Understanding Tech: “On You: A Story of Wearable Computing”

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

On You: The Story of Wearable Computing

Wearable technology is one of today’s hottest tech trends. From fitness devices to personal concierge services designed to make day-to-day life easier, companies and big thinkers are finding new ways to innovate. Most experts agree that the impact of wearables is going to be a game changer. The Silicon Valley Computer History Museum is exploring what that impact could look like in a new exhibition called “On You: A Story of Wearable Computing.”

There’s no better location for the most recent stop of this traveling exhibit. The exhibit was developed at Georgia Tech, with a specific vision in mind. “Pioneers have experimented with wearing computers for half a century. Yet our bodies remain largely free of the smart tech that fills our pockets and purses. Why? Besides big questions around how wearable computing might fit into our social lives, the technology wasn’t ready. Showing consumer, professional, and home-made devices including Google Glass prototypes, On You explores the four key technical challenges to making a consumer wearable computer.”

Using a variety of different devices, the exhibit tackles four core challenges to scaling wearable tech: power and heat, networking, mobile input, and displays. It’s easy to look at the Apple Watch or the Fitbit or even Google Glasses and fail to realize everything that went into their creation. Yet understanding that story is going to be essential to both developing future applications of wearable technology and crafting the content that will further integrate these devices into our lives.

Prototypes at the On You exhibit

“Wearables are a fundamentally new category of technology,” the exhibit’s co-curator Thad Starner said in an interview with the Mercury News “And just like the smartphone, they soon will become part of our lives.”

The exhibit features an impressive collection of artifacts and prototypes of different products from the development of wearables. The narrative throughline is simple: each of the four areas explored in the exhibit (power and heat, networking, mobile input, and displays) presented a roadblock to getting to workable technology. Today, thanks to specific innovations explored in the exhibit, many of those issues have been overcome – a fact which enabled us to reach this point in wearables history.

Consider the issue of power and heat. The very nature of wearables is that they’re always on and need to be constantly powered. The development of rechargeable batteries made that much more feasible. At the same time, energy scavengers or the idea of taking excess energy from other places a la solar power have opened up new potential avenues for powering devices. Advances in DC-DC technology (which we won’t get into the specific uses of here, but you can learn more about in this informative exhibit rundown provided by Georgia Tech) made it possible to reduce excess heat that continuously powered devices produce. Today’s wearables can run for a long time without getting too hot to be on the human body.

Computer History Museum Exhibition

The big takeaway for guests is that we’re at an inflection point for this technology. Key barriers have been solved. Some of the best minds in technology are figuring out innovative ways to create everything from smart fabrics to the next generation of Google Glass. Consumers are hungry for growth in the category – for everything from better health monitoring to entertainment applications. The exhibit runs through September at the Computer History Museum.

For entertainment designers, the exhibit is an especially interesting one. It tells the story of a technology in a thoughtful way, and it provides the context for better understanding a category of tech that’s becoming ubiquitous. Following the narrative and understanding the structure that the curators have used to explore this topic may also provide designers with fresh inspiration to look at new ways of integrating wearables into experiences or to improve the technology.

Images sourced courtesy of Google Plus, Computer History Museum

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