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5 Questions

The Wearables Revolution

October 15, 2015          

Episode Summary

On this episode of The Digital Life, we discuss the wearables revolution with Scott Sullivan, Experience Designer at Adaptive Path and a co-author of O’Reilly’s “Designing for Emerging Technologies”.

We chat about the current state of wearable tech from fitness tracking to augmented reality to watches, the tools for design and prototyping, and the future of wearables, as humans develop a more intimate relationship with this technology.

Jon:
Welcome to episode 125 of The Digital Life. The show about our adventures and the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me today is Scott Sullivan who’s an experienced designer at Adaptive Path in San Francisco. Also, coauthor of Designing for Emerging Technologies from O’Reilly Media, a project that I was privileged to work with Scott on. Scott, welcome to the show.

Scott:
Great! Thank you very much. I’m really excited.

Jon:
For our podcast topic this week, we’re going to chat about the current state of wearables and the design in technology of wearables. First, Scott, let me be one of the first to congratulate you on your new book on wearables from O’Reilly Media.

Scott:
Thank you very much. Yeah, I love working with O’Reilly. They are really great with The Designing For Emerging tech book. Yeah, they’re just a cool company all around and I’m really excited about the whole project.

Jon:
Do you have a publish date when listeners could be looking for the book to come out?

Scott:
Yeah. Right now, the latest it’s going to be is towards the end of next year. It’s going to be a while. I gave them a nine month thing because I’ve got a nine month time frame, I’ve got a lot of stuff going on right now. Given the nature of the book, I feel like I’m going to have to write it a lot faster before new things come out and it outdates itself before it’s published.

Jon:
Yeah. Nine months is pretty quick to get a book written and through production. Best of luck with that, I know how that is.

Scott:
Thank you, yeah.

Jon:
So Scott, what are you seeing the market today of wearables? How is it evolving, changing … What are the most important segments of the wearables market?

Scott:
Yeah. There’s the fitness trackers that have been around for awhile. Those are getting a lot more interesting than they were before. In terms of the entire landscape, I break it down in two. There’s the fitness trackers, like the Jawbones and the Fit Bits, and then there’s the smart watches, which are obvious.

Jon:
Right.

Scott:
Then we have camera based fitness? And that’s a not very well defined market. I’m including Go Pro in that … And there’s narrative, which is really great. Then Google Glass, kind of, if you want to even consider that in the market. So there’s camera based devices that heavily rely on that functionality.

What I’m seeing a lot more of right now and what I’m really interested in are what I’m calling cognitive wearables, which … They don’t get a ton of press right now, but when they do come around and they do become more common, I think that’s really going to change a lot about how we think about ourselves and what these devices are capable of.

Jon:
Yeah. Tell me a little bit more about the cognitive wearables, because I know very little about those.

Scott:
Yeah! Yeah, so big one that’s out right now is Spire. So the Spire … Well, cognitive wearables in general … What they do and how I’m kind of defining it, because I kind of made that phrase up, cognitive wearables…

Jon:
It’s a good phrase!

Scott:
Yeah, thank you! They’re devices that either measure or affect our cognition in any way. Those can be passive ones that you wear all day, like the Spire. Spire is something … It uses the bio indicator of your breathing, so you wear it around your stomach … It senses the slight motions that your body makes as you’re breathing … It’s actually a really solid bio indicator. There have been times when I was kind of surprised how accurate it was when it was telling me things that I was stressed out, or focused … Focused, relaxed, or stressed out. That’s one’s pretty interesting.

Beyond that, there are active ones. They’re the ones that … The EEGs… The one that I really like, and the one that I have is called the Muse. The Muse shifts with an application that is focused around meditation. You put this headband on your head and it guides you through a meditation process, but there’s also some really smart audio feedback during those sessions. It’s very calming audio to begin with, so you’re listening to waves crash on a beach, and the more active your brain is, the signal is then … The more active the sound of the waves become … If the ocean is calmer, it’s and indicator of your mind being calmer. It’s way to train your head, train your consciousness into relaxing. That works really well.

Jon:
So you’ve been playing with that, and that has some positive effects for you.

Scott:
Yes, it has. I’ve noticed … The whole idea of you can’t change what you can’t measure … You’ve never been able to measure these things before. I didn’t even know that that was really all that possible to the level of seeming accuracy that they had done it with.

One really funny story with me setting that up, is it was the first time I have never been able to just take any time off in terms of thinking about things. In the setup process, for about two minutes straight, it asks you to think about lists of things in your mind, such as sports, or fruits and stuff like that. It was the first time I couldn’t fake it. I couldn’t just wait there for two minutes and be like, “Okay, cool, I did it,” you know? It felt in way, not invasive, but it was just different. So that was pretty cool.

Jon:
Wow, that’s a fascinating setup. I guess the skipping over lines in the form or, putting fake email addresses and all of those tricks that we use to circumvent what the setup procedures are going to be … You felt like you couldn’t do that with this because the wearable was reading your mind? Is that…?

Scott:
Yeah! It’s in your head, it’s like … It was that last bastion of privacy that I gave up, willingly of course.

Jon:
Yeah.

Scott:
And now it’s cool.

Jon:
I’m glad that you’re seeing some positive effects from this cognitive wearable. Where do you think these will be going in the future? It sounds like it’s reading some basic brain wave function right now. Do you see that technology developing further and then integrating with, with what?

Scott:
Yeah. My biggest thing in terms of moving forward on cognitive wearables comes from the Jawbone platform. Jawbone is one of the only companies that does really well with taking multiple streams of information and data, and using machine learning algorithms. They make this … They have a feedback loop, they call it their track, understand, and act thing. They track something, they contextualize it, they understand what it is in relation to all the other data that they have, and then they give you a prescription, which is the act. It’s a loop that keeps going.

If you look on the Jawbone Up 3 on the box, there are three things under its list of specs, that are not … The device is capable of, but it’s not exactly turned on. There’s the heart flux sensor, skin temperature sensor, and galvanic skin response. These things added together with the things that they already have, such as the heart rate sensor … They basically add up to a rudimentary polygraph test. You can see a lot of things about … There’s a lot of bio indicators that respond to things that are typically cognitive. How I’m seeing those put together once they do release that functionality, which I hope they do sometime soon … Is something along the lines … It’s just a more complete picture of your overall health. You’ll be able to see a little bit more of what happens as a result of your physical activity and your sleep pattern. You can say, “look, you’ve been really stressed out today. I think it’s probably been because you haven’t been sleeping a lot, you’ve been really inactive. Maybe you should really just try to get to sleep earlier, and walk a couple thousand more steps and see how you feel tomorrow.”

You can see the … Basically it’s the other side of that coin, where you can see a measurement, and then you can then see the result of that in a more real way.

Jon:
Yeah, that sounds like it would be helpful for all of us tech workers who never get any sleep to begin with.

Scott:
Exactly.

Jon:
We’re spending all our waking hours designing things to tell us to go to bed.

Scott:
Yeah, yeah!

Jon:
That’s perfect.

Scott:
Yeah!

Jon:
Full circle there. We’ve got this wearables market that is really developing quickly. How are designers going about designing and prototyping these things? We have our industrial design typical tools. You’ve got your 3d printing tools that are upending a lot of those things, and then you’ve got all your interaction design tools which are sort of nascent in this area. You’ve got all those three things coming together … What are you seeing … What are you using for design and prototyping in the wearables space?

Scott:
It’s mainly about sensors and pulling in data. There’s a stack that you have to use … There’s definitely not a clean answer around this just based on the nature of what these things are. There are two big … In terms of the, in the intake, the data intake … There are two companies that I really like for this. One of them is particle. Particle has this ecosystem. They used to be Spark … They used to be the Spark Core. Now they have this thing called the Photon. It’s a wifi development kit. It’s tiny, it’s incredibly easy, and most of all, they have an online … It being connected to the internet, it automatically stores your data online in a very usable way, and a very visual way.

What’s really good about that is that it takes … A lot of them work with this kind of stuff. At least the hard parts. The sensor stuff is pretty easy. It’s not … There’s a lot of stuff that you can get off the shelf and wire it together, and that part isn’t all that difficult. Where the difficulty comes in is really the connection and the storing of the data, and then the use of the data at a later time. Particle takes the … A, it’s the same kind of dev board where you can use Arduino code, or other things like that. Their online component makes it really great. When’s it coming out, let me see. It looks like January 2016, they’re releasing a new product called the Electron, which is a cellular development kit.

It’s the exact same thing, except you’re no longer confined to stay in a wifi area. You can actually take it out into the world, and it has the exact same functionality.

Jon:
Right, yeah. That sounds quite useful. Are you experimenting with a couple of different prototyping methods right now considering how much influx this whole industry is?

Scott:
Yeah. It really depend on what you’re doing. For like say, a fitness tracker, the Particle stuff would be really great. There’s also this other things called Meadow Wear, which is basically … An actual development kit that is actually made for wearables. That works really well. Then there are other things that I’m working on personally, where I’m really using stock arduinos with a lot of motors and moving parts … We can get to that later.

Meadow wear is really good for that as well. Then when we talk about the other side of this … We’re really going to have to shift in terms of how we think about ourselves as designers … And what our roles are. A lot of what we’re going to be doing is basically going to be machine learning, and weird kind of stuff like that. The value of these products don’t come from the actual hardware of the devices itself, it comes from the information that they collect, and our ability to use that information to produce any kind of insight, or information that we didn’t have.

Those kind of things are going to be increasingly more important for us. I’ve found there’s … There’s one place called Initial State, which is a really great data visualization service. Initialstate.com … I saw them at the Bay Area Maker Fair. I got a really great demo of what they can do. They’re also really focused on getting IOT event data, seemingly simple to use API, and giving you dashboard visualization. Honestly … I remember just a few years ago, once we … We were able to set up sensor networks and things like that, but once we got all that data, it was really hard to visualize that data and make that data meaningful in any way. I think the tools that, the DIY or prototyping or maker revolution that’s coming right now is really taking care of that kind of stuff.

Jon:
Yeah, it sounds like it’s very much advanced from some of the internet of things … Type products and processes that we’re seeing as you pointed out, even just a couple of years ago. How do you see wearables evolving in the future? Once we’re out of this early adopter phase and moving in the evolution of both product and the networks that support them … Where do you see wearables in 5 years and in 10 years?

Scott:
Obviously, a super hard question. What I’m pushing for, at least, is a little bit of, digital maturity around these types of things. A lot of our wearables are … They’re obviously, we’re all in this Wild West phase where we’re really figuring out what’s going to work for us. Basically, there’s kind of been a backlash around certain devices that are notification based, and things like that. We’ve been saying the words ambient and passive for years now. I think those two concepts of devices being … Really actually staying out of your way, and letting you engage with them … I think those are probably going to be the ones we actually carry forward into the future.

Honestly, we really have to think about our … This is a larger societal question, where we have to think about what we want our lives to be. Do we want things that are constantly reminding us to look at them? That’s my banner that I’m holding right now, is that we can do things, and we can make products that are useful that don’t interfere with our lives and really take away from things. We don’t want to make this kind of dystopian future where we are at the mercy of pretty much anybody who’s an advertiser or anything like that, that wants to make contact with us and send out mass email blasts … I’m doing something really important and all of a sudden there’s something in my field of vision that I’m wearing on my body that is going to interrupt what I’m doing based on the whim of this design … Not designer, but this company advertising to me.

Jon:
Right, right. The interruption economy moves to your mobile in context minority report type … Mr. Anderton, wouldn’t you like this new suit, or, go on this beach vacation, Mr. Anderton, because we know exactly who you are.

Scott:
Yes.

Jon:
I think this is a great transition into the project that you’re working on, Scott, for the smart watch that sort of takes on some of these characteristics that you were evangelizing just a second ago.
Scott:
Yes, absolutely. This started when wrote an article for Fast Company about the Apple Watch. This was before the Apple Watch came out, and I was a design mentor for the very first Watch Kit hackathon when the Watch Kit came out … I think it was last fall, so almost a year ago.

I was trying to figure out what these things really should be. I had owned smart watches before, and honestly if you look at the studies that happen right now in terms of what kind of functionality people are really using on their Apple Watches … It’s almost entirely based on notifications, because really the watch … That’s what the watch was made for. There’s not a lot of processing onboard, there’s not really anything that’s happening, other than just single Bluetooth signals being sent from your phone to your watch to give you a notification … Instead of on your phone, giving it to you on your wrist.

This kind of freaked me out, because the idea of … This whole idea is us giving up our personal agency. That being our capacity to act independently and make our own free choices about where we put our eyeballs. I was talking with Chris Risdon about this, from Adaptive Path, who is also a designer at Adaptive Path. I wrote my article about this dream watch. I can’t remember what the article was called, but it was something about my dream watch. It was basically a watch that didn’t do that. The problem there is, if that’s what smart watches are, and that’s how we define smart watches, what does a smart watch look like that doesn’t do that?

I really went back and spent a lot of time with more traditional watches. If we look at what watches do, is that they give us a … The pieces of information that progress throughout the day. So right now, it’s time. Time progresses throughout the day, and it’s not notification based at all, or it’s not event based. What are things like that that would be useful for us to have on our wrist, and then how could we be more connected but be completely in control? The watch that we’re building now is actually going to be a horological smart watch, or a mechanical smart watch. It’s going to look exactly like a normal watch, it’s not going to have an LCD screen, it’s going to have hands that move. It’s kind of going to look like a standard chronograph right now, except the sub dials on the watch are going to be tied to our digital life. Those can be things such as our steps for today, I know a lot of people like having that information handy, but also other things. Instead of vibrating your wrist when you get an email, one of those sub dials just clicks up one. You can have an indicator of what’s going on, it’s just not going to bug you.

Another couple … Another big really good use case that I like to think about is having it tied to your Mint account. I definitely have an amount of discretionary spending that I have based on the day. I have a goal to not spend over X amount of money, and having that on my wrist … And that’s also something, a piece of data that would be very useful in that context.

Jon:
Interesting. So how’s this design process going? Do you have a timeline for release for the watch project, and what’s it called?

Scott:
We actually don’t know what it’s called yet. We’ve been … I’ve been floating around the name Helium, Helium watch? I have no idea if that’s what it’s going to be called.

In terms of timelines, we’re prototyping right now. I’ve spent a lot of time buying old watches.

Jon:
Nice research, very nice!

Scott:
Yeah! It’s actually been really fun. I’ve been buying old watches and I’ve been ripping them apart, and see how these mechanical things work. Chris and I have been working a lot on the design of how we want … How all the little sub dials things work … And the different pieces of the traditional horological language we’re dealing with.

Right now I’m building little prototypes … They’re basically paper prototypes with little motors underneath them so that the paper can kind of twist around, and we can kind of see what it looks like, and make sure it feels right, and it doesn’t feel weird. At the same time Chris is prototype … Chris is really driving a lot of the overall phase design in terms of how things are position and working with each other.

Our next step is … What we’re planning on doing for the actual roll out of the watch itself … We have a few people that we’re talking to in San Francisco, and Silicon Valley about investing. What we’re going to do … We have a engineering partner that will take our prototypes into actual … Something that will be small and useful and reproducible. Basically what we’re looking to do is get money from investors to fund that part, the engineering and the manufacturing setup, and then launch a crowd funding campaign, probably on Kickstarter, that will be in place after we already have every single little kink worked out, which will be funded by the investors, and then ask people to contribute the campaign there. Once we already have everything down … That will pay for the manufacturing process, and it also … It also won’t be one of those Kickstarter campaigns where it’s like, “Hey, yeah, do this and we’ll get it to in maybe six or seven months.”

All those kinks are hopefully going to be worked out by then so we can say, “Hey, look we can ship in maybe a month or two … We’re going to get these off the line and straight to you.” And we’re already there, we’re already right there and ready to do it.

Jon:
I’m sure people will appreciate that very much.

Scott:
Yeah.

Jon:
That sounds like a grand adventure, so best of luck on that, Scott. I’ll be excited to see the Kickstarter campaign whenever that happens.

Scott:
Yeah, I’m really excited about it.

Jon:
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitallife.com, that’s just one L in the digital life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.

If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter at Jon Follett, that’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com.

Scott, how can people get in touch with you?

Scott:
My email address is scott@adaptivepath.com, and my website is scottis.me.

Jon:
Terrific. So that’s it for episode 125 of The Digital Life. I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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