"Wearable gadgets serve as
a relentless reality check"


Marcus Fairs Opinion wearable technology

Opinion: Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs discusses how wearable technology will "transform our understanding of ourselves".

I’m being watched. My steps are being counted; my location is being tracked. My sleep is being monitored and my calories logged.

The person who’s watching me is… me. I’ve put myself under auto-surveillance and I’m having a data-driven out-of-body experience. I don’t keep a diary; instead, I have a graph.

I’ve been wearing a Nike+ FuelBand on my right wrist since last summer. This device measures my footsteps, estimates my calorific burn-rate and rewards me with “Nike Fuel” – an arbitrary and essentially useless currency that I can’t spend or trade.

Yet Fuel is addictively motivational. I go out of my way to achieve my daily goal of 3,000 Fuel points. I walk, run, cycle and exercise a lot more than I used to (and swim less, since the band isn’t waterproof) and actively seek manual chores that will earn me Fuel. I take pathetic pleasure in the lightshow on the band that marks the reaching of my day’s target and enjoy checking how my own “little data” fares against the accumulated “big data” of all the other FuelBand wearers on the Nike+ website.

My FuelBand was recently joined by a Jawbone UP wristband, which captures even more data about my lifestyle, including my sleep patterns and the food types I’ve consumed (although I have to enter that information manually). The accompanying smartphone app displays my life as a series of infographics and bar graphs of a sophistication that, until recently, was only available to elite athletes.

Jawbone says I’m not alone in performing better under surveillance: the firm cites research conducted at Stanford University that found people are 26% more active when they’re being monitored. Big Brother is good for you.

Having all this information at my fingertips changes the way I perceive myself. I’m forced to correlate my internal emotional narrative with the irrefutable datastream, and the former is often exposed as an unreliable fantasist. Days where I think I’ve been impressively active turn out to be days when I’ve been abnormally lazy; nights when I feel I’ve hardly slept turn out to have been more than adequate.

In his fascinating book Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that human beings are hopeless intuitive statisticians; we are unable to accurately interpret experience as data. Instead, we rely on heuristic assumptions, prejudices and intuition, all of which have a high chance of being wrong.

So, for example, if you wake up feeling exceptionally tired, you will assume you didn’t get enough sleep, whereas it may instead be that you woke up during a period of deep sleep, which leaves you feeling groggy. The UP band offers a function to overcome this, with an alarm feature that wakes you only during light sleep. Even if this means waking you earlier, you’ll feel more rested for it.

Thus devices like FuelBand and UP, plus other wearable activity-tracking gadgets like Fitbit, serve as a relentless reality check for your unreliable brain. The next generation of technology that sits directly on the body – like digital tattoos - or inside it – such as implants or pills - will burrow deeper into us to extract further “quantified self” datasets, which will provide more evidence of the irrationality of human experience.

Take a visit to the doctor: an everyday interaction that involves multiple potential failure points. You may misinterpret the symptoms you are experiencing; you may miscommunicate these to the doctor; the doctor may misunderstand you; the doctor may misdiagnose your illness. The chances that the consultation is a waste of time - or worse - are high.

Wearable technology that detects illness could remove this potential for error. I recently had a conversation with a senior healthcare designer who told me that medical services could soon be made far more efficient by fitting people with monitors that would alert hospitals at the first sign of congenital illness.

“Then the hospital would contact you and ask you to come for an appointment?” I asked naively. “No,” he replied; as a human you couldn’t be trusted to respond in the correct way. “You would most likely ignore the message or put off the appointment. Instead the hospital would contact your partner or your mother.”

For designers working in the area of wearable computing, the quest is to make both device and user interface “disappear”. "I think the general idea is that the phone as an object kind of disappears," said Google’s John Hanke in an interview with Dezeen last year, in which he talked about Google’s Glass project, which features a computer embedded in a pair of spectacles.

Speaking at the Design Indaba conference at Cape Town earlier this month, Alex Chen of Google Creative Lab echoed Hanke, saying: “From my personal need I hope technology disappears more and more from my life so you forget you’re using it all the time, instead of feeling that you’re burdened and conscious of it.”

Travis Bogard, vice president of product management and strategy at Jawbone, told me the objective was to make the UP band “as small as possible, something that gets out the way and disappears.”

In my case, the UP band disappeared so successfully that I forgot I was wearing it, neglected to charge it and have consequently accumulated zero data over the past week.

As for my FuelBand, I’ve figured out how to cheat it. It uses an accelerometer to track my movement but has no idea of the effort involved. Waving my arms around while sitting on the sofa earns almost as many fuel points as jogging; drying my hands vigorously and cleaning my teeth with exaggerated movements are as effective as a workout. Simply jiggling the band in my hand earns Fuel, as does giving it to the kids to run around with.

Wearable technology promises to transform our understanding of ourselves and consequently our sense of who we really are. It has the possibility to help us compensate for our inherent flaws and make us better, healthier people. The challenge for the designers of these devices is to figure out how to account for human stupidity and deviousness.

  • Bit (ter)

    Finally you start talk about quantified self and data tracking. We are so behind in Europe, there is no consumer electronics culture in design.

    You should talk more about consumer technology otherwise we’ll end up colonised by the USA.

    The Thonet chairs of the 21st century are stuff like Instagram and the Nike+ FuelBand, wake up please.

  • ….

    The challenge for the designers of these devices is to figure out how to account for human stupidity and deviousness.

    Sounds incredibly dangerous to me!

  • ….

    I am in California. Perhaps we seem to be ahead in data tracking/surveillance because at the moment we are naive to the reasons why we ever needed our 4th Amendment rights. When the phone company is free to share your information, I worry. I think some countries in Europe are much further ahead in creating new privacy laws to go along with the wild west of advanced technology.

  • “‘Then the hospital would contact you and ask you to come for an appointment?’ I asked naively. ‘No,’ he replied; as a human you couldn’t be trusted to respond in the correct way. ‘You would most likely ignore the message or put off the appointment. Instead the hospital would contact your partner or your mother.'”

    That’s particularly disturbing. What about personal responsibility? Wearable technology, like all the fruits of human ingenuity, has both the potential to be incredibly helpful, as well as be exploited for nefarious intent. In the years to come we’ll have to make some hard decisions over how much about ourselves we really want to know and let to be known, and how much we want to keep private.

  • Aidan Walker

    Who we really are? I don't think so. What we really do, perhaps. But who we really are does not (yet) admit analysis or interpretation by digital technology. Got to get spiritual for that, Marcus.

  • I think we have a long way to go in understanding how such an intimate use of technology will impact our human experience. Measuring these isolated inputs can be fascinating, but think of the rise of eating disorders related to the presence of a weight scale in every home.

    Without a holistic understanding of health, we run the risk of overcompensation of certain activities just to reduce the error state of our devices (McLuhan, thank you). I hope we can give appropriate weight to these new digital narratives that self-tracking technology creates for us, and remember that they too, are not necessarily the whole truth.