What do you think of when you hear the term "wearable technology?” Smart watches, fitness trackers and Bluetooth headsets? All good examples, but the term is expanding. Now it could mean a denim jacket from Levi's and Google that allows wearers to pair the clothing with a smartphone. That may sound harmless, but wearable tech can also be a risk to your security and privacy. Marketplace’s Jon Gordon spoke with Amanda Parkes, a fashion technologist with the Future Tech Lab, about some of the new technology that might be making its way into your closet and why you may want to handle it with care. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Jon Gordon: First off, what are some examples of wearables besides the Apple Watch and Fitbit?
Amanda Parkes: Yeah, sure, so on one hand you have the collaboration between Google and Levi's, project Jacquard, which was released a few months ago, and this shows the new trend in actually having textile integration. This product has been in the works for over four years. It has capacitive threads in the sleeve of the jacket and it ties to an app on your phone. So you can answer calls or control your audio, your headphones, your music, etc. by different gestures on the wrist. You can tap it, you can swipe right, you can swipe left, you can cover it. And then we have companies like SUPA or Nanowear that are both working on sensorized fabrics. SUPA is creating a platform that uses AI to learn intelligently about the body and then process and map this data appropriately. So it's as much a data system as it is a sensing system for the body.
Gordon: You're talking about all kinds of health data that we collect through wearables. Please tell me that fashion technologists, such as yourself, are thinking about privacy and security in the design process, because it seems like the risks would be really high.
Parkes: Absolutely. And I think it's really about being proactive. We're working in a system where we've never had access to this much data about the body. We're trying to put basically as many measures in place to protect who has access to that data, how it gets interpreted and how it gets utilized in the larger context of law and health. But, like any new technology, we can't prescribe exactly what's going to happen.
Gordon: Right now I'm wearing a zip-up hoodie that I got from Walgreens, and I paid three bucks for it. Which is to say that I have no personal interest, I think, in wearables. I don't want to be a focus group of one, but what makes you think people are really ready for big advancements in wearables?
Parkes: Well, first of all, I think everybody has to get dressed in the morning. And you can say that you're not into fashion, but there's not a single person in the world who doesn't own an article of clothing. It's a basic human need. And so it's not so much that wearables need to be all things to all people. There can be very specific things that become useful for you. It's also important to point out that the advancement in textiles, which I see as really an extension of the wearable space — you know, we have hydrophobic nanotech coating technology from a company called Dropel, which I work with, and that means that you can spill a glass of red wine on your white cotton shirt and it will roll off. These are obviously developments on the material science side, but really it's an extension of that functionality. And what we're going to see is a fusion of the digital and the physical together in the advancement of wearables. That's the space that's really exciting to me.
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