SXSW 2014 Presents: Next-Level Wearable Tech

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Hype for wearables at this year’s SXSW was decidedly mixed as insiders debated the pros and cons of smartwatches, sensory fabrics, and fitness bands. “The experiences of today’s wearables are pretty mediocre,” said Rodrigo Martinez, IDEO’s chief strategist of life sciences during a SXSW panel titled, “The Connected Body: Can We Get Value from Wearables?” “Every week, we have a new one that measures 80 percent of the same thing that another measures, just in a different form, a different color, a different plastic.” Meanwhile, other companies are embracing the trend wholeheartedly. Here are a few that caught our eye.

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) is encouraging developers to create apps for wearable devices that run on Android. Senior vice president Sundar Pichai announced at SXSW that the company will be releasing a software development kit in two weeks to help standardize the exchange of data. Although details are still scarce about whether or not Google itself is working on new wearables — despite rumors of an LG Google smartwatch — Pichai claims that the company is “thinking much more broadly” than just smartwatches. One example of an impending app for Glass is ShopFlash, which will notify wearers when they are near a store that sells something on their wishlist, take photos of items to add to aforementioned list, and check around for better prices at nearby locations.

If you thought digital dresses were solely in the realm of Hunger Games couture, think again. Italian company CuteCircuit makes wearable wireless fashions for trendsetters with a flair for the dramatic. It all started back in 2007 with the Hug Shirt, which is pretty much what it sounds like a shirt with tiny sensors that allows wearers to send long-distance hugs. At the time, the company was unprepared for the level of response they’d receive at the Wired NextFEST, but now they’ve got a slew of famous fans. Katy Perry has donned CuteCircuit gowns in music videos, onstage, and at major events like the MET Institute Costume Gala in New York. The members of U2 also wore jackets hand-embedded with over 5000 pixels apiece for the North American leg of their 360º tour.

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On SXSW’s Next Stage, CuteCircuit showed off a miniskirt that can broadcast live tweets, a graphic t-shirt that played tiger videos, and a stylish dress adorned with thousands of LED lights. CuteCircuit also shared plans for a dress that functions as a cell phone. “When people call you, your dress rings,” co-founder Francesca Rosella explained. It is also and a T-shirt OS that could connect to social media devices, play music, and take pictures.

Silicon Valley startup Skully Helmets won the SXSW Accelerator Award in the wearable tech category, offering motorcyclists what they call augmented reality helmets. This includes a voice-controlled heads-up display system, GPS navigation, full 180-degree rearview camera, and Bluetooth connectivity so that they no longer have to take their eyes off the road or rely on mirrors. Founder Marcus Weller says that the cost will be comparable to that of Google Glass, and that the helmets will run Android software as well.

Accelerator Awards finalist Bionym offered up the Nymi, a thin rubber wristband that authenticates users’ identities for various devices and services based on their unique cardiac rhythms, creating an entirely key-free environment. “Think about your computer, smartphone, tablet,” explained co-founder Karl Martin. “You won’t need a password anymore. [It] will always be unlocked if it knows it’s you.” The Toronto-based company already has 8,000 pre-orders for the Nymi (it costs $79), and nearly as many developers lined up to design apps. It is also exploring other wearable options like necklaces and earrings.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article said that Skully was already in a partnership with Harley-Davidson. Skully has now confirmed that is not the case. Skully has only been in conversations with Harley-Davidson as of this writing.

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