s, a computerized timing device was created to help mathematicians Edward O. Thorp and Claude Shannon win a game of roulette. A timer was hidden in the base of a shoe, under the insole, and another was hidden in a pack of cigarettes. It was designed to predict the motion of the roulette wheel. This was done using microswitches that indicated the speed of the roulette wheel. Musical tones would indicate a section of the wheel to bet on. The wearer had a miniature speaker in their ear to hear the tones that were produced.
July 1, 1979, was a day for portable music. This is when Sony created the Sony Walkman TPS-L2 (https://www.sony.com/ja/pressroom/pict_data/p_audio/1979_tpsl2.html):
Figure 1.1 – Sony Walkman
The founder of Sony, Masaru Ibuka, was searching for a way to listen to music in a portable way so that he could take music on flights with him. Prototypes were made and the Walkman was born. Over 400 million Walkman players, in all their forms, have been sold over time. Their designs became slimmer, sports versions were made, and other improvements were made to their power so that their batteries could be recharged.
You may have come across the Casio calculator watch that was launched in the 1980s, known as the C-80. This was a success and Casio followed up in 1984 with the Databank Telememo CD-40. The sales from these in the first 5 years was around six million units. Figure 1.2 shows an advertisement from Casio for the calculator watch in the 1980s.
Another original piece of smartwatch technology was the 1988 Seiko WristMac, after which came the Timex Datalink in 1994. This was co-developed with Bill Gates (Microsoft) and had a playable Invasion video game on it. Figure 1.2 shows model 150 with a steel bracelet in PC-communication mode. The Datalink was worn by astronauts during Expedition 16. It had wrist applications that they used as part of their explorations and for sending data for analysis.
A Wearable Wireless Webcam was developed in December 1994 by Steve Mann, a Canadian researcher. In 1998, Steve Mann invented, designed, and built the world’s first Linux wristwatch, which he presented at IEEE 2000. This is shown on the cover of Linux Magazine in Figure 1.2. This prototype was launched by IBM, with wireless connectivity. Steve Mann is considered one of the fathers of wearable computing, and you can read more about his decades of experience designing and wearing wearable computers at https://spectrum.ieee.org/steve-mann-my-augmediated-life:
Figure 1.2 – Left to right: an advert for the C-80 Casio watch, the Timex Datalink, and Linux Magazine
Today, you can buy a fully programmable LilyGo watch that incorporates an ESP32 chip – we will be using that chip (not the watch) in Chapter 7, Moving Forward with Circuit Design Using ESP32.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning the crowdfunding hit, Pebble. This smartwatch supported both Android Wear and Apple Watch operating systems. Samsung Galaxy Gear was available in 2013, while Apple Watch was available in 2015.
However, in 2015, Pebble set a record with over 78,000 backers and raised over $20 million with their Kickstarter campaign. Part of this popularity was due to its battery life of 7 days, compared to the Apple Watch’s, which was around 18 hours. Also, the price point for Pebble was $99 compared to $349 for Apple Watch.
What about wearables that can make a real difference in someone’s life? Informed wearables look to those around us to find inspiration and where there is a genuine need. Important contributions to wearable history were developed for hearing impaired and/or visually impaired people.
Hearables, the first electronic hearing aid, was created in 1898. Miller Reese Hutchison designed a hearing aid that used an electric current to amplify weak signals. It wasn’t until around 1913 that the first commercially manufactured hearing aids came to market. Beltone Electronics created the eyeglasses hearing aid in 1960 and started the trend of combining a way to conceal hearing aids. Danavox, a hearing aid solution company http://www.danavoxhearingaids.com/legacy/, as shown in Figure 1.3, created radio-style hearing aids that looked like radios and could be carried around:
Figure 1.3 – Eyeglass hearing aid
Following those developments, in the 1990s, an all-digital hearing aid was made. The 1990s also saw creativity emerge. These became more of a jewelry item. In 2021, deaf model Chella Man, in collaboration with Private Policy New York, created beautiful gold-plated ear cuffs that could accentuate a hearing device or cochlear implants. He explained, “I always found myself brainstorming ways to reclaim the machinery that had become a part of me.”
By 2010, Bluetooth-enabled devices started to surface, which allowed for big changes to be made in the hearing aid field. There are even apps that can connect to an iPhone for a specially designed hearing aid. The Made for iPhone (MFi) hearing device connects via Bluetooth and allows a person to control volume, audio presets, and other options.
In 1977, a camera-to-tactile vest was created for visually impaired people by C.C. Collins (1977). Images were converted into a 1,024-point 10-inch square tactile grid that was on a vest, as shown in the vest’s schematic:
Figure 1.4 – Tactile vest
An updated version (2014) of a vest-style prototype is the Eyeronman device. This vibrates as it senses the environment and its obstacles and conveys that information to the wearer to help them navigate:
Figure 1.5 – Eyeronman vest (credit: Tactile Navigation Tools)
One of the medical advisors for the project, Dr J.R. Rizzo, said, “I want to build a tool that can actually get [visually impaired] people to walk around crowded environments without assistance.” They see this vest being used in other contexts too, such as for firefighters, police, and soldiers, who may have impaired vision from smoke, night use, explosions, and more.
Other important wearables were created as far back as 1977 and include an early model of a heart rate monitor that was created by Polar Electro. This was a monitoring box with a set of electrode leads. These were attached to the chest. It was used as a training aid for the Finnish National Cross Country Ski team.
Between 1991 and 1997, at the MIT Media Lab, Rosalind Picard (Picard, R., Healey, J., 1997), along with students Steve Mann (Mann, S., 1997) and Jennifer Healey, researched data collection from Smart Clothes. These clothes monitored physiological data (Mann, S., 1996) from the wearer. The 1990s was also a time when wearables started to become commercial. Around 1997, BodyMedia commercially made wearable sensors (since acquired by Jawbone). These wearables were designed to help track and monitor for health-specific purposes. This allowed people to be proactive in monitoring their health.
These past inventions, prototypes, and investigations helped set the important and exciting foundations for the world of wearables as we see it today. This is not an exhaustive list but will help you glimpse into the areas you can research further.
Current work in the field
What wearable technologies exist that you know about or have? Let’s look at recent innovations and the important role wearables play in our lives. We will learn about the current work in the field by covering the following topics:
- The traditional role of clothing
- Headsets and eyeglasses
- Current wearable markets
From around 1995 onwards, artists, researchers, and creators began questioning the traditional role of clothing. To redefine the role, Kipöz (2007) looked at clothing as a hyper-medium in risk society. Clothing was redesigned to provoke thought and discussion. Hyper-medium looks to incorporate functionality and contemporary aesthetics. Distinct areas of creation involve protection against disaster, which is the idea of protecting against the unfriendliness of the world around us. Lucy Orta’s wearable shelters were conceptualized for disaster victims, homeless people, and similar.
These garment structures became places of comfort and seclusion to meet the need for privacy and personal space. Part of the goal was to also provoke discussions regarding homelessness, place, and space. Another area of concern is the environment itself. A Metropolis Jacket with an anti-smog mask was created in 1998 to help combat the negative environmental impacts on people.
A very exciting vision (Figure 1.6) for the adaptability to use this sensor directly on the body to allow movement and comfort is ElectroDermis. As stated by Eric Markvicka, Guanyun Wange, et al., in 2019, “ElectroDermis is a fabrication system that simplifies the creation of wearable electronics that are comfortable, elastic, and fully untethered.” They recognized that “wearable electronics require structural conformity, must be comfortable for the wearer, and should be soft, elastic, and aesthetically appealing. We envision a future where electronics can be temporarily attached to the body (like bandages or party masks), but in functional and aesthetically pleasing ways”:
Figure 1.6 – ElectroDermis (photo credit: Morphing Matter Lab, Carnegie Mellon University)
One of the world’s smallest wearables fits on a fingernail and measures UV wavelengths, as shown in Figure 1.7. It interacts wirelessly with a mobile phone. Its primary use is to reduce skin cancer frequency. “We hope people with information about their UV exposure will develop healthier habits when out in the sun,” Xu said. “UV light is ubiquitous and carcinogenic. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer worldwide. Right now, people don’t know how much UV light they are getting. This device helps you maintain an awareness and for skin cancer survivors, could also keep their dermatologists informed.” It was developed by Northwestern Medicine and Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering scientists. One version of it, which looks like a small wearable pin that you can clip onto your nail, is commercially available:
Figure 1.7 – UV nail sensor (photo credit: Drs. June K. Robinson and John Rogers, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL)
Headsets and glasses are also prototyped often for wearable computing. Around 1980, Steve Mann developed a series of headsets that included embedded cameras and microphones. These recorded daily activities and were cumbersome in their design due to the available technology.
The 1990s saw collaborations with Thad Starner and Steve Mann, which led to what is seen as modern-wearable computing. Typically, in the 1990s, interdisciplinary explorations began happening in research projects. Some of the research fields allowed for a more interdisciplinary approach, including design, computer science, management, fashion, electronic engineering, computer engineering, and human-computer interaction fields.
Eyeglasses contribute to what is considered an augmented human by using lenses to correct vision. An augmented human can be described as an enhancement that’s made by making a natural or technological alteration to the human body. Typically, this can be to enhance performance in some way or to add to our capabilities. Eyeglasses have been a focus for wearables since the 1990s. Most notably, a lot of this work, 10 years in the making, culminated in Google Glass being sold in 2015. Glass had privacy issues and there was a backlash against its use. Since 2015, Glass has only been available as Enterprise and not for public purchase.
However, Solos cycling smart glasses help cyclists keep their eyes on the road. This was a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2017 and is now commercially available. Solos provides important running and cycling metrics such as pace, heart rate, and power without someone having to take their eyes off the road. This was initially started as a project for the US Olympic cycling team.
Another product that was created with eyeglasses in mind was OrCam MyEye. This is a device that takes all these features further, as shown in Figure 1.8. It was designed for people with vision loss and various eye conditions, including reading fatigue or reading difficulties. OrCam has a camera that interprets a wearer’s visual information.
An example of such information could be when you’re reading a menu – it can read out, audibly to an in-ear headphone the menu items. It can also recognize faces, colors, products, money, barcodes, and similar:
Figure 1.8 – OrCam MyEye (left) and Pocket Sky (right)
It consists of a magnetically mounted device (for eyeglasses) that works in real time without any need for a smartphone or other device. At the time of writing, it costs around £4,000 to purchase, which makes it a very specialist item, as is common for many assistive technologies unfortunately. However, it is an item that could benefit a lot of people.
There are also Everysight Raptor and Ray-Ban Stories, which allow you to record videos and take photos. Lastly, there’s Amazon Echo Frames. However, it doesn’t use augmented reality – it’s used for playing Alexa feedback. This allows you to control your devices, play music, and similar.
Pocket Sky (Figure 1.8 right) acts like sunlight when not enough natural light is available. This version of the eyeglasses wearable activates and keeps a person’s sleep-wake rhythm in balance. A lack of daylight in winter can make you tired. Pocket Sky aims to lift your mood and ease seasonal blues.
When you think of wearables, what springs to mind? If you talk with someone about a “wearable,” what devices are they talking about?
Some of the successes in these technologies show that there’s a great understanding of the craftsmanship and ability to use hardware, alongside knowledge of materials and textiles. This knowledge creates a great combination of skills.
As your journey through this book progresses, you’ll learn about the hardware, the sensors, the code, and how to connect it all. You’ll also learn about important textile and fabric knowledge. This can be the difference in creating a truly usable wearable prototype.
Taking it further
If you’ve enjoyed learning about some of the current work in the field, you can look up more wondrous and futuristic designs through the work of Anouk Wipprecht, Pauline van Dongen, Iris Van Herpen, Suzanne Lee, Helen Storey, and Hussein Chalayan. These creators design within intersections of fashion, science, technology, and art to create stunning designs that offer a playful and critical look at how the human body can be transformed.
Now, let’s look at the intriguing work that’s being done in textile electronics. We’ll learn about embroidery, smart fabrics, and the sensors that are used in wearables. This will help us consider materials, fabrics, and textiles in our designs in this field.
We have just learned about some of the current work in the field of wearables. This section introduces the ideas and uses of smart materials and concepts to consider when you are creating a wearable. Smart textiles, also known as smart fabrics, include computational functionality. They provide benefits to the wearer.
There are two categories for this field:
- Textiles with components and electronics added, such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs), screens, batteries, and similar
- Textiles with the electronics integrated directly
Some electronic textiles are used for communication or energy conduction and have sensors built into them to collect data from the wearer. Some are for aesthetic purposes, while others are for performance. Lights can be added to clothing for a variety of aesthetic purposes. Performance-enhancing garments are typically used by athletes and in the military.
In 1995, Harry Wainwright invented the first machine that could insert fiber-optics into fabrics. You can read more about his research online at https://www.hleewainwright.com/. He has pioneered electronically enhanced apparel and modern e-textiles. Following that, in 1997, Selbach Machinery was the first to produce a CNC machine that automatically implanted fiber optics into any flexible material.
Some fabrics can help regulate the temperature of the body, and we will look at these types of sensors in Chapter 5, Working with Sensors: All About Inputs!, but they can also react to vibrations or sound. An example would be an astronaut’s space suit, which could have lights, sensors, and properties to heat and cool the astronaut or protect them from radiation. This would be a fun project – that is, to make a space suit-style wearable!
According to Hughes-Riley, Dias, and Cork (2018), first-generation e-textiles are about devices or components/electronics being affixed to textiles. Second-generation e-textiles are all about knitted fabrics and similar that can be used in conductive circuits as functional fabrics. Finally, third-generation e-textiles consist of conductive elements integrated into a textile. Figure 1.9 shows this as an LED yarn.
For textile electronics, the sensors might be embedded into a garment or fabric, or in what can be termed third-generation e-textiles, which means that the garment is the sensor. The Hughes-Riley, Dias, and Cork, (2018) definitions can be read in the context of their research. The following is a link to the paper as a PDF: http://irep.ntu.ac.uk/id/eprint/33789/1/11263_Hughes-Riley.pdf.
Figure 1.9 – Examples of each generation of electronic textiles (this image has been reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/))
Other seamless integration examples include pressure or strain sensors. Sensors can be used for interesting ideas, such as CuteCircuit’s Hug Shirt, where a person can send an electronic hug through sensors in the garment. The hug is sent through actuators.
Smart textiles can be knitted, woven, or have steel/metal fibers embedded. They can be made from conductive threads, yarns, copper (or other material) sheets, conductive metal cores, or metallic meshes and coated with silver to make them respond to the environment or wearer. It is a field that is undergoing experimentation and innovation to study the functions these textiles can take. These garments often need treating so that they can be worn in all weather conditions. Factors such as temperature and other weather conditions need to be considered. For day-to-day wearables, they often have pieces that you can detach so that you can wash them safely. This is something you may want to consider.
Also, the use of smart fabrics has seen enhancements in the field of sports and performance environments. Tennis players today use smart fabrics that allow the garments to record data from the performer. This can include temperature, sweat, and muscle movement. Such data can enhance performance. Data can be collected through sensors and “biometric capture,” which will provide information about the wearer’s body position or movement, and how their data compares to others. Gestures can be captured and used to analyze performance and endurance.
The development of biotextiles, nanotechnology, techno-fashion, interactive garments, and intelligent fashion allows for experimentation and communication possibilities. People that wear underwear while they sleep can monitor sleep quality through a small pod tucked into the garment. Other uses include remote healthcare, self-heating clothing, and in the industry for employee health.
Uses for electronic textiles
- Health monitoring, which can include heart rate, temperature, movement, and posture
- Sports use and training
- Position tracking for people, teams, the military, and similar
- Monitoring fatigue, potentially for driving and pilots
- Fashionable items
- Sensory perception, music, and similar uses
Lastly, textiles allow us to consider input forms such as touch, pressure, and movement in alternative ways. The wearer can use presses allowing sensors or fabrics to be near the body. This intimacy makes it a unique consideration.
These uses of textiles can even offer limited, or no direct input, from the user, quietly collecting information as the wearer goes about their normal day.
Spend a little time sketching out some ideas. What uses do you think are important? What types of textiles would you use and wear? Sketches could be for different locations on the body.
With that, we’ve learned about textile electronics and the advances in the field. You should now understand their uses and how they allow for innovative forms of input in our wearables. Now, let’s look at some of the terminology, applications, and constraints that you will face when designing wearable projects.
Terminology, applications, and constraints
It is important to know the terms you’ll come across in this exciting field. This section will help define some of the terms and will also help you generate your project ideas through understanding the various applications and their constraints. Let’s start with the terminology.
This section defines the context for the words that will be used throughout this book. This will give you background information about when they are referred to in this book.
Wearable computing can be on the body or near bodily items, such as clothing, typically with sensors and outputs. This can be to extend our natural abilities, augment them, or highlight them. It could enable us to communicate with others or track ourselves. The following is an example of an augmented bag:
Figure 1.10 – Wearable computing example, C Farion
Electronic circuits that have processing power that can read input sensor data and output that data in another form are common in most wearable computing. Often, the garment is continuously worn and will have power needs.
The bag in the preceding figure helps a person to remember what objects they have packed. It has computing power to react to sensors and input and also provides output.
Technology can be placed into garments or fabrics and used in some way to create wearable technology. This can be as simple as circuitry that carries current and performs some actions. Technology that can be embedded into the human body is often called biohacks.
We will explore this in more detail in Chapter 8, Learning How to Prototype and Make Electronics Wearable, but here, our objective is to create something before it is market-ready. This can take many different forms and many iterations to make it work in the way we want it to. This can be done with 3D printing, paper, fabrics, or anything we have to hand. Generally, we use less expensive materials to prototype:
Figure 1.11 – Prototyping example
The preceding figure shows a watch concept made with foam board and lights, with some electronics embedded. The first prototype they made (my Interaction Design students) was just with the foamboard, which is also a good example of prototyping.
This is similar to prototyping, but we use electronic components to create circuits for testing. Here, we connect wires and components to see if they are working and correctly inputting or reacting. This is part of electronic prototyping, so you will be prototyping throughout this book. Generally, we use less expensive components to prototype. Figure 1.12 shows an example:
Figure 1.12 – Electronic prototyping
The term interactivity has many definitions and meanings. In this book, we will use it to describe a button circuit, for example, where pressing that button requires interaction. A person, environment, or sensor that has some type of action and reaction is interactive. Also, when thinking in a wider sense, creating two gloves that connect to people, or wearable items that need to be touched, stroked, or moved in some way, creates interactivity that often enhances a device’s use. Interacting with people or our environment often generates interesting uses:
Figure 1.13 – Anouk Wipprecht, Heartbeat Dress featuring Keenyah Hill, and (right) synapse for Intel
A stunning example of electronic textile technology that combines 3D printed parts is Anouk Wipprecht’s work, as shown in Figure 1.13. It has an extraordinary appearance. The Heartbeat Dress monitors the wearer’s heartbeat and displays the rhythms in a central pendant. This dress was a collaboration with crystal maker SWAROVSKI (https://www.linkedin.com/company/swarovski/), researching Wearable Emotions.
Other work by Anouk that combines fashion and robotics can be viewed online on her website at http://www.anoukwipprecht.nl/. There are many videos that I recommend watching to get a feel for these pieces.
What types of subject areas do you want to design your wearable for? What inspiration is there? The following diagram shows some of the fields, functions, and constraints of wearables. This will act as a handy reminder when we are developing our projects:
Figure 1.14 – Applications for wearables
Another way we can launch project ideas is to look at specific areas on the body that we may want to design for – especially during the prototyping phase when we are learning new skills. It helps to have some inspiration, and the following figure shows the body location possibilities we have for our designs:
Figure 1.15 – Possible locations (character: https://www.mixamo.com/)
Being aware of the possible locations for using a wearable garment or accessory can be helpful when you are generating ideas. I often refer to this type of guide as a refresher to think through new and exciting ideas that can be developed into a prototype that I can iterate. Hopefully, you have an idea of the different domains to develop for, as well as places on or near the body. Combining these two points of information can help you launch a project idea. Now, let’s look at the constraints and what we need to be aware of when designing wearable technology.
There can sometimes be constraints when we are planning and designing wearables. The following diagram shows the constraints that we should be aware of when we are designing wearable technology. How many of these factors will affect your designs?
Figure 1.16 – Constraints
With that, we’ve looked at some common definitions that will be used throughout this book. We also learned about the possible fields where we may make wearables, what their functions might be, and what constraints to be aware of.
Exciting ideas, concepts, and projects to motivate
So far, we’ve looked at the history of, and what is current in, the wearable world. What about when devices become smaller, making them easily portable, lowering their energy needs, and smarter? Here are a few projects and products to help you to feel inspired when thinking about your wearable designs.
Extension of the body
The body is a dynamic system, and we can create enhancements for this dynamic system when we augment it with our wearable technology. We can look to extend the body and use our senses to create new and unusual relationships with our surroundings.
We can explore these technologies to understand how our bodies interact within spaces or with each other. The body can be extended through mechanical, gestural, and sensory qualities. These shifts in our perspective can help us acquire new ways of thinking and developing body-technology systems. What can we design to enhance our gestural engagement with the environment around us?
What if we had smart sneakers to analyze how you walk or smart gloves to help your golf swing? The Under Armour Flow Velociti Wind will track your running and try to improve it. There are gloves that read grip pressure to provide audio and visual feedback to help your golf game. The Movano ring provides you with sensor data for your heart rate, temperature, and more to help you get a better night’s sleep.
Pedro Lopes is researching electrical muscle stimulation, as shown in Figure 1.17, through components and sensors. More of his research can be found online at http://plopes.org/:
Figure 1.17 – Pedro Lopes: Electrical Muscle Stimulation
Electrical muscle stimulation is used to nudge a person into certain hand gestures. This can be a squeeze, drop, shake, and so on:
Figure 1.18 – External spine with a touch-sensitive ribcage (left) and Bertolt Meyer (right)
Researchers in Canada have designed prosthetic musical instruments. Figure 1.18 shows an external spine with a touch-sensitive rib cage. It creates music in response to body gestures. Photo credit: Vanessa Yaremchuk. Instrument conception and design are credited to Joseph Malloch and Ian Hattwick of the Input Devices and Music Interaction Lab (IDMIL) at McGill University. See http://www-new.idmil.org/ for more information.
Musician Bertolt Meyer (Figure 1.18) has a prosthetic arm and uses it to control his synthesizer and music using his mind. He plugs it directly into the synth to control the music by thinking about it.
The Ivy health tracker, is a bracelet that monitors your heart rate, respiratory rate, cardiac coherence, and physical and mental activity. It has a non-typical form factor, which is why it’s included here. It is designed for women’s health, and they are currently working on a device for post-natal depression.
The Viscero ECG Vest (Design Partners, 2021) Ireland-based Design Partners is a wearable ECG device that looks like the iconic plain white t-shirt shown in Figure 1.19. Designed to do away with the current large, uncomfortable monitors, Viscero is a white vest you wear underneath your clothing. Viscero is as easy to use as wearing a t-shirt.
The body-hugging vest comes with dry electrodes integrated into the t-shirt’s design. These are placed in specific areas to accurately capture medical data, while the data itself is sent to a compact smart wearable device that attaches to the side of the t-shirt, right above the pocket:
Figure 1.19 – Viscero ECG device (left) and MedBot concept (right)
The MedBot smartwatch concept was designed by Batyrkhan Bayaliev (permission and photo: https://www.behance.net/bayalievbaae07) as a health wearable, as shown in Figure 1.19.The smartwatch is equipped with a blood pressure sensor that will take readings when required and can also be utilized as a way to monitor additional health metrics.
The device also features storage space inside for a person’s medication and will remind them when it’s time to take their next dose. It also reminds users when it’s time to take their pills. This explores the intersection of health and smart technology. This is currently a concept design.
1989, in the era of Nintendo-mania, toymaker giant Mattel unleashed a bold technological experiment to an eager public known as the Nintendo Power Glove, as shown here:
Figure 1.20 – Power Glove (photograph by Evan-Amos-Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16915852)
This was the first video game controller that could use hand gestures. However, the product was a critical failure, with terrible gameplay. Three decades later, dedicated fans continue to repurpose the Power Glove for art pieces, hacking projects, electronic music, and more. Although not “current,” it is certainly a great start to making a wearable design.
Meta unveiled a prototype haptic feedback glove as a prototype, as shown in Figure 1.21. It is planned to be put into production and has 15 actuators that have contact with skin. These actuators deliver physical sensations through stiffening, loosening, and fabricating resistance:
Figure 1.21 – Meta haptic VR glove, Meta Reality Labs (left) and Wire Sensing glove (right) (Photo Credit: Purdue University/Rebecca McElhoe)
This allows you to feel VR objects. Another glove concept is one where the fingertips of a wireless voltage detection glove illuminate when the wearer’s hand approaches a live cable. The gloves are powered wirelessly through a flexible, silk-based coil sewn on the textile and are laundry resistant.
There are even gloves that help with fruit picking. Rafael V. Aroca et al. (2013) propose a system of using gloves for non-typical applications. The gloves have sensors on them and by pointing or touching the fruit, it can analyze and measure their attributes.
Now that we’ve looked at some of the other ways wearables are being used and made, you may want to look at Jennifer Crupi’s work for inspiration: https://www.jennifercrupi.com/work. She is a metalsmith who creates objects that fit the body in an unusual way.
What does the research tell us?
Researchers in the field of wearable technology follow many types of research practices. When you start to plan and develop your wearables, you will find that you may choose a path that works for you. You may want to learn about qualitative methods. This involves collecting first-hand (primary research) data – the stories and the feelings and thoughts to create improved versions of what we are developing. I’m often asked the following by students when I teach about technology and designing for people:
- How do I know what the right design is?
- How can I design something they need?
- When we make something, how do I know if people will use it?
And so on… My answer is typically the same – we get these answers from speaking to people. We don’t know the answers, we don’t have the perspective of everyone who may use what we make, and we want to understand why someone has a particular need – even if they don’t know it yet. All these questions, and many more, can be answered by speaking with people. As Jakob Nielsen, co-founder of Nielson Norman Group, states, “Pay attention to what users do, not what they say.” We will discuss ways to do this and how to use engagement tools in Chapter 11, Innovating with a Human-Centered Design Process.
As you design your wearables, keep in mind that qualitative data will give you the stories that you need to be able to develop with success. Along the way, you may follow an ethnographic (Gobo, G., Marciniak, L.T., 2011) approach. Primarily, this involves studying people, their behaviors, their social interactions, and similar.
As Hillman Curtis states, “The goal of a designer is to listen, observe, understand, sympathize, empathize, synthesize, and glean insights that enable him or her to make the invisible visible.”
This is typically done in their environment, where they study people in context. It is a great way to begin to understand the people you want to design for. This way, you can begin to understand their story, goals, and context.
Using research methods to acquire knowledge
Fieldwork, or field studies, is a generic term for you going into “the field” – the environment where the people you are designing for are located. These studies are not done in a lab or in unnatural settings.
I have also used “in-the-wild” studies to describe some of the research I have done. This is when a participant uses the wearable as part of their daily routine. You may or may not be present for this:
- Non-participant observation: You observe people from a distance, without interacting with them. This allows you to gain information and not disturb how people will act naturally in their environment.
- Participant observation: This involves you establishing a relationship with the person or people you are observing. You typically stay for a set period in their natural environment. Here, you can interact with them and participate in their everyday habits.
- Passive observation: Generally, this method involves shadowing the people you are concerned with. You won’t interact with them or interfere in their normal interactions. Documentation is important and can involve video, photography, note-taking, audio recording, and drawings. This method allows you to focus on them fully and maintain your outsider perspective. Also, even though you are not interacting with them directly, often, people are still very conscious or aware of your presence, so their behavior may be altered. This can also depend on what you are observing. It might take several visits or a long time observing to lessen this happening.
- Interviews: Interviews are a great follow-on from observation. Speaking to people after observing them can provide additional insights. It provides information about what they are doing and why they are doing it and fills in details on aspects that you weren’t able to fully capture or observe. It may offer you more insights if you can interview them in the same location where the observation took place.
- Auto-ethnographic approach: For certain wearable items you make, you may want to be the person testing them. It could be that you have a need for the wearable you are making. If so, you can follow an auto-ethnographic approach. This is a research method and methodology that uses the researcher’s personal experience as data to describe, analyze, and understand cultural experience (C Ellis, TE Adams, AP Bochner, 2011). When I followed this method, I took huge amounts of field notes. I’ll cover this more in Chapter 11, Innovating with a Human-Centered Design Process.
- Research diaries: A research diary is a great way to protect the work you do in the field. You don’t want to forget everything you’ve been observing or listening to. If I challenge you to tell me what you said in an earlier conversation, you will rarely remember the majority of what was said. It’s only until you use a diary of some description that you can begin to form an accurate picture of what happened – not your interpretation of it. Whether they are called diaries, log books, journals, field notes, or lab books, some version of this type of “external memory” has been used by researchers in many disciplines to record their daily observations in the field (Altrichter, H. and Holly, M.L., 2005).
What can people tell us?
These research methods can be very useful for designing wearable technology. This is not an exhaustive list, and I would recommend that you follow up on these concepts. Speaking to people is one of the best ways to answer your questions and set you on your developing journey. Instead of asking what the research tells us, we may ask, what can people tell us?
Cultural and ethical considerations
Various ethical and cultural considerations can affect our designs in two main ways. The wearable design itself has issues that need to be considered, but the way we research and test our wearables may have considerations too. You’ll find that this section asks a lot of questions – it is designed to provoke thought and reflection. The issues that will be raised are meant to be thought-provoking and help you reflect on your wearable designs. Let’s explore this further so that you have a guide when developing your projects.
In this section, we will cover the following topics:
- Considerations when designing wearable technology
- Ethical considerations in research and testing
Let’s get started.
Considerations when designing wearable technology
As we have just learned, wearables can be found in healthcare, part of our daily routines, and often used 24 hours a day. They are often small in size and have sensors that collect data about us or our environment. There can be privacy concerns for people using these devices. To address this, we need to understand what the potential challenges are and how these challenges are seen by the wearer.
Data sharing brings benefits to us – if it didn’t, we wouldn’t use the devices. But alongside that, there are privacy challenges. Do we feel under surveillance? Culturally, these issues are felt in different ways. Does society in the UK, for example, which has surveillance cameras in many public locations feel more at ease with this aspect? Do cultures or locations with no cameras feel more invaded in their privacy? Are there threats if we use these devices? What are the risks? These are all important topics to consider.
There have been news articles reporting on Apple Tags being used to track people and cars without their knowledge – so much so that Apple has issued an app for Android users as well so that they can be alerted if they are being tracked. Does the convenience of using technologies outweigh any concerns we have?
We must consider that most people carry around a mobile phone. These typically track our usage in different ways, and even our locations. So, is there something specific about wearables that concerns people? Is it about a limited understanding of how or when personal data is used or stored? Surveillance concerns were raised with so much objection to Google Glass that the project is no longer available for public purchase. Has the immediate/constant use of cameras on some wearables altered people’s perceptions?
- Is data collected? If so, where, and how is it stored? Processed? For what length of time is the data held? Who has access and control to it? Is it shared?
- Is some data more sensitive than others? Personal? Medical? Confidential?
- What data is captured? Audio? Video? Sensors? Are they unaware of this being recorded?
- Do we need to be aware of location data and consequences for wearers? Is the location live? Delayed? What are the implications of accessing location data?
- Can the data be deleted? Accessed by the wearer easily? Is it published? Will or can this be opened to criminal abuse?
- Is privacy compromised in any way when using the wearable? Whose privacy? The wearer? The environment?
- Does it affect those around or with the wearer?
- Is privacy compromised by using this wearable?
Primarily, there is a concern if a user has granted permission to use their data but that it is then used by a third party. People fear their devices being hacked and manipulated. As an example, Google Glass posed issues for people because it was recording the users but also the environment and those around them. You could be in any location, including ones that would require privacy, and it could be recording without the knowledge of the other people around you. Additionally, the data was stored on Google’s servers. In theory, this meant anyone at Google also had access to it.
Zhao, Zheng, and Pedro Lopes, computer science professors at the University of Chicago (UChicago), created a prototype wearable device that blocks microphones in the vicinity from eavesdropping on conversations:
Figure 1.22 – Bracelet of Silence (Photograph Heather Zheng)
With 24 speakers that emitted ultrasonic signals, it stops the Amazon Echo and similar devices from recording conversations. You can read more about the project at http://sandlab.cs.uchicago.edu/jammer/ and follow the reference to the research paper at the end of this chapter.
Our physical location of where we live may also impact our use and understanding of wearables. For example, the EU has legal frameworks on privacy and personal data protection. When designing our wearables, we must consider the person using them and what the society they are a part of will feel if it is used there. Will they still be welcomed? Or will they become untrusted? Digital addiction and digital distraction can also play a part in acceptability.
There can be tension between the constant gestures we must make while using a wearable in the company of others. If family members or friends are not supportive, would this make a difference in what wearables can be used? Understanding these issues and the social context of the wearer will increase the wearable’s use. It will increase acceptance and satisfaction. Some devices for people with dementia or memory loss issues are associated with the stigma of wearing them, so there is a low use rate, even if the technology could be helpful.
Also, consider if the device is environmentally friendly. What are the waste concerns? Recycling? How is the device created? Are the materials sourced ethically? These questions are too big for one chapter as there are so many considerations and impacts we can look at on the surface. When we design, we should look for ways to be conscious of our impact when designing wearables. An article by Lee, J., Kim, D., Ryoo, H. Y., and Shin, B. S. (2016) describes wearables in terms of their value for a human-oriented experience, but those issues can also be resolved from a sustainability standpoint. Their article defines, “sustainable wearables is discussed in the context of improving the quality of individual life, social impact, and social public interest.” When creating our wearables, we should consider, as discussed in the article, that “Successful and sustainable wearables will lead to positive changes for both individuals and societies overall.” This article is available online at https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/8/5/466/pdf.
Recycling and disposing of wearables and e-textiles is also a concern for the wearable community. Both makers and wearers should be concerned with the ability to repair items, dispose of them in an environmentally friendly way, and use biodegradable materials for embedding electronics. Alternative materials such as mycelium – a root type of structure of fungus found in soil – have properties such as heat and thermal resistance, which can be used in wearables. It is currently being used for fashion as it can be made to look like leather, but I’ve also seen examples of it being used to make furniture and other items. Vasquez, E. S. L., & Vega, K. (2019) describe in their paper about creating “…sustainability in the prototyping process by producing wearables that make use of biodegradable material for embedding electronics.”
My colleagues and I have been experimenting with alternative materials too. Recycling and repurposing is a great way to think through environmental considerations. This includes using secondhand clothing, recycled cardboard, or recycling electronics. We’ve also experimented with recycling cardboard and putting it into molds to form the shapes we want to embed electronics. There are many materials we can reuse; we are currently recycling bubble wrap as a textile.
Energy and power sources should also be a consideration when you develop your wearables. Will you provide or build a solar panel into your device, for example? If not, how will the energy be renewed?
Lastly, there are cost considerations. Is the wearable exclusive and price prohibitive? Or is there access to all? If it is of medical importance, who will pay?
These issues and concerns should be addressed during the development of the wearable, and we will look at this in detail in Chapter 8, Learning How to Prototype and Make Electronics Wearable.
Ethical considerations in research and testing
As discussed earlier, there are many research methods we can use to get great results about the wearables we make. But what are the ethical considerations if we are speaking with people to understand the wearable we are making?
- Informed consent
- Voluntary participation
- Potential for harm
- Results communication
It is also important to consider honesty, integrity, and objectivity. You may be designing something for a sensitive topic or purpose, so it is especially important then. You will find that if you create a participant information sheet, for example, the participants may be more willing and trusting to give you feedback on your wearable. This is a letter that details what you are trying to achieve, what the wearable’s purpose is, how you are doing it, and details of how they can contact you. It may also contain information about what they will need to do if they participate, as well as the benefits of participating. Coupled with the information sheet, there is usually a participant consent form. This is an agreement that the person you are speaking with will understand what is expected of them and what they can expect of you. It indicates that they are participating of their own free will and understand that they can quit at any time for any reason.
In this chapter, we discussed the context of wearables and their evolution. We explored the exciting applications of wearables in a variety of different domains, including for medical, safety, improving quality of life, and fitness purposes.
We learned about the current research, including what scientists, technologists, engineers, artists, and designers are exploring in these intersections. These impressive innovations can inspire us to keep learning and develop what we dream of. We looked at the benefits that wearables can bring to people with physical or sensory disabilities, visual or hearing impairments, and other mobility or cognitive issues. We also had a quick look at what research can tell us, and the methods we can use to create wearables with purpose. Finally, we gained an awareness of what ethical and privacy considerations we should take into account when designing for and with people. I hope this chapter helped give you the foundation and excitement to inspire you and help you think through ethical considerations when designing wearable technologies.
In Chapter 2, Understanding and Building Electronic Sewable Circuits, we are going to get up and running with our first electronic circuits. We will start by learning the basics of electronics. Then, we will create essential circuits with conductive threads. After that, we will learn why and how to use a multimeter, how to make switches and buttons, and lastly, how to soft circuits. All of this will prepare you for the wide world of wearables!
You may wish to explore the resources that have been used in this chapter. There are also annual conferences with great research outputs. Established in 1997, International Symposium on Wearables Computers (ISWC) is a great start. Look out for MIT, Georgia Tech, ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, and others. The content ranges from sensors, new hardware, new applications, and new methods for wearable computers. The following are some other resources you may find useful:
Electrodermis: More information is available at https://www.morphingmatter.cs.cmu.edu/projects/electrodermis, where additional images and discussions of their prototyping and electronics usage are provided.
Hughes-Riley, T., Dias, T., & Cork, C. (2018). A historical review of the development of electronic textiles. Fibers, 6(2), 34. Available at https://www.mdpi.com/2079-6439/6/2/34/pdf.
Martin T, Healey J (2007) 2006’s wearable computing advances and fashions. IEEE Pervasive Computing 6(1):14–6.
Card, Stuart K.; Thomas P. Moran; Allen Newell (July 1980). The keystroke-level model for user performance time with interactive systems. Communications of the ACM. 23 (7): 396–410. DOI: 10.1145/358886.358895.
Ometov, A., Shubina, V., Klus, L., Skibińska, J., Saafi, S., Pascacio, P., ... & Lohan, E. S. (2021). A survey on wearable technology: History, state-of-the-art, and current challenges. Computer Networks, 193, 108074.
Carlisle, James H. (June 1976). Evaluating the impact of office automation on top management communication. Proceedings of the June 7–10, 1976, National Computer Conference and Exposition. pp. 611–616. DOI: 10.1145/1499799.1499885.
Weiser, M. (1999). The computer for the 21st century. ACM SIGMOBILE mobile computing and communications review, 3(3), 3-11.
Nieuwdorp, E. (2007). The pervasive discourse. Computers in Entertainment. 5 (2): 13.DOI: 10.1145/1279540.1279553
Greenfield, Adam (2006). Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing. New Riders. Pp. 11–12. ISBN 978-0-321-38401-0.
Licklider, J. C. (1960). Man-computer symbiosis. IRE transactions on human factors in electronics, (1), 4-11.
Amft O, Lauffer M, Ossevoort S, Macaluso F, Lukowicz P, Troster G (2004). Design of the QBIC wearable computing platform. In: Proceedings 15th IEEE international conference on application-specific systems, architectures and processors, 2004. 2004 Sep 27 (pp 398–410). IEEE.
Picard, Rosalind; Healey, Jennifer (December 1997). Affective Wearables. Personal Technologies. 1 (4): 231–240. DOI: 10.1007/BF01682026
Mann, Steve (March 1997). Smart Clothes. Personal Technologies. 1 (1): 21–27. DOI: 10.1007/BF01317885
Mann, S. (1996). Smart clothing: The shift to wearable computing. Communications of the ACM, 39(8), 23-24.
C. C. Collins, Tactile Television - Mechanical and Electrical Image Projection, in IEEE Transactions on Man-Machine Systems, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 65-71, March 1970. DOI: 10.1109/TMMS.1970.299964.
C.C. Collins, L.A. Scadden, and A.B. Alden, Mobile Studies with a Tactile Imaging Device, Fourth Conference on Systems & Devices for the Disabled, 1–3 June 1977, Seattle WA.
Picard, Rosalind; Healey, Jennifer (December 1997). Affective Wearables. Personal Technologies. 1 (4): 231–240. DOI: 10.1007/BF01682026
de Medeiros, M. S., Goswami, D., Chanci, D., Moreno, C., & Martinez, R. V. (2021). Washable, breathable, and stretchable e-textiles wirelessly powered by omniphobic silk-based coils. Nano Energy, 87, 106155.
Yuxin Chen, Huiying Li, Shan-Yuan Teng, Steven Nagels, Zhijing Li, Pedro Lopes, Ben Y. Zhao, Haitao Zheng, Wearable Microphone Jamming, Proceedings of ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI), Honolulu, HI, April 2020. Available at https://sandlab.cs.uchicago.edu/jammer/.
Gobo, G. and Marciniak, L.T., 2011. Ethnography. Qualitative research, 3(1), pp.15-36.
Brewer, J., 2000. Ethnography. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).
Gobo, G., 2008. Doing ethnography. Sage.
Ellis, C., Adams, T.E. and Bochner, A.P., 2011. Autoethnography: an overview. Historical social research/Historische sozialforschung, pp.273-290.
Chang, H., 2016. Autoethnography as method (Vol. 1). Routledge.
Altrichter, H. and Holly, M.L., 2005. Research diaries. Research methods in the social sciences, pp.24-32.
Hui Zheng and Vivian Genaro Motti, 2018. Assisting Students with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in Inclusive Education with Smartwatches. Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, Paper 350, 1–12. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3173574.3173924.
Eric Markvicka, Guanyun Wang, Yi-Chin Lee, Gierad Laput, Carmel Majidi, and Lining Yao, 2019. ElectroDermis: Fully Untethered, Stretchable, and Highly-Customizable Electronic Bandages. Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, Paper 632, 1–10. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3290605.3300862.
Lee, J., Kim, D., Ryoo, H. Y., & Shin, B. S. (2016). Sustainable wearables: Wearable technology for enhancing the quality of human life. Sustainability, 8(5), 466. Available to download online from https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/8/5/466/pdf.
Vasquez, E. S. L., & Vega, K. (2019, September). Myco-accessories: sustainable wearables with biodegradable materials. In Proceedings of the 23rd International Symposium on Wearable Computers (pp. 306-311). https://dl.acm.org/doi/pdf/10.1145/3341163.3346938.
Answer the following questions to test your knowledge of this chapter:
- What device or technology would you consider as augmented human?
- What are some typical qualities that a wearable has?
- Think about some of the intersections that wearables cross for collaborative and interesting outcomes. Who would you collaborate with?
- How can informed wearables be designed and what is their focus?
- Where on the body can wearables be made for?
- How do ethical considerations affect our designs and the research for testing our designs?
- Sketch your ideas about materials, textiles, functions, or purposes that inspire you.