Runners slip sensors into their shoes to track how far they've gone. Insomniacs wear wristbands to monitor their sleep habits. Skiers don goggles with heads-up displays to see how fast they're moving.
But wearable computing remains a niche business. Even as the cost and size of the sensors the devices use has dropped, and the ability to transmit the data those sensors collect to smartphones has become a snap, most gadgets are kludgy.
Jennifer Darmour, a user experience designer for the Seattle design firm Artefact, wants to fix that. Darmour, who also authors the Electricfoxy blog, which focuses on wearable computing, has come up with a prototype Pilates shirt designed to challenge current conventions in wearable computing.
The garment has sensors in it that monitor a person's body position. It can notify wearers, with a vibration, if it detects that their body position is wrong.
The idea isn't so much to create a new business as it is to experiment with principles involved in getting wearable computing gadgets to the masses. Darmour believes making those gadgets less gadgetlike will ultimately lead to wider adoption.
"It doesn't look like a computer that you're wearing," Darmour said. "It looks like a simple Pilates shirt."
Artefact has tinkered with concept products before, designing a novel printer, with a touch interface, that easily connects to cameras, computers, phones, and tablets. Its engineers ginned up a concept camera that has a slim, iPhone-like body with a detachable lens that connects wirelessly.
The idea of all these exercises is to push the state of the art. And if that generates some buzz for Artefact, which helped develop the CR200 controller for the Sonos music system and worked on the user experience on the BlackBerry PlayBook, that's fine too.
Darmour sees three basic challenges with most wearable computing devices. The devices are generally tech gadgets, made with hard plastics, not more appealing flexible fabrics. The data the devices generate is massive, since they constantly monitor users' movements, vital signs, and surroundings, making it hard to draw meaningful conclusions. And the interactions users have with wearable computers are often disruptive, requiring them to stop what they're doing to check the device.
The Pilates shirt, dubbed Move, tries to address each of those challenges. It has four sensors woven in on the front, back, and sides of the garment. Those sensors constantly monitor body position and muscle movement. And the shirt can prompt users to correct their body position through haptic feedback components at the hips and shoulders.
"It's all about precision in movement," Darmour said.
Darmour focused on Pilates because she's passionate about the exercise program. But she believes the technology could be applied to golf shirts, for example, to help improve someone's swing. Or it could be used for posture management, to help workers stop slumping at their desks.
The Move concept, which Artefact doesn't currently plan to turn into a product, shows how wearable computers can seamlessly blend into someone's life.
"Your body becomes the interface," Darmour said. "We're going from interacting with it, to it interacting with us."