AT&T Foundry Innovation centers are the home to technology collaboration, innovative ideas and new projects. The center in Palo Alto teamed up with Ericsson and earlier this year, they kicked off a series of interactive discussions led by Cult of the Amateur and Digital Vertigo author Andrew Keen.
They host a series of salon-style discussions called FutureCasts, where they bring together the brightest minds in Silicon Valley to tackle the future of a wide array of technologies. Each event brings together more than 30 leading experts – enterprise executives, startup founders, academics, journalists and public officials – on a technology topic.
The latest FutureCast focused on the Wearable Revolution and featured Recon CEO Dan Eisenhardt Wednesday night, May 7.
The discussion centered around how wearable technology will change our lives in the areas of sports, manufacturing, health, lifestyle and beyond. Dan talked about how their heads up display technology got started and is now being frequently used by skiiers and athletes around the world.
Says Dan about simplicity and design in wearables, “you have to focus on the user and what they want. It’s often about saying no rather than saying yes which is harder to do. In other words, we need to take more things away and dumb it down so it’s an easier experience for the user.”
Andrew organically brought people into the conversation including myself….my input focused on my hot button, the #1 reason I don’t wear ANY wearable product on the market today — Design – or rather lack thereof. Since it’s still early days, we have a whole lotta technology being built by technologists for technologists and designers are not an integral part of the development process.
To my left was one of the guys behind the Rufus Cuff from Rufus Labs which is currently on IndieGoGo. The Rufus Cuff is an advanced wearable device that has 3-inch wide screen, a radical design, and what they refer to as a reimagined form factor. While their campaign is doing well, the product is far too geeky “looking” for me to ever wear, despite how useful it may be.
Today, there’s not enough conversations between creative designers who care about form factor and the technologists who care about function. Since the space is still premature, early adopters are the ones driving sales and interest. A wearable product has to solve a problem between form and function yet it also has to be stylish and attractive.
Monisha Prakash from Lumo Bodytech piped in whose product tracks your body’s position and alerts you when you’re slouching. They have sold 23,000 units so far with Lumo Back being their flagship product, a wearable sensor and smartphone app for lower back posture and activity, which impacts back pain, fitness, confidence, and yes…appearance.
Lumo Lift, their other product, focuses on chest, shoulder, and upper back slouching, a big problem for many office workers who sit at desks all day long.
AT&T‘s Chris McConnell and David Garver shared several insights along the way, including to the above, “23,000 units sold” stat. Their main point was while the numbers may be decent, whether that number will explode or not will dependo on whether that product (or any other product in the wearables space for that matter), can continuously solve a problem of contextual relevance.
In other words, if someone has a back problem then a niche wearable solution will be useful enough for them to spend the money. It solves their problem so its a worthwhile spend and in this case, a beautiful design will likely be secondary, although if its something they need to wear long term, then design will increasingly become more important.
Says Dan of Recon, “if you want to go out for a run or a ski, you may want to be able to leave your phone home especially if a watch, a necklace or a band can give you the data you need and perhaps just the text messages from only 3 people you care about.”
In addition to regular communication, there’s also communication when security and safety is a concern. Meet Artemis, whose tagline is smart jewelry for personal safety.
The team behind the products are seasoned travelers who have experienced adventure, street crime and worry over the safety of loved ones. I spoke to founder and CEO Jeff Axup who feels that wearable products will play an important role in making that happen. Their goal is to use Artemis wearable jewelry to help reduce the threat of personal violence.
A different approach but also one that focuses on safety comes from Zach Vorhies and his team at Zackees who have created cycling gloves with comfortable leather palms, an absorbent towel around the thumb, retro-reflective trim and breathable spandex throughout.
If you need to get around a car that’s blocking a bike lane, you can extend your left hand and active the turn signal gloves and check the lane for oncoming traffic. Signaling your intent before you pop out of that bike lane will go a long way in making your intent clear, keeping you safer from other drivers sharing the road.
The Magellan guys were also there and while they’re mostly known for their GPS systems, they’re out and about pumping up their Echo Smart Sports Watch.The Magellan Echo solves the biggest problem when doing sports with a smartphone – viewing and controlling apps while the phone is tucked away. Echo streams data and controls from your smartphone to your wrist.
At a glance, you can see distance, pace, and heart rate from apps in realtime. While the colors are bright, fun and oh so sporty looking, they’re still a bit clunky and masculine looking for me.
Clark Weber from their team however had a great point when he said to me, “it’s designed to be worn when you go off and do a sport and don’t want to bring your phone with you or a larger device, not necessarily for everyday use.” It made me rethink the usefulness and functionality of it and perhaps even testing it out.
I was there with Kolibree, the world’s first connected electric toothbrush. While not a traditional wearable, a lot of people have been throwing connected devices into the wearables space. As our phones become less of an attachment and more of a fixure on our clothing, purses and wrist bands, smart phones that share data on what’s happening with our health, including dental health, start to fall into the wearable space.
Kolibree is currently on Kickstarter until May 25 and while their goal has already been met, you can still order toothbrushes for less than you will be able to get them when the product ships in the Fall.
The real question the AT&T guys ask – “are mainstream consumers ready for wearable clothing and products that are connected and fixtures of our “selves”? They think not, although agree with the Accenture guys who are mostly focused on larger scale B2B projects.
Enterprise makes sense and in that space, price point is less of an issue if increased productivity will save tens of thousands or millions of dollars on an expensive running conveyor belt. Fashion is also less likely to be an issue.
Brent Bloom from Accenture talked about the work they’re doing in the enterprise space, helping Fortune 1000 companies save money. If someone can do their job more efficiently then we have a win win. Today, they are already successfully helping desk-less workers keep their hands free and be more productive while getting access to data.
Says Greylock‘s Sean White, “products need to be both utility and fashion and we need to understand the social implications of what the utility will create if the fashion isn’t there.” Hear hear Sean! Dutch born fashion designer and engineer Anouk Wipprect, who is currently doing a project with AutoDesk, couldn’t agree more.
The holy grail asserts the AT&T guys is that as a consumer, I want to pay one price per month and connect to all of my devices. Will carriers across the globe add smaller low bandwidth devices to your existing services in the future? Inherently economic models will change – they have to.
Simplified plans that support more devices without making a serious dent in your wallet is what needs to happen for wearables to become mainstream says Anthony Pelossi of Magellan, who asked the room who has a tablet and pays for 3 or 4G service rather than just rely on the wifi. Only a few people raised their hands and remember that this audience is a room full of early adopters and movers and shakers in Silicon Valley, so you can imagine that price is a serious consideration for mainstream users.
“Solve that problem,” says Pelossi and “you’ve solved half the battle with wearable devices.” I’d agree on this to a point, but bottom line, as a woman who does care about fashion as much as function, until the wearables also become stylish enough to WANT to wear, there will be a significant delay on adoption and social acceptability. I’d also argue that we’ll expect to buy wearables at more traditional retail outlets rather than Best Buy or some geeky online site.
Keep your eye on AT&T Foundary’s upcoming FutureCasts. While a list of topics and categories haven’t been officially announced nor have specific dates, they promise that many more of these engaging discussions are coming. Thanks Ericsson, AT&T Foundary and Andrew Keen for a tintilizing evening!