Computational Jewelry

Wearables are the new business hype. My friends and former colleagues from Intel, Telefonica, Google, Microsoft and other places where I have worked have been telling me the great interest all these and many other companies have in this topic. This “sudden” interest makes me realize how fascinated I continue to be with the ability to create “fashion” that the Silicon Valley and Bay Area has. I think it is great and at the same time it is somehow like watching sheep herds run towards green pastures. I assume here that new pastures are great and that sheep are beautiful animals with many values. However, I also assume sheep just run behind the next sheep and the pasture is only foreseen by some visionary sheep (hopefully with a great 20/20 eyesight).

Such cohesive interest in wearables, despite the fact that most of the models so far are plagued with “low efficiency”, makes me wonder if I am overlooking something or overanalyzing something. Please beware that I have clearly stated “low efficiency”, and not “low efficacy” – this is an important distinction, as the latter refers to the short-term immediate value provided by the device or application, while the former refers to the long-term engagement and benefits.

So, I confess that I am confused to see that most of the current wearable designs are so much more like tiny computers crammed into smaller form factors, but with the same soul and spirit of their creators, i.e. a lot of data and functions, but not so much fashionable wearability. What I mean by this is that wearing something is not driven by a simple utilitarian desire forged by marketing and relevant functionality. Wearing something is a very deep and intimate expression of identity and emotions.

Human beings  in general do need and like to cover some body parts to be functional and social in modern society, but they want to do this in style. At the same time, I acknowledge that recently human beings have embraced carrying some devices that provide immediate information. However, “carrying” something “carries” beauty by itself, the beauty of being able to hide such device if needed.

I think designers of wearability are somehow forgetting (maybe on purpose) that the affordance of being able to be “hidden” is very powerful. People many times do not want to be wagging things around and many times they do. The ability to decide when to use and show something and when not to do so is very important and relevant. I ask , why did many people drop wrist watches just cause they carry smartphones? Is it because the latter are nicer and richer in media? or is it cause the former were uncomfortable? Maybe the explanation lies in the simple ability to choose when to make this “time provider” disappear.

In complement to this “discretionary exposure” affordance, let’s question ourselves, what if the thing that provides info is also beautiful, makes me look better, enhances and defines my identity? makes me want to wear it, to show it? What if it is more like “jewelry” and less like “geekery”? This sounds easier than what it is in practice (or maybe not). However using the jewelry metaphor to design wearable technology soon reveals many challenges. First – jewelry is very personal and unique, and technology is not there yet. Second – it is fashionably recurrent, i.e. people wear jewelry over and over again; technology usually dies and never comes back. Third – it is very beautiful, while technology, well, can be beautiful, but sooner, rather than later looks just average. Fourth – it is usually somewhat expensive, therefore generates a strong cognitive dissonance to want to like it; technology tends to be cheaper over time. Fifth – it matches the user’s mood, outfit and generally his/her “self of the day” identity; technology usually matches the user’s utilitarian requirements. Lastly, jewelry is small and quasi non-intrusive, while technology is not yet that small, and rarely non-intrusive.

These characteristics make jewelry an appreciated device but at the same time an exclusive one. It makes people want to wear it, despite not providing any utilitarian benefit; it makes people wanna show it, despite its inconspicuous nature; it makes it desirable by others; makes it last for life or even through generations. All these “little” things are hard to achieve with generic computational devices.  Yes they may be handy and informational and utilitarian, but if they cannot achieve the level of impact in identity that jewelry has, they will not last for long.

This short-lived nature of wearable devices is (sadly) what is being already observed. Some of the most famous wearables are known to be used for only 2 weeks before something happens and people stop using them. Many people complain of the difficulty to extract information, which in turn defeats its utilitarian purpose, so people leave them. Some just get tired of them. Some just break them or wash them.

In any case, I believe that any effort to make wearables more like jewelry, i.e. something that people would wear even if they did not charge the device, would be very valuable. Any efforts to either make it easy to embed in beautiful jewelry pieces, smart sensors or actuators should also go a long way. As a matter of fact, adornments for phones and computers continues to be a multi-million dollar industry.  So why the opposite is not true?, Why not creating computers for adornments? I think we can get there, but to do that, as in many human centered design tasks, it is important that interaction designers and engineers are humble enough to appreciate beauty through the eyes of designers and artists and other humanities folks, or at least to become good at observing common mortals. Yes, we can fools ourselves thinking that the quantified self “personas” are the archetype of the generation Y or Z grown ups, but the reality is that what we continue to observe is a lot of jewelry being sold and inherited over time. Jewelry is a concept and in some ways a “device” that has been around for about 10000 years.

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