Data privacy, design and more with Maggie Orth

Maggie Orth is an artist, writer, and technologist, and was an early practitioner of electronic fashions and wearables computing. She began her work in electronic textiles in 1996 at the MIT Media Lab, with the creation of the Firefly Dress and The Musical Jacket. Her later work in electronic textiles includes artworks that change-color under computer control, interactive textile sensor and light artworks, and robotic public art.

Orth founded International Fashion Machines, Inc. (IFM), an art and technology company focused on electronic textiles in 2002. At IFM, she explored and developed the creative, technical, and commercial aspects of electronic textiles. During her 10 year tenure at IFM, Orth wrote patents, conducted e-textile research, made art and developed her own technology and design products, including the PomPom Dimmer. Today, Orth is a writer, whose work focuses on the intersection of people, technology, and nature.

Smithers Apex: You have been in the industry for some time and have seen it evolve to what the explosion of wearables that it is today- based on your experience, what will happen next? What puzzles remain to be solved and what opportunities are still untapped?

Orth: While there are more Wearable starter products than ten years ago, I still believe that the true value of Wearables (if you don’t consider smart phones wearables) has yet to be proved to the consumer.

Smart phones can do it all. Together with social media apps they have transformed culture in far-reachign ways we have yet to understand. They have achieved this transformation by combining multiple functionality in one device:  texting, calling, email, and a camera. In addition, consumers can pull out their phones and put them away when they want. This allows for some form of privacy and disconnect time.

Most of today’s Wearables act as extensions of these phones. Consumers may wear a WEARBLE phone extension for a while to measure bio data, but then put them in a drawer. They do not come close to being the essential devices of laptops, smart phones, or even tablets.

Consumers are also moving toward a single device model, as evidenced by the leveling of tablet sales and the sales of larger phones. Of course, reducing the functionality of smart phones and moving some of it into smart watches might force consumers to buy wearable type devices. But I think this would be an aggressive and unfortunate corporate strategy that would have poor environmental implications. I also am not sure the bulk of the market can sustain these additional costs.

A huge problem, and perhaps opportunity for Wearables, is privacy. I predict that keeping our most personal data private will be the next great human rights struggle of our lives.

I used to think that fears about personal data being used inappropriately and surveillance were paranoid-- but no more. If I Google anything, whether a health problem, or product, I get an ad related to that in 30 seconds. I feel I I have no control over what companies know about my intellectual interests and who they sell it to. Huge amounts of money and intellectual capital are being spent to KNOW ME and tell people about ME. Regulations are poor. And I want to keep my private life private.

Because of this, I will not wear any additional device connected to the internet that gathers data about my private habits. I do not want data biological my biological health and day-to-day habits recorded anywhere. I fear it will be accessed and used by healthcare providers, corporations, or trolls, or unknown others.

Of course, Wearables could become devices that help guarantee our privacy- rather than diminish it. They could tell us when we are being recorded. They could help block certain types of data. But I know that is unlikely. And that the business models of these devices do not support that.

In addition, Wearables could provide environmental benefits. Heated and cooled clothing could reduce the need to heat and cool buildings. These are positive possibilities for Wearables.

Smithers Apex: In addition to human centered design to boost consumer adoption and working out the quirks of many technologies and products, what other challenges need to be addressed to come to a point of maturity and sustainable growth for the industry?

 Orth: Making Wearables more human-centered and designing around technology limitations will not solve the lack of truly meaningful and transformative applications in the Wearable space. Wearables still need better materials- though they are coming form health technology.

Moreover, I am still not convinced consumers want more electronic devices. In that sense, the future of Wearables may relay on creating a device that can do everything your smart phone can AND A SOMETHING MORE- a destablizing technology and design that makes smart phones obsolete.

Google Glass may be able to achieve this, but it is not clear they have got the physical design or application space right yet. Moreover- I am not sure that wearing computerized glasses will become mainstream. If people see Glass as a privacy threat, there will tremendous social push back. The anti-data and privacy chatter is already on the rise.

However, according to my sources, the rumors of Glass’s demise are premature. So we shall see.

Smithers Apex: What are you looking forward to hear at Smart Fabrics and Wearable Technology 2015?

Orth: I would like to hear more about how Wearables can make responsible contributions to our environmental and privacy problems.

I would like to hear how companies are dealing with privacy, and guaranteeing data protections. I would like to see any crazy ideas I can use in my Sci-Fi writing. And it will be good to see old friends.