Privacy By Design? Fashion Flair Transforms Wearable Technologies


[co-author: Carol Chance]

The year 2014 is being hailed as the year of wearable technologies. Wearables captured significant attention at January’s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and hundreds of new products are expected to be released over the next 12 months. Analysts predict that the wearables market is set to grow exponentially, from an estimated US$3-5 billion in 2013 to US$42 billion between 2016 and 2018. Wearable technologies could be the next must-have.

One reason for the current momentum in the wearables market may well be improvements in their style. Few people want to sport ugly devices or accessories, but until recently, wearable technologies’ functionalities still outsized (and overwhelmed) their fashion flair. This was the case for calculator watches in the 70s and was also the case for the first smart watches, which looked sober and clumsy. A mere two years ago, fitness tracking wristbands were for the most part still a solely utilitarian purchase – inorganic in appearance and not particularly sleek.

But a new season is opening for wearables. Front and centre Google Glass, an ersatz smartphone worn on the face whichis currently being tested in beta and scheduled for release later in 2014. Google Glass has been hailed as the future of wearable technology. Yet the futuristic eyeglasses at first received mixed critiques. Despite having made an appearance at the Diane von Furstenberg show during the New York Fashion Week in 2012, and showing up in the iconic fashion magazine Vogue last year, Google Glass lacked aesthetic appeal for all but the geekiest consumer. However, the days when Glass wearers were referred to as “cyborg nerds” are now gone. Google Glass lead designer Isabelle Olsson has redesigned the frame to make it more fashionable (think Lindsay Lohan meets Johnny Depp). It seems that the Californian firm is winning the challenge, succeeding in melding good design and new technology.

Google is certainly not the only tech company that understands the importance of bringing more fashion flair to wearable technologies. Pebble recently introduced a sleeker, more handsome version of its smart watch. Others have started to outsource the design process of their devices to people who know a stitch or two about fashion. For instance, Intel has announced a partnership with design label Opening Ceremony for a future bracelet. Chip-maker CSR has teamed up with jeweler Cellini to create a Bluetooth pendant. The tech trend-setting fitness tracker Fitbit has partnered with luxury icon Tory Burch on a necklace and bracelet. 

Other tech companies have chosen to hire top talent away from fashion houses. In the past six months, Apple has brought on board Yves Saint Laurent CEO Paul Deneve as VP of special projects, and Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts has joined the Cupertino firm to oversee expansion of Apple’s retail stores – all this feeding persistent buzz about the impending introduction of an iWatch. 

What’s more, fashion designers are themselves creating stylish clothing collections integrating new technologies. Dresses that change color with atmospheric conditions, tops that become transparent as the wearer’s heartbeat accelerates, jackets with GPS to guide wearers with a gentle prod from sewn-in shoulder pads and Durex’s vibrating lingerie controlled by smartphone are all now or soon to be available.

Nonetheless, the joint handiwork of fashion and tech raises issues, notably with respect to privacy and data protection.  Once again, Google Glass appears to be the most colorful example. Glass has already been banned in a number of venues. US legislators, like European and other data protection authorities, have shown keen interest in the development of Glass, which by easing wearers’ ability to record their surroundings could be used as a constant surveillance tool. Concerns stretch far beyond Google, however, as functionalities found in devices worn 24/7, like smart watches and fitness accessories, will lead to the collection of more and more personal data. As the market for these devices explodes, so will the quantum and quality of personal data collected, most of it passively.

While tech companies like Google have long been at the leading edge of privacy and data protection issues, fashion and design companies typically have not. In a not-so-distant future, technologies could become commodities, and fashion may steer wearable tech, creating a whole new meaning to the concept of privacy by design.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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