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Five questions for Becky Stern, director of wearables for Adafruit

Five questions for Becky Stern, director of wearables for Adafruit
Dana Wollman
Dana Wollman|@danawollman|November 1, 2014 3:00 PM

We've all heard of Google Glass. And smartwatches, and fitness bands, and gadgets that form some sort of combination thereof. But have you considered a skirt with embedded sensors? How about a purse, or a pair of socks? While a few companies, like Ralph Lauren, are dabbling in high-tech clothes, Becky Stern has been tinkering in the space for nearly a decade. As the director of wearables for the DIY electronics site Adafruit, she hosts weekly instructional videos on how to build your own wearables, and also stars in a YouTube show on the subject. We'll be sitting down with her at our free Expand event on November 7th, where we'll talk about the do's and don'ts of wearable tech, with a nod toward some of the more unusual things you can do with sensors. (Fine, fine, we'll touch on Android Wear and the Apple Watch too, if it makes you happy.) To whet your appetite, here's a short Q&A with Stern, and sound off in the comments if you think there's anything else we should ask.

Why is this the year of wearables?
That's a hard question for me; I've been doing wearables since 2007. But you're definitely right. A slide from my recent talk at the Open Hardware Summit shows the Google trend search for "wearable technology." It's little, little, little, with a giant spike starting in 2013. The body is the last frontier for technology, and the smartphone revolution has brought the size and cost of sophisticated electronics way down. Although I'm sure there will be battery breakthroughs down the line, they're not getting much more efficient anytime soon.

"The body is the last frontier for technology."

However, I think a lot of our tech has become more energy efficient due to the demand for battery life on your phone. The chips are designed to run on lower power and go to sleep when not in use. Accelerometers that were designed by the military have dramatically lowered in cost now that they're produced at the scale of the smartphone industry. And the cheaper and easier it is to make new, single-purpose wearable devices, the more new and existing companies will try. And the more that people try, the easier it's going to get.

We've heard of smartwatches, fitness trackers and even headsets like Google Glass. What are the benefits of other kinds of wearables, like skirts?
It's much more personal. The things you put on your body are tied to your self-image and how you want people to perceive you. But embedding electronics into garments also allows the technology to become invisible, which is great for applications in medicine. Wearables are going to need to extend to all parts of the body. Watches and glasses are ubiquitous enough that adding tech seems like a reasonable business venture. The same leap can't be made in all contexts yet. Sports-attire companies, like Adidas, have put a lot of time and money into R&D for things like conductive-fabric heart rate sensors in sports shirts because there is a lot of money in pro sports and improving an athlete's game, even by a small amount. I don't think fashion and tech have connected in the same way.

Why haven't they connected?

"Most people who wear a watch own more than one, but we don't currently expect the same if it's a smartwatch -- yet."
We're starting to see fashion companies turn into tech companies and vice versa, but there are still gaps in the language the two fields use and the life cycles of the products they make. They don't have the same value system. But they do have commonalities and, in partnerships, can play to each others' strengths. Fashion is partly about what's hot this season, churning out new "must-haves" faster than is sensible to replace your gadgets. Most people who wear a watch own more than one, but we don't currently expect the same if it's a smartwatch-- yet. More folks need to put some skin in the game and make some mistakes. But for now, there are myriad round-ish, single-purpose, wearable-device startups that continue to test the waters.

You're currently wearing the Moto 360. How do you like it?
I can't stand it. But let me be clear -- I don't normally wear a watch, and it is the most attractive smartwatch I've seen. It's big on my tiny wrist, and during the setup process, it had my default height and weight as five feet, eight inches, and 165 pounds before it asked my gender, which made me feel like I'm not the target audience. The strongest notification it can muster is when it's been separated from the phone, so every time I head to the bathroom across the factory without my phone, it freaks out. On a recent trip, the GPS navigation was pulling my attention to two separate screens until I silenced the notifications. I think Android Wear has a ways to go, but I have been enjoying the remote camera control and having the weather forecast on my wrist.

What gets people into making wearable devices themselves?
"Literacy in computer science is important for all users of technology so it works for us instead of the other way around."
A lot of times it's because it will be fun and expressive, like a cosplay suit of armor with glowing effects, or a prom dress that lights up when you dance. It's fun to wear something nobody else has, as in fashion trendsetting. Making your own tech lets you solve your own unique problems, too. Maybe you have a physical impairment that prevents the use of a standard video game controller, for example. Because your impairment is unique to you, a big company's not going to roll out a glove or vest or touch-sensitive mat product that works for just you, but you can easily whip one up yourself (or with a friend) using conductive fabric and an Adafruit FLORA. Also, as these wearable devices become more pervasive in our lives and on our bodies, it's important we know how they work. They are often telling us things about our own biometric data, after all, helping us make decisions about how to move and when. For example, who owns the data collected by your Fitbit? Doesn't it make sense to know how the sensors and code inside it work before believing everything it encourages you to do? I believe that literacy in computer science is important for all users of technology so it works for us instead of the other way around -- it's program or be programmed!
Five questions for Becky Stern, director of wearables for Adafruit