Is the Rise of Wearable Electronics Finally Here?

Is the Rise of Wearable Electronics Finally Here?

Wearables Make

For decades I’ve wanted interesting, beautiful, and (sometimes) functional electronics on the most personal geographies of all, myself. When I think of “living in the future,” it’s what springs to mind: subtle LEDs, lots of polished metal. In this week’s column I’m going to share some milestones, mistakes, and projects in the world of wearable electronics. From geeky watches to wearable music players — I’ve always wanted to utilize my wrist real estate to my shoes for electronics of some kind. Many of the “wearables” I’m going to share are from my project archives, some are now “real,” and others are products that are out now. I think we’re finally entering an era where wearable electronics can look good and work well.

As my friend Bryce recently said:

As the price for enabling components drops, always-on connectivity in our pockets and purses increases, and access to low-cost manufacturing resources and know-how rises we’ll see innovation continue to push into these most personal forms of computing. From pedometers to cufflinks and from connected ski goggles to connected watches the rise of the wearables is upon us…

Strap on your LCD goggles — let’s get started!


It’s impossible to talk about wearable electronics without mentioning Steve Mann. He’s a well-known pioneer in this space.

Steve Mann holds degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (PhD in Media Arts and Sciences ’97) and McMaster University, where he was also inducted into the McMaster University Alumni Hall of Fame, Alumni Gallery, 2004, in recognition of his career as an inventor and teacher. While at MIT he was one of the founding members of the Wearable Computers group in the Media Lab. In 2004 he was named the recipient of the 2004 Leonardo Award for Excellence for his article “Existential Technology,” published in Leonardo 36:1. … NOW, The Globe and Mail, National Post, and Toronto Life have all described him as “the world’s first cyborg”, from his early work with wireless wearable webcams. Mann’s publications include the book Cyborg: Digital Destiny… and the textbook Intelligent Image Processing, describing his early adoption of an alternative lifestyle with significant and interesting ideas. In 2001, filmmaker Peter Lynch directed Cyberman, a film about Mann’s life and inventions.

What I like about Steve’s work is he never let the technology stop him from trying out new ideas, despite how “cyborgy” it looked. That said, when a lot of people hear “wearables,” they think of a half-person, half-robot franken-project.

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Here’s my attempt at a portable, low-cost “virtual world” system from about 5 years ago (video). It worked OK, but I couldn’t really move around that much, and the hardware was too slow. So, I shelved this for awhile. The thing I learned about VR worlds is despite how “futurist” they seem to be, no one really wants to put on a VR suit and use them. It’s still better to use a keyboard and mouse — we will not be “virtually” shopping in VRML shopping malls. However, I did like the idea of constantly recording everything since I added that towards the end of this project.

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When I was trying to record my location with a then-current GPS and videos for location-based videos, the only cameras that did what I wanted were two small (well, now large) cameras. I thought location-based video tagging and a video log of things would be interesting, but at the time (again, 5 years ago) low-ish cost cameras that could record for hours at a time to removable media were still pretty large. A GPS plus these giant glasses was not that practical, but it was fun.

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I moved on to another type of wearable — one LCD — to see if that would be useful; this one was for the “geek gym” project. An LCD screen on the right lens allowed me to check e-mail, as well as health stats, while jogging. This was a little too bulky; (it was over 7 years ago). Lately I’ve been using RunKeeper, an iPhone app, and it does much of what I wanted with my old DIY setup.

Mobile phones will act as routers for connected wearable computing.”

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Not too long after this, I saw Oakley’s “MP3” glasses, one of the first attempts to make wearable music players (as far as glasses go). I didn’t like the look of those so I used an iPod shuffle (2005). Same thing for the most part — later I purchased a “Super-Tangent” iPod clone, which did recording and FM tuning, until it just stopped working (and I couldn’t fix it). Granted, this was pretty silly, and I really just wanted to see how I would actually use them.

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Here’s a review on Gizmodo from 2008 of a couple of “new-ish” LCD goggles. They actually look pretty good.

Early Gl20 Designs

This year at CES, Polaroid announced their GL20 Camera Glasses (Lady Gaga-inspired).

I can already hear some of the comments on this article so far — “I’d never wear any of that” — maybe, but as the technology gets smaller and cheaper, it will just be an option for something you may already want to wear. If your favorite sunglasses also had HD recording for $20 more, would you buy them? I think most would.

In the above video you can see a Kickstarter project ($165,742 pledged so far with 1,023 backers).

Our engineering team at ZionEyez is currently developing Eyez™, the latest innovation in personal video recording technology. Eyez™ embeds a 720p HD video camera within a pair of eyeglasses designed to record live video data. The recorded data can be stored on the 8GB of flash memory within the Eyez™ glasses, transferred via Bluetooth or Micro USB to a computer, or wirelessly transferred to most iPhone or Android devices. After a one-time download of the “Eyez™” smartphone and tablet app, users can wirelessly broadcast the video in real time to their preferred social networking website.


An earlier project that utilized the belt buckle real estate was the “search engine belt buckle.” This was back in 2004 when there were search engines besides Google. One of them would let you watch search engine inquiries in real time. I captured 24 hours of them at a time and played them back on a Pocket PC which was made to look belt-like. It was more of an art project, but later I had them appear in real time and wirelessly. The problem was the content: people search for the worst things, or at least the majority of people do, it seems. I’m surprised there hasn’t been an updated one, a real-time Twitter belt buckle, one that tweets too. A belt buckle can house screens, LEDs, and fairly large batteries. I think there’s a lot of potential.

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MP3 player belt buckle.

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Open source LED belt buckle: the LOLshield.

For shoes, I have one old example that I thought would have taken off by now, but it hasn’t: POV shoes, from a while back (2003). I pitched a shoe company on these, and ran back and forth across a room. I am pretty sure it was way too ahead of its time. I had suggested it would display the speed of the runner, or scores from the game (basketball) and advertisements.

Shoes with technology are a little tricky. So far I think the most successful ones are just simple LED light-up shoes for kids. There’s room for electronics and logging, but durability, weight, and appearance matter. Above, self-lacing shoes that are now patent pending. They’ve raised $25,024 so far.


For audio “headsets,” it’s still common to see Bluetooth headsets, but more often than not, I see wired connections as phones became music players, and wireless music headphones just do not seem to work that well. Either way, seeing people “talk to themselves” isn’t a sign that they’re crazy — it’s a sign they’re on the phone.

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Next up, I’ve used a “Java Ring” before; it’s an iButton (1-wire) that holds about 6K of data. I think we’ll see the NFC/RFID chips in smartphones (specifically NFC). The Java Ring was a special promo from Sun in 1998 — it will be interesting to see if anyone takes another shot at a nicely designed ring that holds data.

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For necklaces, my favorite one recently was “Knock”, a necklace that calls 911 when you break the glass vial on it. This was more of an art project from an ITP student, but I think we’ll start to see these types of ideas become real.


I’ve also noticed more and more “wearable” USB drive projects, most recently a “WikiLeaks insurance file” necklace.

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You can see lots of USB bracelets and necklaces here. Most are not designed that nicely, but eventually someone will come along and make something better, now that the tech part is solved.

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I have a box full of “technology” watches — they’re all pretty bulky, never worked that great, and didn’t really allow any personalization for the most part.

I had a Timex Internet Messenger watch (I heard about 9/11 with a simple message: “Plane hits building,” and stopped what I was doing to see what it was about). I had a custom gateway that allowed internet users to message my watch — this was back in 2001, and Timex was a client. The biggest problem was it cost too much money to get more than just a few dozen messages on the watches.

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I later had LED watches from Tokyoflash — fun, but a little too blinky for me. I had many of the Microsoft SPOT watches (2005), and used them to get custom information since they didn’t really allow it (I wanted my own RSS feeds). Oddly enough the SPOT technology still lives on in the open source hardware project, Netduino.

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Palm/PDA watches to see what was possible with putting content like eBooks on them (2005).

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When the iPod nano (2010) came out, I popped it on a watch band.

A great Kickstarter project bagged over $1M to make iPod watch enclosures.

Even MAKE has a DIY watch in the Shed right now.

Another recent entry in the watch space is the inPulse.

Features 1

inPulse is totally customizable. Our SDK can get you saying ‘Hello, Watch!’ in 5 minutes! Dive deeper and create your own app running right on top of our embedded OS. Code in C and get control over the OLED display, blue-flavoured wireless connection, vibrating motor, button, timers, interrupts and more. Ever had to check the ping-time of your server during a rolly-chair sword duel? Or maybe you’ve wanted to check sports scores in a more believable situation, like over dinner with the parents. Write a simple script to funnel data from the net to your watch. Check out our PingStat example app.

I’m working on an open source watch that “should” be done by end of the year, maybe — the goal is for it to be completely open from CAD to firmware and for it to look amazing.

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There are also health devices, like Sleeptracker, but I haven’t tried these out yet.

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And speaking of wellness and health devices, the Fitbit was released not too long ago. It’s unclear to me if most folks will eventually just use their phones for sleep tracking and pedometer-type data, but that’s where I think it’s heading.

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For pedometers, I almost got a pet food company to do a dog pedometer. The device (on the collar) would glow red, yellow, or green based on how much you walked your dog in the last 24 hours (and the type/age/breed) of the dog. I’ll revisit the project one day if and when I have consistent access to a lot of dogs. That said, it’s been over 6 years since I started that project and there are now a few of these devices on the market, like the one (pictured above). However, none of them are ambient/glanceable for status.

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Clothing of all sorts is starting to make its way into the DIY world, and then eventually we’ll see more “mainstream” examples. My favorite project that is fueling a lot of experimentation is the Lilypad Arduino. Above is a turn-signal biking jacket.


Another art project (now turned pro) that I really like is the No-Contact jacket.

No-Contact LLC is a research and development company focused on wearable technologies synthesizing advanced textiles with electronics and computation for personal protection and safety. Our mission is to help protect security personnel, law enforcement officers, military and civilians using the latest in wearable technologies.

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There are a few iPod control jackets, but I’ve never seen one in the wild yet (anyone have one?).

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And we’ve all seen the light-up shirts that change based on sound or wi-fi signal.

For more fashion-related trends in wearable electronics, keep an eye on Diana Eng, Leah Buechley, and Syuzi Pakhchyan. All of these worlds are on a collision course.

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For bags, there are a few things that have been interesting. I really like the Voltaics line of solar bags (and their entry in to the DIY world with offering their panels).

Phil Torrone Tron Bag
And recently I experimented with EL wire, “improving” a nice Prada bag I was saving to be lit up once I had access to enough EL wire (and people to team up with to do it right — Becky Stern and Ladyada).

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Purses and bags (laptop) are a great place for experimentation, and I think we’ll see a lot of interesting things come out in the next couple of years. Pictured above is Jeri Ellsworth’s Nintendo purse.

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I’m going to include scarves for now, but only because of QR codes, which I think will eventually go away as everything has NFC/RFID. While it’s not exactly wearable technology, it is possible for a hobbyist to make a unique QR code scarf that is read by a phone, computer, etc.

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I’ve seen a lot of “smart umbrella” projects, but none of them really worked. It’s pretty easy to tell when you need to use one, so for now the best umbrella I’ve seen with some tech in it is a light-up LED umbrella. This one might be because I really like Blade Runner (the movie ones were neon and the actors had backpacks with giant batteries).

I also like this programmable LED umbrella.


And to wrap this up, last week I was able to release an LED cuff link I co-designed (called iCufflinks). My goal was to create something recognizable, ambient, elegant, open source, and milled out of aluminum. Above is a video and a photo. We released these last week and they instantly sold out, with a couple thousand folks on the wait list that we’re working hard to get to. The files, CAD, source, everything are posted on GitHub, and high-end suit shops from London to Tokyo have emailed to become distributors. Next up will be a necklace and earrings, of course (same power button style, all open source). After that, the open source watch and about a dozen other “high-end” wearables.

So there’s my personal journey for the last decade-ish. What do many of these wearables have in common? I think you can see a geeky, silly-looking version 5 to 10 years prior, and then if it’s useful or interesting, a more refined version comes along — but this round, it’s not necessarily going to be from a big company. With Kickstarter and the “maker businesses” out there, we may see stunning design and functionality in small runs. That’s a good thing for “heirloom” technology and something special like jewelry. Mass customization somewhat demands everything is limited edition.

I think it’s safe to say the SPOT watch, for example, was a flop, but I’m positive an open source watch for hackers will sell pretty well, and that company can thrive servicing this small market. Parts are cheaper, knowledge and sharing are happening more than ever, and it’s easy to find people who have the skills you may need to work with. Even 3D printing is becoming more common. When you combine all this, I think we might just be entering a wearable electronics era. Maybe some of it will be purely decorative, but I think a lot of it will be functional as well as beautiful too.

What do you think? What will you be wearing that does something “more”? What would you like to wear that does not exist now? Post up in the comments!

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