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Wearable Tech Makes a Fashion Statement

When models wore Google's goggles on the runway, it signaled that the next wave of digital devices may actually go post-geek.

Wearable tech

A dress that tweets, by Microsoft. Photo courtesy of Microsoft

A new movie premieres in New York today and chances are none of you will ever see it.

It’s a short film titled “DVF Through Glass” and it’s video that models working for designer Diane von Furstenberg shot during New York’s Fashion Week using Google glasses they were wearing. (Google prefers to call its augmented reality devices Google Glass to distinguish them from actual glasses because they contain no glass. Got that?)

They’re the frames that caused such a stir last spring when Google unveiled them, wearable computers that can shoot videos and photos and tell you where the nearest Starbucks can be found. By wearing them as they strolled down the runway, von Furstenberg’s models became high-tech accessorized. For its part, Google managed to de-geek its invention a tad by putting it on fashion models, not to mention grab some New York media exposure before all the spotlights swung over to Apple’s iPhone 5.

As Spencer Ante pointed out in The Wall Street Journal this week, Google Glass remains a work in progress, with much of its software unfinished. It won’t be available until next year and, at $1,500 a pop, will likely be a novelty bauble for awhile.

Getting appcessorized

Still, it’s already the best known of what are being called “appcessories,” wearable devices that work with smart phones. Earlier this week, a potential challenger, glasses developed by a British firm called The Technology Partnership (TTP), made its debut. Unlike Google Glass, the TTP device looks like regular glasses and beams an image directly into the wearer’s eye, instead of making him or her shift focus to a tiny screen attached to the frame.

Then there’s the Pebble, a smart watch that tells you the time, but also connects wirelessly with your iPhone or Android phone to show you who’s calling, display text messages, Facebook or email alerts and let you control, from your wrist, what’s playing on your smartphone. Its inventors had hoped to raise $100,000 on Kickstarter, with the goal of selling 1,000 watches. Instead they raised $10 million and already have orders for 85,000 watches–so many that they’ve had to push back the first shipment, which was supposed to start this month.

It’s that kind of response that has a lot of people predicting that wearable computing is the next big wave, the thing that will free us from what’s been called the “black mirror” of our smartphone screens. Your phone may still be the powerful little computer you carry around, but it may never have to leave your pocket.

Ring power

Or you can do without the phone altogether. London digital art director Dhani Sutanto created an enamel ring with the electronics of a transit card implanted in it. One swipe of his ring and he can ride the London subway.

His goal, he says, is to design “interactions without buttons,” to link physical items–such as a ring–to your virtual identity and preferences.

“Imagine a blind person using an ATM and fumbling with the buttons or touch screen,” Sutanto recently told an interviewer. “If they had wearable technology in the form of a ring, for example, they could approach and just touch it. The ATM would say, “Welcome, Mr. Smith. Here’s your £20.”

Turn me on

Google wasn’t alone in infusing tech in Fashion Week. Microsoft was there, too, presenting a dress that tweeted. Okay, the dress, made of paper, didn’t actually tweet, but the person wearing it could, using a keyboard on its bodice, decorate the bottom of the dress with Twitter banter.

My guess–and hope–is that this won’t catch on and we will never have to live in a world where people wear their tweets on their sleeves. But another breakthrough in wearable tech a few months ago could dramatically change what we expect our clothes to do for us.

Scientists at the University of Exeter in the U.K. have created a substance that can be woven into a fabric to produce the lightest, most transparent and flexible material ever made that conducts electricity. One day, they say, we could be walking around in clothing that carries a charge.

To me, this would not seem a good fashion choice if there’s even a chance of thunder and lightning. But the researchers at Exeter have happier thoughts. They talk of shirts that turn into MP3 players and of charging your phone with your pants.

Which could give new meaning to “wardrobe malfunction.”

Plugged in

Here are other recent developments in wearable tech:

  • You’ve got the power: A British professor is trying to produce clothing made with materials capable of generating electricity from either the warmth or movement of the human body.
  • If you must talk in public, do it with style: Nothing stylish about walking around wearing a Bluetooth headset. But now, at least for women, there are other options, such as a pendant that works like a headset, but looks like a necklace.
  • One device to rule them all: Scientists at Dartmouth are developing a device worn like a bracelet that would authenticate a user’s identity and connect any other medical devices he or she has had implanted or is wearing.
  • Mom, is that you?: A device called LUMOback that you wear like a belt around your back vibrates to let you know if you’re slouching.
  • News from the front: Adidas now has a sports bra that both tracks your heartbeat and tells you how many calories you’ve burned.
  • Are you going to answer your phone or what?: Not quite sure what to make of this one, but Nokia has filed for a patent for a magnetic vibrating tattoo. The idea is that it would work like a silent ringtone, setting off a different vibration depending on who’s calling or if your phone battery is running low.

Video bonus: See how Microsoft’s Kinect is being used to let you try on clothes without having to take any off.

More from Smithsonian.com

Google Goggles Aim to Augment Reality

Clothes Encounters

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