It's hip, it's hot, but does it look any good? Wearable technology is becoming one of the most exciting parts of the technology sector, inspiring designers to come up with new inventions and attracting investors eager to pour cash into potential money-spinning ideas.
From Google Glass spectacles that let you surf the web as you walk down the street, to golf gloves that tell you how to swing better, or a smart shirt that can measure your temperature and cool you down, it is a rapidly expanding field.
But amid all the hoopla about what "wearable tech" might actually do for consumers, an equally important debate has emerged over what one might call "geek aesthetics". Forget function: think fashion. Many experts now believe the fortunes in the wearable tech sector will be made as much by making people look cool as by actually performing a useful service.
"Why would anyone need most of these things?" said Chris Matyszczyk, a writer at tech site CNet. "So the biggest question is going to be whether or not they look good when you put them on."
It is not a minor issue. Google Glass is probably the most hyped piece of wearable tech at the moment. The internet search firm has asked people to apply to wear its revolutionary device – which can let people send emails, search the internet or take pictures via voice commands and a tiny screen – as they go about their daily lives. But one wearer of a type of hi-tech glasses similar to Google's – wearable-tech pioneer Steve Mann of the University of Toronto – said recently he was assaulted in a Paris fast food restaurant because of them.
Clearly, therefore, image is everything, especially in a world that can still be unkind to geeky people venturing out in public wearing their latest invention. Even Google co-founder Sergey Brin has found this out the hard way: when a picture was taken of him sitting on a New York subway train wearing his Google Glass eyepiece, it prompted a ripple of mockery among many commentators. "Sergey Brin looked terrible. He was just a nerd on the subway," said Matyszczyk. Perhaps mindful of such concerns, Google is reported to be close to striking a deal with ultra-trendy glasses-maker Warby Parker to make the frames for Google Glass. The New York firm, which sells "vintage-inspired" designs, has rapidly become one of the hottest names in eyewear. Fashion-conscious sophisticates might be nervous of wearing a Google design, but not Warby Parker specs that can do the same things.
In fact, form has long been the equal of function in tech: the main beneficiary of that being Apple. The company's trademark reliance on elegant design has helped it become a global behemoth, every bit as much as the actual usefulness of its smartphones. "Apple have been the best on this," said Matyszczyk. "But there is a difference between the look of something that you carry and something that you wear."
For advocates of wearable tech's potential, there is a possible jackpot waiting for those who get it right. Apple itself is now developing a "smart watch" and is keen to make something beautiful that consumers feel they must have. "Any successful product in wearable tech needs to be trendy," said Nitin Bhas, an analyst with Juniper Research.
Budding fashion designers will certainly have a lot of potential products to toy with, some of which are so futuristic that they seem almost unreal. There are gloves that can turn your fingers into a phone, jeans that have skin moisturisers built in, and even a wristband that monitors your nervous system and can tell you when you need to calm down.
Sabine Seymour, author of the book Fashionable Technology: The Intersection of Design, Fashion, Science, and Technology, is one of the most cutting-edge thinkers and designers in the field. She is working on blending fashion aesthetics with nanoscience and chemical engineering. "It is a new wave. People are looking for something new and I am glad to be a part of it," Seymour said.
Scientists are looking at making fabrics that can absorb poisonous gases or harmful bacteria, or conduct electricity, and be used to make stylish garments. "It has also got to look good. If I find something that I really think looks beautiful, I will wear it all the time," Seymour said.
She thinks that wearable tech will be fairly mainstream in about five years' time. But it is already getting there in certain sectors. In health and fitness, devices that can monitor your heart rate or measure the distance you have run are already a common sight in gyms around the world, strapped to waists or wrists or fitted in shoes.
Meanwhile, Google Glass is poised to launch its spectacles commercially by the end of this year. The fashion world, it seems, is now going hand-in-hand with futuristic science.
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image: © Loic Le Meur