Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Wearables: Putting Technology Second - Humans First

Posted by Tom Foremski - April 15, 2014

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The ‘Human Factor’ is often overlooked in wearable computing…searching for feelings and emotions amid the technology.

By Intel Free Press

Designers and engineers often create code or cool new hardware without thinking as much about the human side of the technology. At a recent Intel workshop that might be seen as counter-intuitive, engineers were being trained to think about real-world applications first, the technology itself second.

“Don’t build with technology just for the heck of building a piece of tech. Build for a purpose, for the user,” said Carlos Montesinos, a research scientist at Intel on collaborative design who co-sponsored the workshop. “Design with the user in mind and then technology will follow.”

For half a day, Intel engineers with no experience designing with Intel’s new Galileo development boards got a crash course on how the development board works and how it could be programmed. They then spent time designing simple wearable projects that solved real-world issues.

The second part of the day was hands-on tinkering work making a rudimentary version of the product they had conceptualized, using various sensors and inputs, actuators and outputs.

Wearables of All Types

Prior to working with the circuit boards or even brainstorming on the design, the workshop participants learned about the human factor involved in designing and understanding wearable devices.

“When we look for a solution, we look for the feelings and the emotions that a solution evokes in a person — what motivates people to wear technology,” said Ana Rosario, user experience researcher at Intel. “Once we understand the emotional feeling behind the things we wear, then we can design wearable experiences that people are going to be compelled to wear.”

From technology woven into fabric to prevent malaria to motion-detecting and haptic feedback-enabled Pilates active wear, wearables can take all shapes and forms. And this was the point of the workshop – forcing the design beyond the technology and into the human factor and what the user truly wants.

According to Rosario, sensors embedded within fabrics are design to “understand” and naturally interact with the body, and often the resulting wearable extends functions of your body, even beyond what you have. For example, this scarf-turned-airbag-helmet designed by Hövding provides additional protection beyond the skull.

“You cannot control user experience, but you can design for it,” said Rosario on the framework for the workshop.

The event was focused primarily on the conceptualization and design work of rudimentary wearable devices, and the Galileo board provided a quick and easy way to prototype designs.

Engineering Real-World Solutions

Workshop participants, ranging from server architects to software and hardware engineers, put away their engineering degrees and collaborated in groups of three, eventually producing the name and function of their wearable product as well as drawing an initial design based on their own wants and needs.

These concepts were presented at the end of the workshop and voted on by workshop peers. Only the product concepts were part of the voting, the Galileo board development results were not.

Among the designs were:

-“Well-belt” – a wearable for the elderly with built-in accelerometer sensors and communication outputs that detects when a fall has occurred and phones or texts a care provider.

- “Baby Galileo” – tackled the problem of the shopping parent needing to amuse their young child while also helping the child’s motor development. Using accelerometers and motion sensors, wristbands worn by young children issue spoken commands (e.g., “lift your left arm”) in a motion-centric form of interactive play.

- “Hush” – designed to measure how loud people are talking and give them an indication of volume. According to the team, this wearable could be particularly useful for noisy co-workers or yelling parents.

The winning concept was the “Fevometer,” which would use thermal sensors built into a baby’s outfit and cap to allow parents to be notified if their baby had a fever. As the makers of this design were parents, they pulled from real-world experiences to use technology to augment their lives.

This was similar to the Mimo Baby wearable prototype from Rest Devices that Intel showcased at CES earlier this year. Rest Devices bills itself as a company that “makes simple and human-centered devices that keep people healthy and relaxed.”

When event co-sponsor and application engineer at Intel, Afifa Tawil, was asked what wearable she would create, she immediately thought of nighttime Ultimate Frisbee.

“We currently use glow-in-the-dark Frisbees and colored glow sticks. Wouldn’t it be cool if the Frisbee changed colors so we knew which team has it,” says Tawil. “If the glow sticks could become ‘wearables’ that would be kind of cool.”

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