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Where's the Wearable Tech That's Fashionable Enough to Wear?

Most wearable tech just looks like flashing Christmas lights attached to bodysuits.

Isabel Slone

Image: Beo Beyond/Flickr

As I entered the room, my nostrils were overwhelmed by the distinctly pungent smell of burning sage. I spotted at least two people with white dreadlocks. There was a man lounging so inertly by the bar, wearing a blue latex bodysuit, that I mistook him for a mannequin. Another man clad in black leather and a full-on cape stalked the room like an extra from the set of The Crow.

While I could've easily been at Burning Man, instead I was packed into a historic building in Toronto's Distillery district for Cirque-It, an event that billed itself as a "wearable tech fashion circus" featuring collaborations between the city's makers and fashion designers. But it wasn't a fashion show in the typical sense; instead of models walking down a runway, circus performers wore wearable tech inventions while performing mind and limb-bending routines.

Most wearable tech just looks like flashing Christmas lights attached to bodysuits

I was supposed to be viewing the most groundbreaking wearables collaborations happening in Toronto, but I left feeling more confused than inspired. Whether it was "arduino compatible control boards with addressable LEDs" or a "cyberpunk insect-inspired harness that is sound reactive," most wearable tech just looks like flashing Christmas lights attached to bodysuits.

On offer was a wild array of the weird, wonderful, sensory and immersive. The first act featured a trapeze artist dressed like Harley Quinn, a red bodysuit worn beneath precarious strips of latex. Embedded in the costume was a device called SoMo, developed by Toronto company SonicWear. It used the motions of the trapeze artist to trigger layers of sound, which created the soundtrack for the performance.

Later in the night, a ballerina danced a broken doll routine while wearing a balloon-shaped dress, designed by Wendy Ng of Dystropolis to mimic the bioluminescence of a jellyfish. With the help of maker Eric Boyd, a series of lights sewn inside the dress illuminated the floor beneath the wearer.

But while the circus performances were intense, and the wearable tech sounded interesting when it was being described—"an exoglove that conducts live music by moving your hands!"—from a visual perspective, it was all a little rote. Wearable tech has long been the vanguard of technological hype, but I'd argue it hasn't yet managed to successfully interact with fashion in a meaningful way.

We see garments as a vessel for technology rather than as part of the technology itself

Most of the commercial iterations of wearable tech involve taking a regular-looking t-shirt or skirt, then adding flashing lights or sensors to it. The MeU is a customizable LED diplay you can attach to your clothing to display messages, like some kind of human bus stop. There's also the Hexoskin, a biometric shirt that quantifies your bodily functions, but makes you look like a land-locked scuba diver.

It's not uncreative per se, but represents a creative block in how we currently envision wearable tech. We see the garment as a vessel for the technology rather than seeing the garment envisioned as part of the technology itself.

I spoke with Erin Lewis, an artist and Senior Researcher at OCAD University's wearable technology research lab, about why that might be. According to Lewis, if a lot of the wearable tech we're seeing now seems elementary, it's because we haven't quite found "the thing" that's going to make wearable tech as essential to our everyday lives as smartphones.

"What we're seeing is a lot of people attempting to get to these ideas and trying out a myriad of things, but we haven't quite hit it yet," Lewis said. "The technology that we have at our fingertips, advanced as it seems, is not ideal. You can't wash any of these garments. They will fall apart after the wear and tear of everyday use. We want to see these beautiful illuminated garments out there on the runway, at events, or on the streets, but we still can't unplug them from the wall. Or maybe there's huge packs of batteries that are strapped somewhere in the garment that you can't see but are certainly uncomfortable to the wearer."

In other words, the technology just hasn't caught up with our racing expectations—not yet—and in the meantime, all we can really do is wait.

We may be in the abacus stages of wearable tech developments but will we ever get to the point where wearable tech inhabits wildly-shaped Comme des Garcons style dresses that function in ways we have yet to imagine? Not necessarily. Lewis says that the wearables that will likely be most successful won't necessarily trumpet themselves as being wearable. Think simple t-shirts that are connected to the cloud, and perhaps social networks that are actually facilitated by the wearer.

"If we all have to look like we stepped out of a Philip K. Dick movie, I don't think wearable tech would be picked up all that quickly," Lewis said.

To be frank I'm a little disappointed that in 20 years I won't be dressed like the replicant from Blade Runner in a black latex skirt suit that privately transmits my horny level to eligible strangers. But what I am excited about it the potential shift that will make wearable tech more fun, not only for the people who tinker and create it, but for the people wearing it, too.

"One of the biggest surprises about modern technology is not how productive it makes us, or how it has revolutionized the workplace, but how enjoyable it is," wrote Oskar Juhlin and Barry Brown in their 2015 book Enjoying Machines. Fantasy and pleasure is the great strength of fashion: it makes us feel like we can take on alternate personas at will. In the end, we don't need performance-enhancing technology or stuff that's going to make us superhuman. We just want something we can enjoy.

"It's going to take a lot of prototypes, testing out applications, and playing with ideas," Lewis said. But once wearable tech entrepreneurs can forget about creating impressive-sounding yet inconsequential gadgets and tap into our human pleasure centres—be they aesthetic, tactile or otherwise—that's when stuff will start to get interesting.