Computers in Your Underwear: Where Wearable Tech Must Go to Succeed

Experts at this SXSW panel delved into the barriers standing in the way of wearables' future – and what can be done to overcome them.

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By Jacob Hall

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While it's common to see Google Glass at events such as SXSW, wearable technology is still on the fringe for many. A SXSW panel Monday titled "Tech Off Your Clothes: Naked Truths of Wearables," explored this issue with a trio of experts sharing their insights, moderated by Nicole Forbes, a senior consultant at Violet Crown Consulting. The thought leaders included Q Manning, the chief executive officer of design firm Rocksauce Studios, Jay Morgan of HAVAS world Wide and Billie Whitehouse, the mad genius behind Fundawear, a line of undergarments that lets couples…stimulate each other from afar. In the hour-long discussion, the group chatted about what's wrong with modern wearables, the secrets to a great product and where they think this industry is headed.

Make it look good. Every panelist agreed: Google Glass is not the future of wearable tech. "When Google Glass is embedded into Tom Ford sunglasses, we'll wear it," Whitehouse says. The panel agreed that the best wearable tech doesn't look like wearable tech at all -- it just looks like part of your wardrobe.

Morgan says that wearable tech will truly arrive when you can't tell the difference between tech-enhanced jeans and a regular pair. "I don't want to think about wearable tech while I'm wearing it," he says. Whitehouse concurred: "We need to reduce everything down. Give it simplicity." But like any fashion line, you've got to know your audience. "Design for the market you like," Manning says, "Everyone has different tastes.

During the panel, two models took that stage to show off Fundawear. Morgan asked the audience if they could tell they were wearing a computer. They could not.

Solve a problem. Whitehouse sees wearables as a way to escape our phone addiction. "We need to live our lives," she says, suggesting that wearables will give us the benefits of smart devices without a distracting screen. She modeled a prototype of her line's "Navigate" jacket which uses GPS technology that "bumps" your shoulder to indicate where to go. Morgan added that the wearable tech of the future won't require active engagement; it will function as an invisible sixth sense.

Currently, they say, the only popular wearables that act subtly are fitness bands and that's already a crowded market. To stand apart, Manning emphasized that new wearables must solve a new problem. A breakthrough device has to do something that is impossible for your body or mind to do on its own. Innovators will need to ask themselves: "Will this help me live my day-to-day life better?" he asked.

Collaboration is key. "Tech companies should be buying textile companies." says Manning, adding that a convergence of technology developers and fashion companies is vital to the future of wearables.

Whitehouse's background in textile manufacturing did not prepare her for the difficulty of integrating clothing and software. Since tech companies know little about the fashion industry (and vice versa), she cautioned against companies pursuing vertical integration: "Collaboration is better. Companies need to help each other out."

Smaller software developers will have a rougher road ahead. Manning says that software creators have no easy access to the resources needed to build prototypes. Companies that specialize in creating physical hardware for wearable software will be in demand in the coming years.

Wearables need a Steve Jobs. "My mom doesn't even know that wearable tech exists," Manning says. If wearables are going to break out, they need a game-changer. "There were smartphones before the iPhone, but we don't remember them," he continued. "It's about creating a killer product that gets people to stand up and say they have to have it."

Whitehouse is sure that the iPhone of the wearable world will come from a new generation of entrepreneurs who enter the industry already integrating fashion and technology. These are the people who will design clothes while accounting for the weight of a battery and will build clothes hangers that charge your smart coat. There will be a community of wearable designers and technologists building their industry from the ground up.

Morgan is confident that people will catch on. "People didn't give a shit about the iPhone until they had it in their hands," he says. "When wearable tech is just in your clothes, it'll just be a part of your life.

Jacob Hall

Jacob Hall is a writer living and working in Austin, Texas. He writes about movies, books, games and technology.

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