Why your next research insights will come from wearable tech

Last week Sydney was buzzing with the future of design thanks to Sydney Design 2014, hosted by the Powerhouse Museum. This year’s theme, ‘Design Futures’ was a perfect fit for some of our recent work at the Ripple Effect Group and we were keen to mesh ideas of design and technology together.

At our workshop, titled ‘Being John Malkovich: The Future of Research with Wearable Technology’, we explored how wearable technology can provide more insight around user behaviour, letting researchers get ‘see through the eyes’ of their subjects. Twenty participants from backgrounds including user experience designers, developers, educators, museum and gallery curators as well as fashion designers ensured a diverse experience and ideas.

The workshop covered a number of key insights around research and wearable technology:


  • Wearable tech is not new. As in the case of an abacus ring or a watch, wearable technology is not new. However, the advent of new computing technology, small in size, opens many new opportunities.
  • Wearable tech is flourishing in the consumer market. The current trend towards wearable technology is focused on consumers, particularly through fitness and wellbeing with products such as Fitbit and Jawbone.
  • There are evangelists and skeptics. As with many new trends, there are both early adopters and skeptics. While some argue that Google Glass creates ‘Glassholes there are plenty that laud it’s potential for medical research. As a reminder, in the early 2000’s, consumers feared the privacy implications of camera phones, a technology that is now ubiquitous.
  • We’re at the start. Much of the criticism aimed at Google Glass and other wearable technologies is that it’s not ready for the mainstream consumer market due to price or aesthetics. It’s important to remember that these technologies are early in the development curve. The Glass Explorer Program provides an impressive testing ground for Google to learn and iterate future products.

Through an exercise, the participants took a ‘blue sky’ approach to designing and creating a piece of wearable technology, for a specific user group. Here, ideas shared included hidden devices, ingested devices, devices that give environmental context to an individual and wearables that go beyond individual data to collating it at a city or nation-wide level. We also discussed the value of layering data. While Fitbit shows the steps counted, a Narrative Clip worn by the same person can capture context of use.

From a research perspective, wearable technology has the potential to immerse researchers in the world of their subject. Collecting footage from the subject’s perspective can later be viewed through a VR (Virtual Reality) headset. In this way, researchers can build empathy with their subjects, and better understand their world.

We also debated a number of issues facing wearable technology for research, into the future. Privacy issues affect not just the individual wearing the device, but others they interact with on a daily basis. Another challenge is the sheer amount of data to be processed, in order to extract meaningful information from the data. Despite these concerns, it’s clear that wearable technology has huge potential for researchers to better understand their research subjects.

In case you missed the event or would like to follow up, here’s some resources from the event: