When the word “wearables” crops up in the media, or even in conversation, it’s likely in reference to the latest data-mining gadget to hit our wrists (and our wallets). But for Jinsoo An—an experience designer, researcher, and tinkerer from Seoul—wearables are far from a new idea.
Continuum had the pleasure of hosting Jinsoo An at our L.A. studio last Wednesday for a lunchtime lecture on the topic of “Useless + Improbable Wearables.” Jin took us back several centuries as he recapped the full history of wearable technology, beginning with the first pair of eyeglasses in the 13th century and highlighting some of the 20th century’s strangest variations. Contemporary wearables earned the most laughs, from the Like-A-Hug vest that inflates when you get a “Like” on Facebook, to the baby onesie that doubles as a broom, to the wearable chair that will get you off your feet, wherever you are.
But it’s more than a joke to Jin. When it comes to developing wearables for today’s connected consumers, Jin sees serious potential in the past. His argument is this: each failed attempt at a new wearable device — however useless and improbable it may seem — was originally conceived in reaction to a real human problem.
Take, for instance, the “Face-Kini.” A full-coverage mask meant to protect Chinese women from sun exposure, wearers of the masks attracted worldwide media attention for their eerie and unsettling appearance. While to many Westerners the masks may look nightmarish, the Face-Kini seeks to solve a practical problem for women in China. In a culture where a fair complexion equates social status and wealth, a wearable device that protects the female face from damaging UV rays is nothing short of a must-have.
Jin’s fascination with wearables is rooted in his passion for interactions—and in particular, the unique and often bewildering interactions that occur between people and new technologies. It’s Jin’s empathy toward the most awkward of these encounters that sets him apart. For Jin, each attempt at a new wearable device, however absurd it may seem, contains at its core a nugget of pragmatism and purpose. Factors like insufficient technology or a lack of cultural understanding can derail the outcome of what began as a very good idea. But if you peel back the layers, the underlying intent in many failed wearables is still keenly valuable. Improve the end-user interaction, and resurrect a lost solution.
It was this revelation that prompted Jin to open the first hacker space for wearables, located in downtown Los Angeles. Kokiri Lab opened last spring, and offers a space and a toolset for anyone as curious as he is about what lies beneath the surface of the world’s abandoned wearables. Not surprisingly, the lab’s first serious venture was born out of a moment of nostalgia. At dinner with friends, Jin recalled a scene from the 90’s film, “Hook”, involving an imaginary food fight. What if it were actually possible to feed on your imagination? Project Nourished explores a concept that many in L.A. no doubt find exciting: a way to eat your favorite foods without consuming a single calorie. With a virtual headset and printable “food” items that trigger sensory responses, an individual can consume full meals without the risk of excessive calorie intake or allergic reaction.
After all, a scorned new technology is precisely Jin’s sweet spot. Where others see the useless and improbable, Jin sees the future.