This is the future of wearable technology

Smart insoles, inseams, and inner layers. Smart swimwear and underwear.

Wearable technology is exploding. So why is it all so ugly?

The first annual FashioNXT Wearable Technology Contest, presented by Digital Trends in partnership with Nike, Intel, and Project Runway, concluded last week in Portland, Ore. Through the contest, we sought to push the boundaries of wearable tech, merging fashion with features to avoid the chunky, sometimes preposterous designs that characterize nearly all contemporary wearable tech.

The winning entry, by 20-year-old Pratt industrial design student Dillon Chen, is nothing you’d ever wear. But it’s emblematic of where wearables could go.

“I wasn’t trying to be super creative or anything,” Chen told me. “It just happened.”

Chen designed an outfit called The Killers Suit for musicians; it responds to the sound of the band and its fans, using microphones to detect sound level and quality, then emitting lights that change and pulse in response. His garment would be made of OLEDs and controlled by an Arduino microcontroller. Chen, a fan of the band he named the entry after, said he was inspired after a recent concert.

“I thought about the concerts I’ve been to. I’m a big fan of The Killers. I saw them last year at the Barclays Center and they were so great — I just thought, what would Brandon Flowers wear on stage? What would bring a new dimension to the music or live experience? Their stage lighting is amazing. How can you bring projection onto your body?”

While intriguing, it is most likely unbuildable with today’s technology. But it’s a vision of where tech could go, one I and the other judges found exceptional. Other finalists offered glossy products that seemed shoo-ins to become real products. Theodora Koullias, a recent MIT grad who designed The 314 handbag, flew to Portland for the awards ceremony last Thursday. Poised and prepped, she seemed ready to establishe a company and begin production.

“99 percent of wearables are geared toward the Silicon Valley male.”

Her design incorporated swappable fuel cells with a purse to recharge a phone or other device; we’ve seen backpacks with similar function that are more function than form, but few fashion-forward designs like hers. But the judges — including Intel’s Mark Francis, Nike’s Matt Rhoades, and Project Runway’s Seth Aaron Henderson — felt the design didn’t go far enough. Likewise, the QBracelet by James Kernan, a fresh take on portable power, doesn’t move technology far enough — although it’s so slick that Henderson said he had preordered one in every color.

“When I clicked into his page, I was like damn, this guy’s serious. I was really scared,” Chen agreed.

The popular vote, in a poll on Digital Trends, picked The 314 as the winner. But the judges like the ideas Chen presented, which evoked the union of fashion and tech in the true spirit of the contest.

For winning the contest, Chen earns a check for $1,000, a computer system with Intel’s latest technology, and more.

The idea of fashion-first tech is expanding beyond the FashioNXT show, and with good reason. As wearables and tech have exploded, designs simply haven’t kept up, partly because tech is so dominated by dudes.

“The issue right now is that 99 percent of wearables are geared toward the Silicon Valley male,” said Ayse Ildeniz, the spokesperson for Intel’s new and wide-ranging fashion initiative, according to a recent feature. Intel’s plan includes a style lab where designers and artists can experiment with integrating tech into their work, Ildeniz noted, in addition to MICA, a luxury smart bracelet with a 1.6-inch touchscreen built into it. It  features a curved sapphire-glass touchscreen and a 3G radio, and  sends alerts and messages.

Next week, at the Wearables + Things conference in Washington D.C., we’ll see another wearable tech fashion show, with a runaway full of the latest high fashion. And companies like Intel continue their own push into the space, through partnerships with Fossil and designer Opening Ceremony. On Sept. 4, Google recently partnered with Diane Von Furstenburg to release fashion-first versions of its wearable tech, Google Glass.

But these are tiny steps forward. The fashion industry needs to step in with gusto, to bring fresh thoughts to new technology. The Killers Suit is the future. Now let’s get there.

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