Wear and Steer

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From Bluetooth pacifiers to bras that only open for the right man, wearables are no longer just a fitness tracking trend

THE SUNSHINE WARMS my face. It makes me sleepy. I fall in love soon after. I can now feel my heart race. As the days pass, the joy turns to fear. I have a secret and I can’t bear the thought of anyone discovering it. I am suddenly so scared that my body is shivering and I almost knock over my milk and cookies. I try to laugh it off, to remind myself that this is just a book. But that’s easier said than done, especially when you are wearing the book. Sensory Fiction, an immersive reading experience, can sense which page the reader is on, and through lights, sounds and a body compression system, it lets you share every emotion of the protagonist. In James Tiptree Jr’s novella The Girl Who Was Plugged in, the project’s first prototype, you can experience it all: bliss, captivity, euphoria, anguish, and even death.

‘Traditionally, fiction creates and induces emotions and empathy through words and images. By using a combination of networked sensors and actuators, the sensory fiction author is provided with new means of conveying plot, mood, and emotion while still allowing space for the reader’s imagination,’ write authors Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope and Julie Legault who developed the idea at MIT’s Media Lab. On the working of the technology, they add, ‘Changes in the protagonist’s emotions trigger discrete feedback in the wearable, whether by changing the heartbeat rate, creating constriction through air pressure bags, or causing localised temperature fluctuations.’

With a 42 per cent increase in the number of wearables shipped to India between January- March this year, as per an International Data Corporation (IDC) report, there’s a new way to experience even the most ordinary things. Bored of waiting in line to enter a disco? Here’s a dress that’ll make fresh mocktails for you. Created by hacker Marius Kintel, Dutch fashion technologist Anouk Wipprecht and Canadian artist Jane Tingley, the Daredroid dress uses biomechanics to dispense non-alcoholic drinks. Back at home and too afraid to leave your newborn alone? The Mimo Baby Monitor will alert you on his every move and the Blue Maestro pacifier will record his health stats on an hourly basis. And if you can’t make up your mind about who to date next, try the True Love Tester—bras that only open when the monitor senses the right bodily response to the person in front of you.

Fashion designers and technologists are coming together to ensure that nothing is bulky, uncomfortable or dangerous. There are no batteries, wires, antenna or heavy hardware. The technology in wearables is ‘light- weight’, ‘skin-thin’, ‘practically invisible’. “A lot of research is now being done to ensure that the ‘device’ in the device can’t be felt or seen. You’ll find codes sewn into garments, small sensor patches, solar-batteries, anything that makes the user feel that the dress isn’t an alien machine,” explains Nidhi Pal, a fashion technology graduate from NIFT.

Thus, when Motorola came up with the idea to create a wearable that would help people keep track of their passwords last year, it decided to package it into the smallest thing available—a vitamin pill. Approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US, the pill is powered by human stomach acid and transmits a signal to devices outside the body, automatically unlocking them every time the user holds it at the right distance. “I find owning a wearable means that mundane tasks like calorie counting, temperature setting, health monitoring, etc,are taken care of. Thus freeing my time up for more other matters like work, family, travel. We are now in the age of information and empowerment. This is the generation that wants to be connected, so let us use connectivity to make our life more effective,” says Pal, who owns several wearables, including the Mimo baby monitor and Sensory Fiction book. Her favourite piece of wearable technology are Smart Pyjamas for children which scan bar codes with each code corresponding to a different audio book. “My kids want to be able to explore and make their own choices.”

The Arrow smart shirt took 18 months to plan. It proves that a garment can be comfortable, modern and useful

Not everyone agrees. All-pervasive connectivity is too much of a good thing for some. Malavika Kapur, a child psychologist from Bengaluru and visiting professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, says she cannot think of having a robot read to her children. “Instead of faux feelings, why can’t we experience the real thing? Do I really need every tiny detail about my breath, pulse, hair, nails, skin? It’s a bit overdone,” she says.

Even technologists agree that wearables are treading a slim line between being ‘useful’ and being just plain ‘gimmicky’. According to technology columnist Mala Bhargava, “There’s a big mess in the way wearables are being used to measure everything from heart rate to activity to sleep. The tall claims of marketing sometimes cloud the reality. ”

Although Bhargava has tried and written about a large number of wearables herself (such as Levi’s commuter tracker jacket; prototypes of several 3D printed smart clothes; bio- rings; nanotech devices; pregnancy-tracking bracelet Ava), she admits she does get bored of some of them. “At times I wear them as a fashion statement. But no technology can ever be so far ahead of its time that people won’t give it a shot. Unless you try it, you won’t be able to imagine the issues that will crop up. Or what people will unexpectedly find useful. Wearables aren’t just watches and fitness bands. And the situations to which they are applied aren’t restricted to one. They’re diverse. If a wearable helps a visually impaired person navigate the street, it’s not ahead of its time. It should have been here all along.”

Data alone means nothing. People are now looking for wearables that come with a service, not just hardware

According to data by IDC, India’s wearable market reached 400,000 units in the first quarter of 2016, with fitness bands accounting for 87.7 per cent of the market. “Conditions are just right now for the wearables market to grow. New brands are launching and existing brands are reinventing themselves,” says Raj Nimesh, senior market analyst at IDC.

While e-commerce has remained the most preferred route for consumers with the channel contributing 79.2 per cent of total shipments, offline retail is also slowly gaining ground. “Almost all wearables today are bought online. The target audience for wearables—urban, high income—is mostly net savvy. But some customers still want to have a real-life experience before buying entirely new products. Niche and premium products like smart clothing, need offline sales, especially through large format retail outlets, to generate more traction,” adds Nimesh.

Bhargava too feels that lack of offline retail is partly limiting the popularity of some of the more specialised products like talking socks, singing necklaces and self-navigating biker helmets. “The segment that would buy them are all online. But it would certainly help if people could see them somewhere.”

LAST QUARTER, IDC data reveals homegrown brand GOQii grabbed the No 1 position with 16.1 per cent market share in India. It overtook Xiaomi (10.3 per cent), Fitbit (6.7 per cent), Garmin (1.4 per cent) and Huawei (1 per cent). Vishal Gondal, founder and CEO of GOQii, says that the key to his company’s success is that it offers a service and not hardware. “Data means nothing. Initially wearables focused on simply giving information to users. But users had no clue what to do with this and would eventually grew bored of the device. Our goal was to get users active by providing them not just with information, but with personalised lifestyle coaching and analysis,” says Gondal, who founded GOQii two years ago after selling his first company, Indiagames, to Disney in 2011.

If a wearable helps a visually impaired person, it’s not ahead of its time. It should have been here all along

At a quarterly fee of Rs 1,999, GOQii provides both an activity tracker and connects users to a life coach. “Being in the IT field, my main concern was staying fit and active as much as I can since I spent the major part of my day sitting oin front of my laptop. I had joined a gymlast year but soon lost interest. After trying GOQii I started to see changes in my routine. My personal coach kept me motivated and tracked my progress. Soon I made it a point to walk 10,000 steps every day,” says Pratik Dholakiya, a GoQii user and co-founder of E2M, an Ahmedabad-based tech firm.

According to Gondal, real coaches make all the difference. “Wearables are nothing without the human touch. Our coaches monitor health performance, help you achieve set goals, track your progress and send out motivational messages,” he says. Last month, GOQii launched a new version of its service. Users can now connect to a life coach as well as a doctor. The company has also tied up with Axis Bank to provide users with instant payment options through its fitness bands. “The goal is to give a complete connectivity service to buyers. This is when wearables go from being a trend to becoming an Internet of Things solution. We’ve only just begun to explore the market’s potential.”

Wearable technologists are willing to go the extra mile to make it exceptional. Rohan Dixit, founder of Lief, for instance, started working with just a bra strap and a stethoscope to launch Lief, a patch that reduces anxiety through biofeedback exercises. Then there’s NECLUMI is a necklace for those who love jewellery but can’t wear heavy material or are allergic to minerals. A simple collar with a button to change the design at any time, NECLUMI projects light onto the wearer’s neck. iGrow, a helmet, found a way to improve hair quality and growth through laser technology. Radiate, a t-shirt for health freaks, changes colour as soon as you’ve worked a muscle out to its optimal performance level.

“When fashion and technology integrate, the result can be something brilliant,” says designer Narendra Kumar. Last month, Kumar reviewed Arrow’s new smart shirt, the first of its kind in the world. Priced at Rs 2,999 and available in 12 colours, the shirt lets you share your LinkedIn profile and business card with just a tap of the cuff. Kumar describes it as “comfortable and useful”. The shirt also connects via Bluetooth to your phone to play your favourite songs, block callers and change the settings to ‘meeting mode’. “A garment can be modern, comfortable and useful. Smart clothing takes the idea of contemporary workwear to a whole new level by giving executives an easy way to stay connected,” says Venkataramani K, CEO, heritage brands, Arvind Brands, the company that markets Arrow in India. He adds that it took 18 months to design the shirt. “It’s not that easy, the NFC chip embedded in the cuff had to be tested against washing, ironing and dry cleaning. Then we had to work out design, features and compatibility.”

It may all still seem too far-fetched for some, but this is a market that’s poised to grow at 40 per cent, per quarter for the next two years according to IDC. And with SantWatch (a safety device for kids), Apple Watch 2 (with its new GPS and ‘relax mode’), Nixon Mission Smart (that helps find the best conditions for surfing and skiing), Samsung Gear S3 (which can make wireless payments) and the multi-sport tracking Fitbit Charge 2 all set to launch next month, wearable technology is just beginning its march in India.