Does the world really need a smart condom?
A view from Jess McGillivray

Does the world really need a smart condom?

Is it time for tech companies to put vanity gadgets to one side and focus on delivering positive social change in the real world?

Smart condoms, umbrella drones, vacuum cleaner shoes, smart hair brushes – do some of the latest examples of wearable tech brands serve any actual purpose in the real world to enhance people’s lives? 

Consumers are increasingly being bombarded with expensive and useless wearable gadgets that make you question how they ever got funding. Would you like – or rather do you need – to measure the speed of thrusts during sex, or how you stack up in the sack against other people? If the answer’s yes, well the i.Con can be yours for a snip at £59.99.

Or, part with £1,299 and you could be on your way to hands-free umbrella piloting, thanks to the latest umbrella drone. For the more style conscious there’s the new Hair Coach – a smart hairbrush, billed as the "the future of hair care". Providing ‘holistic hair assessment’, the brush tracks stroke count, force and rhythm and gesture analysis to improve hair health and brushing technique – all trackable via an app. And for just £160. And the less said about the vacuum cleaning shoes the better.

Do any of these "innovations" enable social change for the better? No, they pander to laziness and arrogance. They inflate (or deflate, depending on your thrust rate) egos in a world that, at times, can be incredibly self-obsessed and insular. Too often it seems the latest gadget is a ‘solution’ to a problem that doesn’t really exist, with developers spending exorbitant amounts of money for what seems like no purpose whatsoever, wasting valuable resources that could surely be put to better use helping countries devastated by war and famine, for instance.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, as a number of brands are proving by developing wearable tech with a real world purpose, that unlock people’s true potential. They show what can be achieved when you strive to see the world from other perspectives, facilitating change and allowing seamless integration into our day-to-day lives.

Take Open Bionics, an award-winning start-up. It’s on a mission to help an estimated two million hand amputees worldwide by creating affordable bionic hands. A recent, totally inspiring, partnership with Walt Disney, has seen the company design three new Marvel, Frozen and Star Wars-themed bionic hands. Open Bionics wants kids to train to become heroes, not just prosthetic users. Imagine suffering the trauma of hand amputation as a young child. With companies and brand partnerships like this, children are being offered a real lifeline, a chance to become a superhero at a time when mentally and physically they need it most.

The Centre for Fashion Enterprise recently ran its 10th FashTech meetup, Fashioning Sensory tech. Dr Jenny Tilloston spoke of her research at Cambridge University into responsive textiles and the biomedical sciences. She has founded eScent, a company on a sensory mission to fuse new technologies for wellbeing-enhancing wearable scent technology, data collection and a family of neuroscience devices related to the olfactory sense. 

Imagine a world where such technology will be able to trigger memories in dementia patients, or calm anxiety for children with autism who can suffer from hyper and hypo-sensitivity to smells. Or help athletes’ wellbeing and performance, such as Dr Tilloston’s partnership with The North Face to create the ‘Lift My Mind’ prototype backpack – a sensor-induced scent release rucksack to help calm, energise and increase alertness in endurance athletes. This is a nice build on the more traditional fitbit-type devices.

Wearable tech is also playing a valuable role in keeping people safe. There are numerous devices that trigger alarms or send signals when people are in danger or actually being attacked, providing GPS data directly to friends, family or police. Brands such as Stiletto and Safelet go a step further and even record audio, useful as evidence if required. This kind of tech is invaluable, especially for vulnerable women in danger of rape or domestic abuse.

The potential for wearable tech, especially the on-the-rise VR headsets, in education is also endless. Around 90% of what we see and do is retained, something that has been missing from education. Students do not retain as much information if they are just reading a textbook compared to having more real applications of what they’re learning.

Initiatives such as Google’s Expeditions Pioneer Program, which can take children on journeys to underwater coral reefs, prove that technology can really make a positive impact on the world, especially for future generations, if it provides a solution to a genuine problem. Another example is Alchemy VR, which enables children to experience anything from the Pyramids to the human body, and has partnered with Samsung, Google Expeditions, Sony, HTC, the Natural History Museum in London and the Australian Museum in Sydney.

According to a recent Gartner study, the abandonment rate of smartwatches is 29% (30% for fitness trackers), while last year IDC reported that the smartwatch shipments declined by 51% in 2016. This indicates that consumers increasingly perceive such devices as either useless, expensive, unattractive, unreliable, or a combination of these, suggesting the last thing they need is more of the same. For brands and those working in the FashTech industry, perhaps it’s time for wearable development to be driven by real social purpose and compelling end-user gains.

Wearable tech can provide real world engagement for brand fans, but there is a danger that it will just be a short-lived fad. Developers and brands should feel an ethical and social responsibility to use tech to promote health, wellbeing, safety and/or research. Not inflate egos or create gadgets that will have fifteen minutes of fame. And if wearables collect data then it shouldn’t be about the device itself, but rather the information that it’s gathering and what change for the better it can bring. This, surely, will drive longer term brand affinity and loyalty.

In short, it’s time for wearable tech to be driven by the desire to make the real world a better place. Some brands are doing this, others need to follow suit. 

Jess McGillivray is an account director at marketing agency Sense

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