A touch of style for wearable gadgets

A touch of style for wearable gadgets

A touch of style for wearable gadgets

Clunky tech gear now look like well-chosen accessories, says Molly Wood. Wearable electronics have been stuck in a design rut. Bulky watches, bright wristbands and Roman-gladiator-meets-the-Jetsons arm straps have been the go-to look for manufacturers like Nike and Jawbone.

But these wearable gadgets - often a dull representation of function over form - are finally getting a fashion-industry makeover.

Fitbit, the maker of the Fitbit One and Flex, has teamed with designer Tory Burch to make new trackers that look like stylish jewelry. In January, Intel started a wearable design competition that will award a total of $1.25 million in prize money.

(Intel also signalled its seriousness about wearable tech this week by purchasing the fitness tracker company Basis for a reported $100 million, so look for new design ideas in future Basis products).

And a handful of companies are already shipping wearable electronics that carry a touch of style.

I’ve spent the last two weeks wearing the Shine tracker by Misfit Wearables. It’s a small, tough, aluminum disc that can be worn several ways. The standard kit includes the tracker (in black, blue, gold or silver), a magnetic clip for attaching it to clothing or shoes, and a black rubber athletic wristband.

You can also buy accessories like a leather wristband and a necklace. You simply pop the magnetised disc into the various accessories to change the look. The Shine is highly water-resistant, so it’s a good option for use while swimming. And it doesn’t need to be charged because it runs on a coin cell battery for up to six months - you can change the battery when it runs out.

Sonny Vu, Misfit’s chief executive, said his team spent months researching wearable tech to figure out the right design and found a wide range of results. For example, he said, neither men nor women wanted to clip devices to their shoes when they weren’t cycling or running because, Vu said, “your shoes are the foundation of your fashion.”

In another surprising discovery, he said that in one survey of 2,000 women, a large percentage said they wouldn’t wear a wristband because it created tan lines.“If we only think about the wrist, we will definitely be limiting our imagination,” Vu said. “You can do a heck of a lot at the wrist, but you will be limiting the people who will use it. The body is such a sacred place that you really have to think this through.”

But the wrist is where wearable gadgets first got noticed. Nike’s introduction of the Nike+ FuelBand in 2012 spurred a wrist-based gold rush that spread to smartwatches, an idea that has had varying degrees of nonsuccess since the 1980s.

The only other type of wearable device that has received much attention is glasses, like Google’s Glass project - an expensive, still unproved idea.For wearable-device makers, like it or not, the wrist has been the focus despite those tan lines.

“The wrist is a relatively safe place, it’s functional and it’s also unisex,” said Robert Brunner, an industrial designer who co-founded Ammunition, a San Francisco design studio best known for creating the Beats by Dr. Dre headphones. “Men or women will put something on their wrist, generally. It’s a place we’re used to wearing technology.''

Still, the earliest activity trackers weren’t wristbands. They were clips that were meant to be worn on a waistband, or clipped to a sports bra or pocket. Fitbit released a clippable activity tracker as early as 2008.
But when companies like Jawbone and Nike released wristbands like the Up and the FuelBand, Fitbit said its customers started to ask for bands, as well. The Fitbit Flex was introduced in 2013, although Fitbit still makes clips.

Fitbit says that wristbands may be popular but they’re not necessarily as good at collecting data, because your wrists move in unpredictable ways that don’t always produce accurate results.

“The wrist is good and bad,” said James Park, Fitbit’s chief executive. “The great thing is that once you put a band there or some other device, you have the option of not having to take it off and not forgetting it. But it’s much more difficult to track things like motion, steps taken, calories burned - filtering that out is a lot tougher than it is on a clip.”

And there are movements and exercises that simply won’t count if you’re wearing a tracker on your wrist. You could burn 1,000 calories in spin class, but your FuelBand might never know it because your wrist stays stationary on the bike handles. Consumers are also asking for devices that can measure heart rate, which is difficult with a wristband. The Basis B1 band can do it, but most reviewers find it less accurate than chest strap monitors.

Then, of course, there’s style. Many athletic wristbands are simply athletic-looking or flat-out ugly. Even beautiful ones like the Jawbone Up ultimately look inorganic. Accessory style is a personal and subjective thing, of course, but choice is key.The Shine comes closest to a wearable device that could be a permanent addition to my wardrobe, but it’s definitely not the end of the experiment.

It’s a bit expensive: $120 (Rs 7,342) for the disc, clasp and wristband, and $50 (Rs 3,059) each for the necklace and leather band. Neither of those are exactly high-fashion, but they’re a start. Also, with the Shine around my neck, I seemed to log far fewer motion points than on the wrist (that could just be my sedentary imagination).

I also would have liked a few more software features, like the reward system that challenges you to work harder on the Nike+ app, and better social integration with Facebook or Twitter. I did like Shine’s activity tracking, which lets you specify that you’re swimming, cycling or playing other sports. That feature is supposed to help you get more accurate measurements. And I love the fact that it doesn’t require charging.

What the Shine does best, though, is serve as a reference design for future wearables. There’s no need for them to be tied to the wrist, or to any single part of the body. The little sensors inside the devices are relatively simple and are the key to the next wave of wearable evolution. They will power devices that “are going to continue to grow on us, on the body, and around the body,” said the creator of the Jawbone Up, Yves Béhar.

“It isn’t going to be a single object that does all of the functionality of your phone and all the medical and all the other functionalities that you need in your life,” Béhar said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of diversity, a lot of unique designs, a lot of unique approaches to fashion, to materials. And people will pick and choose what fits them.”