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The sun has now set on another SXSW festival, where wearable computing has been the focus of so much attention. Of course, there was the obligatory Google Glass coverage as well as discussions of Nike’s Fuelband and the forthcoming smartwatches from Samsung and Apple.

But beyond the novelty, gadgetry, and the almost universal fear about privacy invasion and copyright violation, what are the true benefits of wearables and how might they help social projects?

Samsung Galaxy Gear vs Pebble. Image: Janitors

It’s much deeper than “because they’re always accessible”.  Our mobile phones are used when we are on the move; wearables differ when they are used as part of a data transmission system. When a wearable device transmits information to a mobile unit, it becomes part of a data ecosystem.  In this use case, the benefit of wearables is as much to collect information, as for the user to capture it.


Not just watches

Some of the most interesting use cases for wearables lie in medical research and urban planning, where devices are used to capture images in the real world, or even inside the body, or they are rigged to record footfall or activity around a city or even a retail outlet.  These examples of wearables are designed to assist in better understanding body functions, interaction design and complex system problems like urban planning.

While it may seem a long way from a social project, these kinds of wearable technologies can be profoundly valuable to both the commercial and non-profit sector.

Imagine a scenario where movement capture and bodily responses can be recorded to create truly immersive interactive experiences for a brand. The technology already exists.

Here in Australia, the subscription TV network, Foxtel, has released a wearable tech campaign where fans get to ‘feel’ the impact of tackles, heartbeat and the muscle movement in kicking a goal.  Players movements, heartbeat and so on are captured by a transmitter shirt, and then an app on phones is used to send the same signals to receiver shirts, available to subscribers of the network.

This kind of immersive experience is considered to be a value addition to the subscription television experience – like being in the game.

Now imagine another scenario where the work of engineers or construction workers was recorded and then transmitted in wearable technologies as part of training to avoid workplace accidents, or to test new building tools and materials.  Again, the technology is already in production, with researchers at Virginia Tech considering a range of uses for wearable sensors to assist with quality control and workplace safety.

The same technology can also be used for a whole raft of purposes, including solving traffic problems, improving customer experiences in retail environments, and monitoring health status.

James B.Forsyth, a Ph.D candidate in computer engineering, places a wearable computing system on a helmet to protect construction works from carbon monoxide poisoning. Image: Virginia Tech


How can wearables be social?

As we know, recommendations from friends are always the most influential factors in adoption or purchase of a product or service.  And we share information about brands, products and services, partly because we want to influence others, or define ourselves in comparison with others.

Wearable technologies, whether they are tracking health, movement or interactions can help us to share our experiences of products and services in a much deeper, more compelling manner.  And where wearable data can be shared on social channels, we can more effectively define our ‘performance’ – our tribal behaviours, interactions and efforts – within our own social circles.

Wearables are experience and data devices that generate content that is thus eminently shareable, because it enables us to express our very proximity to one another – proximity in terms of geography, life experiences, passions and preferences.  And this proximity is the key to the success of word of mouth: we are social animals and we identify ourselves by our place in our tribes.  So we are more likely to trust the advice and choices of people who are ‘near us’; proximate, in our tribes.

As such, wearables represent the most significant boost to word of mouth marketing since electronic social media itself.

Of course, there will always be technologies that are used for novelty and frivolity – just because we can.  But for social projects, wearables represent a way of tracking activities that may involve sharing updates, but their true value lies in influencing behaviour.  And that’s powerful stuff.


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