December 20, 2023
Wearable AI Is Here. Is Your Wardrobe Ready?
This year, high fashion embraced artificial intelligence as its latest hot accessory. But what sartorial statement does it make?
Words by Mary Holland
Photo Credits: Getty Images, Humane, Rewind AI, Ray-Ban.com
It was probably one of the most talked-about moments at Paris Fashion Week this year: when Naomi Campbell strutted down Coperni’s runway in a slate-gray pinstripe suit with a techy-looking broach attached to the lapel. But it wasn’t just any old accessory. It was the AI Pin created by the startup Humane — a new device that assists with a myriad of daily tasks, such as voice-based messaging and calling, and real-time language translation.
This became a defining moment in 2023, where a new intersection between tech and fashion was revealed on a global stage, and an AI device suddenly became the accessory du jour.
In truth, this technology has been a part of our daily lives for years. “I think a lot of people don’t realize they’re already engaging with AI, even when they write an email,” says Cathy Hackl, a tech futurist and metaverse expert. “In some ways, spell-check is a very primitive form of AI.”
Now, AI is coming for our wardrobes, too, in the form of Humane’s Pin, Rewind’s Pendant and Meta’s Ray-Ban smart glasses. In 2022, the global wearable AI market size was valued at more than $27 billion. By 2031, it’s expected to reach over $221 billion, according to Straits Research. The trend seems inevitable. Not only because AI is furiously forging ahead, but because we have become so reliant on our devices that it seems like a natural next step.
Isn’t that a smartphone in your pocket?
First Bugs, Then Features
“Your iPhone is kind of an accessory right now,” says Hackl. Still, obvious questions remain: Do we actually need to wear our devices? Do you need sunglasses to snap photos? Does a recorder around your neck that captures conversations solve problems, or create them? And how much value do these products add beyond the functionality of a smartphone? For Hackl, this is all part of the path to progress. She argues that in order for AI to be more functional, we need to engage with it on a daily basis. “For AI to be able to navigate the physical world with us and understand our surroundings and be able to interact with us in more useful ways, it will have to evolve into some type of wearable,” she says.
Putting on the Ray-Ban Meta Wayfarer smart glasses feels partly cool and partly creepy. Tap one small button on the top of the arm and you can snap a photograph or record a video (for up to a minute), which can be immediately Bluetoothed to your phone and livestreamed on social media. They look like any regular pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers — the same design, weight and feel. Except for the fact that they make you feel like an amateur spy.
Leading up to the second generation launch in October, sales, retention and usage of the $299 product were sluggish (out of some 300,000 devices sold, the Meta glasses reportedly had only 27,000 monthly active users by February 2023). This may very well be because they don’t have extraordinary capabilities (yet), and also because they raise fundamental questions around privacy and security.
“There’s a lot more pervasive data collection that goes on in these devices than people realize. When you own them, you have to sign off on so many different things,” says Emily Wengert, executive principal of experience innovation at Huge. “There’s the privacy of the owner of these objects that has to be considered,” she adds, but “there’s also the non-opt-in privacy impacts that happen to everybody else.” Wengert, who owns a pair, sees value when snapping her kids while playing with them on the playground, but she’s also healthily skeptical about the wearers capturing images without a subject’s consent. “I can wear the sunglasses, and because they’re not ubiquitous in society, very few people realize what they are,” she adds.
The same goes for Humane’s AI Pin and software company Rewind’s Pendant, which is a small bullet-shaped recording device that dangles around your neck like a locket. Though it’s not yet on the market (the recorder will launch in 2024), the Pendant concept is a bit different. According to its makers, it’s not intended to replace a mobile phone, as the others aim to do — but rather be an add-on. “The goal of the Pendant is to be an extension of what we started on the Mac and iPhone, and soon Windows,” says CEO and co-founder Dan Siroker, whose software company already has some 70,000 subscribers. “Which is to capture more variants day to day, namely things you say and hear, [then] use that as context to offer you a personalized AI.” While many may be wary of a product that can secretly record things, the company has marketed the device as one that’s intended to summarize meetings, draft an email, and much more. It also promises secure privacy features. “The most basic concept is that we don’t capture people’s voices without their consent,” says Siroker, adding that if the speaker does not agree to being recorded, the device will capture a one-way conversation.
While the product is technically a wearable, Siroker doesn’t view it as a fashion accessory. “I’m not building a product because I want it to feel like a status symbol,” he says. “It’s actually quite the opposite. Our product will probably be $59, which is much more accessible to everyday people.”
But Humane’s debut down the runway with one of fashion’s most famous faces and Meta’s collaboration with an iconic eyewear brand is proof that wearables are seeping into the fashion world at a very attainable level and will likely continue to do so.
Tech, But Make It Fashion
“I definitely think fashion brands are paying attention,” says Hackl. “I think other conglomerates are definitely eyeing what is coming next on the spatial computing side. It is all going to be a mixture of technology and fashion coming together for these devices to look good.” But we’re not there yet. And while the problem-solving value of the sunglasses, Pendant and pin is debatable, what these products definitely provide is a bridge to help us wrap our brains around AI as it rapidly changes. So why not make them chic?
“Our culture and technology are deeply intertwined. In order to survive, fashion brands have an obligation to be arbiters and voices in that culture. In terms of how a fashion brand shows its edge? There’s no question that technology is one of those ways.”
The argument can also be made that the foundational capabilities of generative AI are so disruptive, it’s imperative that it evolves in tandem with society. “These are transitional devices on the way to what will truly become whatever replaces our computers and mobile phones,” adds Hackl. “The perfect vision would be Ray-Ban Meta smart glasses that can do what the Apple Vision Pro can do.” Apple’s mixed-reality headset has greater capabilities than the smart glasses, with the ability to bring 3D objects to life, but they look more like ski goggles than slick sunnies. Good for immersive experiential entertainment, but maybe not for Sunday brunch.
At least not in 2023, but maybe in 2024; remember the days when tiny white AirPods dangling out of people’s ears looked strange and Apple Watches felt more like phones strapped to people’s arms than actual watches? Now, they’re part of people’s everyday style choices. “Whatever device you end up transitioning to, it will be a conscious decision,” says Hackl. “And in some ways, a fashion statement.”