Wearable tech: Why function over fashion never wins. By Lucie Muir

Upgrading your eyewear is no easy task. During a recent trip to renew my prescription glasses I caught sight of myself visibly wincing at some of the non-descript brands and lacklustre designs on offer in-store. Still, I shouldn’t be surprised at my findings. If I wanted the style to which my wardrobe is accustomed to, then I should have gone to David Clulow – not my local opticians.

But if my discerning eye was put the test here, then I perish the thought of ever having to choose a pair of ‘smart’ glasses. Already, the initial designs from the likes of Vuzix, MetaPro and GlassUp leave me cold. Narrow, transparent and rimless, more ‘Minority Report’ than ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, there’s nothing remotely cool about them.

Then there is Google Glass. Eyewear here consists of a small screen attached to a pair of spectacle frames, which can record video, access email, and retrieve information from the web by connecting wirelessly to a user’s mobile phone. Great for some. But if this clutch of early pioneers is to reach the more fashionably minded, they will have to deliver products far more focused on the wearable and less on the tech if smart specs are ever to be perceived as a fashion ‘must have’.

With the news that in an attempt to make its product more fashionable Google has teamed up with Luxottica, the giants behind the Ray-Ban and Prada eyewear brands, are things looking up? Let’s hope so, though many in the world of fashion and cutting-edge design may take some convincing.

Take Mark Newson for instance. The Australian design guru has just created his first eyewear range for Italian glasses manufacturer Safilo and according to a recent interview for Dezeen magazine was quoted as saying: “There’s a real risk that you look like a bit of an idiot. What Google has done thus far, I wouldn’t be seen dead wearing. I think it really looks pretty stupid.”

So far I’ve yet to see anyone sporting a pair of tech specs and if I do I’ll bet my Miu Miu aviators on it that they will be a) mostly men and b) stereotypical nerds at that. I ask Christopher Moody, Global Creative Director at Wolff Olins, London’s prestigious creative agency, for his thoughts on who these early adopters will be. “The more interesting thing will be to see how Google Glass goes to market fully,” says Moody. “A practical tool for the office? Mums’ extra pair of hands? A new way to do social? Great demonstrations of the benefits of wearing them early on could really change who you see wearing them further down the line.”

Looking forward he adds: ”Taste isn’t really the issue for Google Glass, it’s less about creating aesthetic awesomeness and more about eyewear feeling a little less like a novelty object. Perhaps the best way to think about wearables is less a piece of clothing and more a way of keeping hold of something. Google Glass is just a way of balancing some data on the bridge of your nose so you can access it quickly and you don’t leave it on the tube.”

The other thing to consider here is not only the way that the product looks, but also how the person looks when they interact with it. No one wants to be sat next to the geek in the coffee shop barking out search engine words to himself and constantly tapping the side of his head! Along with the glasses, designing a really cool, subtle way of interacting with it would be of a definite advantage.

I suspect the idea of a ‘Luxury’ set of smart glasses might be more plausible when the technology has evolved and commoditized to the point where the primary differentiator is not features, but beautiful industrial design and craftsmanship.  In this instance, technology companies poaching fashion folk from luxury fashion brands may well be a step in the right direction.

Last year, Paul Deneve former head of Yves Saint Laurent fashion joined Apple to work on wearable technology. And I’m sure the recent hiring of Angela Ahrendts, former CEO of Burberry and now head of Apple retail, can only be for the good for style pundits too.

Matt Pollitt Director at Shoreditch-based ‘5K Digital Design’ knows what it takes to get that perfect combination – good aesthetics and function – just right. He recently created a wearable software device called ‘Vela’ for the sailing community to share their experiences on water, and record nautical and navigational data at a glance. This is in production for launch later this year.

Says Pollitt: “It is still early days for these types of wearable eye devices and the technology is still in its infancy. As you see this tech developing, it will only get smaller and less cumbersome and become easier to integrate into regular looking products. Hopefully it will progress to the point where it is not even visible to other people – integrated into products such as contact lenses.”

Try telling this to Mark Zuckerberg, the new proprietor of 3D virtual reality glasses creator – Oculus VR. While Oculus will continue operating independently within Facebook for now, reports suggest that its sphere will expand beyond games by lending the 3D experience to other activities as too. This is an interesting case because ultimately what it looks like on the outside is irrelevant – it’s all about the internal experience. This could be the biggest change to fashion as in a virtual world it can change faster and be more adaptive to trend.

Speaking of cumbersome, remember the first mobile phone designs? No one looked hip with a grey brick held to the side of their head. Maybe it’s the same with wearables and we are just going to have to ride this ugly amphibian stage for a while longer. In years to come we may even look back at how hideous they once were and stifle our laughter as we peer at them in the exhibits of design museums.

Personally, I’d rather view fashion as an escape and feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I try on a pair of new heels or touch a beautifully cut jacket. Would I swap those moments of bliss for a pair of geek goggles or even a Star Trekkian watch with built in WI-FI? The answer I’m afraid is still no.

 

Lucie Muir has been a fashion journalist for over 20 years working for publications such as Vogue, The Financial Times, Luxury Briefing and the International Herald Tribune.

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