PSFK 2017 Speaker Interview: The Key To Wearable Tech Is Not To Focus On The Tech

PSFK 2017 Speaker Interview: The Key To Wearable Tech Is Not To Focus On The Tech
Design

We spoke with Billie ahead of her update talk at PSFK 2017 about the biggest ideas and shifts that we'll be seeing in wearable tech industry in 2017 and beyond

Emily Wasik
  • 15 may 2017

Billie will be giving us a sneak peek of her latest wearable tech innovations at our PSFK 2017 conference on May 19. Get your tickets today before they sell out!

When people think wearable tech, they think holographic headsets, smart glasses or tech-infused streetwear. Basically, the “a computer just threw up on me” look. It’s as if donning the most flashy VR headset is the rivalrous engine revving of today’s day and age. But what Wearable X Founder & CEO Billie Whitehouse has discovered is that consumers don’t actually care that much about tech or data, but rather about how these things makes them feel.

Channeling this truth, Billie has become an expert at integrating electronics into apparel so it doesn’t look or feel like technology. Combining function with fashion to a tee, Wearable X’s creations are design-led, implementing what she likes to call the “language of the body” to be more invisible and intuitive. Similar to writing a song, the apparel changes the frequency, intonation and placement of  different sensations on the body.

Although she’s been compared to Elon Musk by industry insiders, Billie says her version of the future doesn’t look like a cyborgian “Black Mirror” episode like his, but is rather more dreamy and enchanting. Over the past three years, Wearable X has launched vibrating underwear, a navigation product (that she demonstrated at PSFK 2014) and a fan jersey across three different continents. On May 31, Billie and her team are releasing a yoga line that can correct your form with directional haptic feedback and tell in real time what pose you’re in and how to improve it.

We spoke with Billie about focusing on being design-led over appearing like a flashing light and the biggest ideas and shifts that we’ll be seeing in wearable tech industry in 2017 and beyond.

PSFK: For our readers and conference attendees that haven’t heard of Wearable X, can you describe what the company does and how the business concept came about?

Billie: We specialize in electronics in clothing. Our career escalated when we built vibrating knickers for couples in long distance relationships for Durex. Which was, of course, when I presented three years ago when I did my first PSFK event. A very hilarious product, a very entertaining journey, something I probably wouldn’t publish. Working with a condom company had its challenges. Definitely needs some lubrication (laughs). Excuse me, I couldn’t help it (laughs).

That’s where we started our journey. What we became experts at was how to integrate electronics into apparel so it doesn’t feel or look like technology. It became invisible and a little bit more intuitive.

We became experts in this what I like to call the language of the body, which is quite similar to writing a song. We change the frequency and the intonation and the placement of these different sensations on the body. It really does mean something very, very different every time you change it.

We’ve experimented with that for three years in several different use cases. What I presented at PSFK three years ago was a NYC Navigate product. Then we went and launched a fan jersey product. We launched that across three different continents.

All learning different iterations of the tech, but also the different types of audiences that were out there and how to target it. On May 31, we’re focused on a yoga line which we’ll be releasing quite literally the week of the conference, which will be amazing.

It can correct your form using directional haptic feedback, which is vibration on the body and can tell in real time what pose you’re in and how you might improve that pose.



Unlike other wearable tech pioneers, you aren’t inventing hyperloops or electric cars. In fact, you said at a former PSFK conference that, “We don’t want you to be a flashing light.” Can you elaborate on what you meant by this?

At the beginning of the wearable tech phase, everyone went guns blazing with high-tech everything to make a little noise. It’s like that in every industry. What we wanted to do was to be design-led first—to create products that centered more around how it made you feel, that you’d even want to purchase  without the technology in it.

That’s been a big motivation for starting this new yoga line where it really is about focusing primarily on the attractiveness of these yoga pants and bras, but also enjoying the subtly inbuilt technology.

Seed-stage investor Samit Shah once compared you to Elon Musk. How did that feel? 

It’s obviously a huge compliment to be compared to someone who is trying to pioneer something so drastic. At the time in my life when that comparison was made, I was actually going through a quantified self-phase, where I was making sure I was living really efficiently with everything down to a T. So perhaps that would’ve been a fair comparison to him at that point in his life because he does run his life like a machine. I would say I have evolved beyond that now, though. I’m lucky to be able to say that. I don’t actually think that I was built to behave like a machine. Emotions play a much bigger part in not only my design process, but also in the way I live my life. My version of the future is far more like a Harry Potter book or film that encompasses nostalgia and the magic of technology rather than this fear-driven, almost cyborg-esque version of the future. Ultimately I think that we need more designers running the show these days and less engineers.

When did your interest in wearable tech first begin?

I was working for my mother’s business, which is a design institute in Australia. I was tasked with building a 10 year plan and strategy around what new technologies and industries would become available to not just designers, but students and everyone in the fashion industry, from creative directors to 3D modelers.

I made a great pitch on five different directions the institute could take—one of which was pitched around IoT, sensors and wearables. Another was centered around customization. Another was centered around gaming. Another one was 3D printing.

Through that, I saw that my interest in wearables and sensors was far more prominent than anything else that I really was working on. Then when someone eventually asked me to work on a project like this, I literally had a thousand ideas in my head and felt like, “I’ve got to do this. I’ve never been this excited about anything before.”

How did your upbringing with your mother being a successful entrepreneur and your sibling being an Olympic skier influence you in your career?

At the time, I don’t think you realize the connection. I think it’s all by osmosis, really. Having said that, it’s ironic when I look back at it all now because my dad’s main business when I was growing up was importing ski gear, which is a highly technical product. He was involved in everything from in-line skates to skis to rubber duckies, so it certainly makes sense that today I’m interested in sport technology. On the flip side, I would say I’m a very equal 50/50 split between my mother and father. I grew up in a household that was quite like “Absolutely Fabulous” and I was Saffy—the stuck-up daughter that had very eccentric mothers and friends. I say mothers because I’m one of seven from four different marriages, so I grew up with all three women in my father’s life as a core part of my life. They were all as eccentric as each other. Perhaps it’s that colorful background that keeps your mind open to whatever comes rather than thinking that you’re going to have a very traditional life. I certainly wasn’t brought up traditionally.

On a topic of inspiration, where do you get your inspiration from for your creations, like the Alert Shirt, the Navigate Blazer and the yoga pants that you’re currently launching?

Great question. I could easily say that it’s data driven, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. I think if you’re a true anthropologist, it’s easy to predict what’s going to come next.

That being said, no one could have estimated how much time people spend in their yoga pants. I enjoy being surprised and delighted by the way people live their lives.

I would say that most of my inspiration comes from watching people. That’s in all walks of life, whether I’m on the subway in New York, sitting in a park or traveling from place to place. I find that time to sit and observe really, really important.

Beyond that, I think I’m surrounded by some really exceptional people. This is certainly not a one-woman show. The people around me, from my co-founders to our manufacturers to our team in New York, are such a huge inspiration. Their access to a part of America that I don’t fully understand is going to be really valuable moving forward.

Who are some of your clients and what are the designs that you’re currently working on?

I have signed my life away in NDAs so I can’t say too much about who we’re working with specifically. That being said, I can openly say that we’re really excited to be exploring more sports industries in the US and in Europe. When it comes to our own designs, I’m really focused on delivering a new yoga collection in May. We’re going to do drops where we launch one line, and then another, and another one a couple of months after that.

I’m also already in the process of designing for 2018. I actually didn’t drink for the first two weeks in January. It was so wonderful to just stay at home and draw. I haven’t done that in way too long. 

When a client does order a product, what is the process that goes into producing the desired results?


Usually it’s a four-step process. Normally, we engage them in a discovery phase first, which isn’t a huge amount of investment on their behalf, but it enables us to dedicate the right number of engineers and designers, and facilitate everything a room with their team to really determine what the guidelines of the projects are.

That is because—and I can say this in all transparency—building a wearable technology project and an ecosystem is like running six businesses at once. There is an industrial design project. There is a garment apparel project. There is an integration project, which can sometimes be separated out into two. There is a hardware project, which includes firmware and software. Then there’s a pure software, which is UX and UI, and then there’s the business marketing aspect of it all. 

It’s a little bit bonkers, which is why that first discovery phase is really important. It means that you’re aligned on what all of the outcomes are going to be and you can properly cost-estimate it for the three to six months that it takes to actually build it up properly.

We’ve now changed the process a few times, but I’m very grateful to have been able to go through so many different versions of how we build. Now we have a strategic partner, a company called MAS Holdings. They are a manufacturer in Sri Lanka, and they manufacture for Nike, Lululemon, Victoria Secret, sometimes Ralph Lauren, Gap, you name it. At one point, they had a touch point across intimates, active wear and apparel. They were the right partner for us and they’ve been amazing, but they’re also a big company of 80,000 employees. Working with them, we can actually build these product pipelines that are sustainable, where yes, you do the innovation. We’ve done the discovery phase. Then we do the building, where we do the actual scoping. It’s like pre-manufacturing. Then we go into the manufacturing phase, and then post-manufacturing. Sometimes you engage with people and they only do the discovery phase, because then they realize, “Oh, wow. This is really expensive,” or, “This isn’t the ecosystem we want to exist in.” Regardless, we’ve learned along the way, and I feel very grateful to having had those experiences. 

What are some of the biggest ideas and shifts that we’ll be seeing in wearable tech industry in 2017 and beyond?

I’m particularly excited about a couple of the sensors that haven’t really been explored in our space yet. Some of it probably isn’t going to be released in 2017, but probably by 2020. I’m really excited to see people do more with graphing from a sensor perspective, like with moisture and temperature. I’m really excited to see this new space of basically trying to explore and understand our hormones. From a female perspective, I think that’s fascinating, because they’re a very misunderstood area of our bodies. That’s an area that I would love to see explored further.

When it comes to actual apparel integration, there’s some beautiful haptic polymers that are coming out of a company called Vivitouch, owned by Bayer. I’d like to see those things get to a cost that is reasonable for consumer use. 

On the Wearable X front, we’d love to execute energy harvesting on the body. We’re not going to build the tech ourselves for this, but we would happily be the brand that owns and explores it for consumer use. 

When do you predict that the average consumer will be able to afford to purchase something like that?

It’s getting cheaper, smaller and faster every three months. I think we are hesitant with some of these technologies purely because they haven’t been designed to fit our lives. We sort of project this future were, “Oh, you’ll be a cyborg and you’ll have embeddables,” rather than presenting what the many phases are to get us there.
As we do with technology, we hype up the worst-case scenario rather than getting people to understand the little incremental moments and potentially how it could be really magical. 

This is a bit off-topic, but I actually met a man who is starting the cyborg Olympics. He was running the last presidency, as well. His name is Zoltan. He was driving around Middle America in a hearse, telling everyone that death was dead. This is a real person and we spoke at the same conference! He was petitioning for a cyborg Olympics to take place alongside the usual Olympics, and that being a realistic future that we should all prepare for.

Sounds like an interesting character! Do you know how successful he was with his pitch? 

I’m not 100% sure. But what I do know is that my version of a tech future is that we wouldn’t need to implant it. We would wear it in a really delightful way that produces the magic that you’re after for a certain experience. Then, once we have properly created the ecosystem, from connected homes to self-driving cars that are currently still in their infancy, then we’ll have systems that can interact and create beautiful experiences. We just have a long way to go.

On that note, what are some of the important consumer attitudes or behaviors around wearable tech that you see shaping the marketplace?

To answer this, I’ll give you a little side story. I have amazing serendipity. One Christmas I was at a bar outside of New York and a man walked in who happened to be the highest distributor of wearable tech in America, specifically for Fitbit. His company is called Wynit. We got into a huge discussion and I asked him, “Are you selling mostly to women or men?” And he answered, “Actually, it’s really 50-50.” Then I asked, “What parts of America are acquiring this and using it the most?” He said that Fitbit doesn’t share their user data with him, but he certainly knows what areas in America are purchasing it, and that it’s not necessarily just the coasts. Middle America is catching up more than ever before.

If you think about how long it’s been around, it’s an old company, and it’s really generating a lot more traction in Middle America now than it ever has before. There’s always a hype curve, which we’ve already seen for wearables and then there’s a drop after 90 days where a lot of people stop using. Where we had a point of difference is that we actually don’t see ourselves as a gadget or a tech product. Our products are, first and foremost, apparel pieces. Our yoga pants are equally useful as yoga pants as they are as tech products.

What do you think is the biggest thing you’ve learned about the industry since you started out?

So, this is “mic drop” moment. People don’t care about data. There’s the general consumer, doesn’t necessarily care about their personal data. They just care about how they feel. It turns out that if they’re doing steps, they feel good. The actual step itself doesn’t really matter to them.

That’s why what we specialize in is that sensation back on the body. You can take this as you will. It certainly is a little bit of marketing jargon. For me, we are the most personalized form of data that you can ever experience, because you are feeling your personal data on your body.

If you could go back and give the younger you advice about starting out, what would it be?

All of the phases that I’ve been through, certainly, when it came to going through the hyper efficiency phase, versus going through that really emotional phase where you get so attached to what you’re building.

I both think those are phases are really important. This is actually not my quote, it’s someone else’s, but she said, “If by the time you release your product, you’re no longer embarrassed by the product, you waited too long.”

I somewhat agree with that, but what I would tell my younger self is that patience is one of the most, I would say, almost magical things you can get in building a company, because nothing ever happens as fast as you would like it to.

Being comfortable with that uncomfortableness is something that took me a lot longer to learn. I would have encouraged myself to learn that earlier. [laughs] It’s not an easy answer, but I think comes in the unknowing of what might happen.

Thanks for your insight, Billie! Come see Billie take the stage to talk about her latest wearable tech innovations at our PSFK 2017 conference on May 19. Get your tickets today before they sell out!

Billie is the designer and director of Wearable X, a firm that specializes in the combination of hardware, software and apparel for wearable technology products. Forbes recently compared Billie and her co-founder Ben Moir to Steve Jobs and Jerry Seinfeld. Known for her development of Nadi and Fan Jersey recently presented at Super Bowl 50, Billie is invigorating the fashion industry and transforming it into a business focused on improving the quality of our lives.

Billie will be giving us a sneak peek of her latest wearable tech innovations at our PSFK 2017 conference on May 19. Get your tickets today before they sell out!

When people think wearable tech, they think holographic headsets, smart glasses or tech-infused streetwear. Basically, the “a computer just threw up on me” look. It’s as if donning the most flashy VR headset is the rivalrous engine revving of today’s day and age. But what Wearable X Founder & CEO Billie Whitehouse has discovered is that consumers don’t actually care that much about tech or data, but rather about how these things makes them feel.

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+Electronics
+Fashion
+fitness
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+psfk 2017
+Public
+technology
+wearable technology
+yoga

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