When it comes to wearable technology, the talk is always about startups. What can this startup do to “revolutionize” the wrist, how much can that startup pack into a device the size of a ring? But as the startup culture pervades the fashion tech world, we wanted to know how a 60-year-old insurance company could possibly influence what is going on in the world of wearables- and VSP Global’s innovation lab “The SHOP” is answering in a bold way.
We sat down recently with Jay Sales and Leslie Muller, two incredibly conscientious pioneers in the world of wearables, to find out more. Sales runs the Sacramento outpost of The SHOP, focusing on software and hardware (“the bits”) and Muller runs the NYC outpost, focused on manufacturing and materials (“the atoms”.) In a world inundated with “revolutionary startups,” The SHOP is approaching wearable technology from the smartest angle possible: the consumer.
“The world of health care needs a design-hyperextended-shot in the water… Nobody approaches health care in the design fashion that they need to.”
That statement, from Jay Sales, lead of The SHOP West, is the profound difference that this 60-year-old not-for-profit company is offering the wearable tech space.
We’ve all seen if before: the promising Kickstarter that offers to change everything we thought we knew about fitness or human behavior, that then tanks because funding never came, or the goal was too lofty, or the challenges too daunting.
The SHOP wants to change all that.
According to Leslie Muller, lead of The SHOP East, anyone designing wearables needs to ask themselves two questions:
“How do you make the best user experience?”
“How does it help you?”
From a consumer perspective, the only two things that really matter are “I want a better experience,” and “I want a better life.”
Understanding who you serve is crucial to the process, and for VSP Global, that audience is their 77 million members covered by health care. (This makes them the largest health insurance company in America.) By taking advantage of the substantial platform that eyewear provides, The SHOP is able to expand features and functionality based on the inherent necessity of eyewear by so much of the population.
According to Sales, wearables face a 60-90 day cliff, during which wearables either end up in the washing machine or disappearing into the oblivion of a bedside table. Eyewear though, already solves a problem. It’s already socially acceptable, and the choice to wear glasses or not is virtually predetermined at birth. With over 700 years since their invention, Muller offers that eyewear is the original technology; the only platform to be designed to sit right in the middle of people’s faces.
And that’s huge.
As startups battle for valuable real estate on the consumer’s body, The SHOP is looking to disrupt what it already knows. Rather than adding another device, or reinventing eyewear, the innovation lab is using its “Project Genesis” to create a wearables experience that is both enticing and beautiful.
What is Project Genesis?
From a technology standpoint, the push is to eliminate the “stigma” of wearables. The question Sales believes the project should answer is: “Can we make it smaller, to make it disappear?”
Our advisor Josh Clark has written on the dreaded Data Rash, and Project Genesis is working diligently to eliminate it. As Muller put it, the project is about “reframing what a frame is;” delivering wearable technology that not only provides enough data that it serves a purpose, but doing so in a way that doesn’t compromise the form-factor that consumers have already grown accustomed to.
Most importantly, wearables should help consumers, not add complexity to their lives.
Simplifying complexity is inherently tough to crack, though. Numbers and charts and endless streams of data are what technology is built on—but that shouldn’t necessarily be exposed to the end user. Project Genesis is currently packed with a gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer, which collects information so precise that the way a person walks can be detected by the glasses. The reason it’s possible is the central location that a pair of glasses is guaranteed to sit; above the shoulders, on the bridge of the nose, right on the midline of the wearer—and with the help of some incredibly intense filters, the data being collected is astonishingly accurate.
Wrists have nothing on the face.
Consider this: with other fitness trackers, say a wrist-based platform, activities are generally tracked throughout the day to relay whether or not you moved enough based on predetermined goals. But, those same trackers often confuse activities, like mistaking a cab ride for a nice bike around the city—and that creates a severe disconnect between what’s tracked and what’s real.
While it’s nice to get the credit for the bike ride without any extra effort, the data being collected and relayed to you is no longer providing information worth looking at. For many, this is why devices go missing in drawers never to be seen again.
Project Genesis is aiming to avoid that black hole of wearable technology. Based in the frame of your glasses, the sensors don’t interfere or impede your vision in any way. In fact, compared to other glasses, in most cases the frames actually end up weighing less than conventional frames, offering a seamless integration of tech into everyday life.
And yes, it is everyday. Because unlike wrist-based platforms, eyewear consumers that need their glasses for optical reasons, are guaranteed to interact with the platform all the time. The SHOP takes that one step further in the idea that glasses are the only wearable that a user already wears all day.
Imagine what that could do on a scale of 77 million members. As Muller said, she’s worn glasses since she was 15; how powerful could the insights collected in that period of time be now? How powerful will it be as we move forward? And what effect is it having as we shift the eyewear paradigm?
Of course, that is an incredibly difficult amount of data to process, raising questions from the consumer perspective about what that information is being used for.
As a not-for-profit though, VSP Global has no investors, so the data is purely collected to better serve their members. This really sets the company apart. By focusing on the culture and the empathy naturally developed in the structure of the company, VSP has been able to set its foundations on its stated values instead of spreadsheets of margins; ultimately guiding the company toward the goal of the democratization of health care.
As fashion and technology ebb and flow toward the future, wearables can offer a wealth of services to the world, from early detection of injury to providing a new level of choice. Sales points out that the culture necessary to cultivate these types of quality maneuvers “gets lost in IoT and wearables all the time.”
Through collaboration though, it’s possible. Throughout their myriad of collaborations, from Google Glass to Nike, The SHOP has remained an “agile, flexible team of teams,” that understands the value of disruption theory. It’s a theory Sales credits the Glass team for embracing and embodying despite what the rest of popular culture may have thought about the project. “People like them, pushing the boundaries, created what is really a wake behind them for people to either ride or to get washed over with.”
Google Glass “punched a hold in the wall” when it fame to the mainstream adoption of wearables.
They embraced fashion, understood the importance of the fashion element and pursued the best design they could build. In the idea of disruption theory, it was an important moment for wearables: not only was Google attempting to solve problems for the user, they put an effort into having the user look good while they did it.
And now, with their own Project Genesis, The SHOP is embracing the need for fashion in wearables, understanding that great tech should offer great choice, and that infinite choices can allow the user the independence and individuality that is reflected in the data the device collects. Trends change, eyewear is updated, and wearables should inherently acknowledge the free-flowing thought process of the fashion world.
With incredible brands already in-house through VSP Global’s Marchon Eyewear division, choice is nearly endless.
The SHOP and Project Genesis are working to provide members with some of the world’s most comprehensive wearable technology, and doing it in a way that makes this astonishing technology accessible to the vast population of glasses wearers.
We asked what was next for Project Genesis, what we could expect in the future, and we were told, “We’re building the guardrails; we’re building the roads for the next two steps.”
In a world filled with empty promises from startups with half-baked imaginings of innovation, we can’t wait to see what Project Genesis has to offer. The future is always coming, and the road being built by The SHOP is one we want to keep going down.
This article is taken from Issue Two of Third Wave Magazine. Get your subscription here!
Written by Jeff Wilber and photos by Paige Hogan. Third Wave Fashion has been your fashion tech think tank since 2011. We publish the first ever printed fashion tech magazine, Third Wave. Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter to stay on top of the latest in fashion tech + wearables.