Wearable technologies in sci-fi


Recently I was interviewed for The Creators Project about wearable technologies for the Intel Make It Wearable Challenge, both for my (old) role as a designer and managing director at Cooper and in relation to sci-fi interfaces. In that interview I referenced a few technologies from the survey relevant to our conversation. Video is a medium constrained by time, so here on scifiinterfaces.com I hope to give the topic a more thorough consideration.

This is a different sort of post than I’ve put to the blog before, more akin to the chapters from the book. This won’t be about a single movie or television show as much as it is a cross-section from many shows.

Image courtesy of Creative Applications Network

Image courtesy of Creative Applications Network

Defining wearable

What counts? Fortunately we don’t have to work too hard on this definition. The name makes it pretty clear that these are technologies worn on the body, either directly or incorporated into clothing. But there’s two edge cases that might count, but I’ll call out as specifically not wearable.


Carryable technologies—like cell phones, most weapons, or even Ruby Rhod’s staff from The Fifth Element—aren’t quite the same thing. When in use, these technologies occupy one or both of the hands of its user. They also have to be holstered or manually put away when not in use. That introduces some different constraints, microinteractions, and ergonomic considerations. In contrast, wearable technologies don’t need to be fetched from storage. They’re just…there, usable at a moment’s notice. So for purposes of the sci-fi interfaces from the survey, I’m only looking at wearable technologies and not these carryable ones.


Perhaps more controversially, exosuits lie outside the definition. Certainly by definition exosuits are worn. Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit, the loader that Ripley wears in Aliens, or the APUs used to defend Zion in The Matrix: Revolutions are all worn by their users. But these technologies can’t really be donned or removed casually. Users climb into them and strap in, or as with Iron Man, are mechanically sealed inside. That breaks a connotation of the term “wearable” as its used today, and that is that wearable technology fits into our everyday lives. It’s thin, light, and flexible enough to let us ride the bus, have coffee with a friend, or attend to our jobs with little to no disruption. I can’t really see trying to use Ripley’s loader to grab hold of my espresso cup and ask someone about how their day’s gone, so exosuits are out. (Attentive readers note that exosuits are also called out as excluded from of gestural technologies in Chapter 5 of the book. Fans of these cool interfaces must still wait, but someday these devices will get their due attention.)

Catch me soon if I’m wrong in excluding these two categories of tech from wearables, because the remainder of the writeups are based on this boundary.

Even excluding these two, we’re left with quite a bit to consider, reaching almost back to the beginning of cinema. The first sci-fi film, La Voyage Dans La Lune, had nothing we’d recognize as an interface, so of course that’s off the hook. The second, Metropolis, for all of its prescience, puts technology in the furniture and walls of its Upper City, as monstrous edifices in the Lower City, or as the wicked robot Maria.

But the next thing in the survey is the Buck Rogers serials from the 1930s, and there we see a few technologies that are worn. Since then, we’ve seen devices for communication, mind control, biometrics, fashion, gaming, tracking, plus a few nifty one-offs. Of course the survey is just that, the catalog of interfaces captured and documented so far. Sci-fi is vast and has continued since the book was published. If you see any missing by the time I wrap these up, please let me know.

With this introduction complete, the next several posts we’ll look at several examples in details. But the first one is the big one, and that’s the Star Trek combadge.

9 thoughts on “Wearable technologies in sci-fi

  1. I am looking forward to this series and I totally agree with your constraints. I used the same logic when I thought about it. My standard was a bracelet and exosuits (don’t you love we live in an age when exosuit started as a made word for a made up thing and now is a real word and thing?), exosuits just don’t have the same sense of ease of use.

    Also, I just purchased the hard copy of your nerd porn. I look forward to many interface design moments of joy. This blog so made the sale, it has been informative and entertaining. I look forward to seeing a post from here in the daily email slog that has become our present. Funny thing is being science fiction I bet someone foresaw and wrote about the electro-mail having to be sorted and dealt with in the morning hours.

    Speaking of, I need to get back to that, but I have to ask a question since I took the broke-ass shipping at 2-4 weeks and don’t have the book to check.

    Is there a section on “cool interface creates crappy operating environment”? Because the iPad sure suffers from it. Beautiful UI which is so completely tied to the OS that it hampers and even prevents it from fully exploiting the potential of the hardware. Which is a fancy way of saying the damned thing won’t behave like a computer and just unzip the ebook or PDF zip files so I can check. If it functioned like a standard computer OS then it would totally rock and not totally suck rocks. *sigh* I so miss the 7-color Apple Computers.

    Well, here I shall close. Keep up the great work and know that while I mostly lurk, I always read. In fact your guest made want to check out Wally-E with that series of posts which were also very well done.


    • Thanks for the high fives, Craig. I’m always always happy when a lurker delurks for that purpose. Otherwise it an feel like you’re writing into the void.

      I don’t think that exact lesson is there in the book but a) I feel your pain and b) I’m sure you could cobble together a meta lesson that says just that.

      On the bright side, you’ll have in hand a second edition, which has all the errata submitted to the site corrected! So there’s that. 🙂

      • Sweet, always nice to have the errata included. Having just started my career in game design (the pen and paper kind) I am discovering the pain that is errata. Also, that the consumer thinks all good gaming books come with an index.

        As to the high fives, you earned them, you enjoy them. I can’t lie, when I came here and read the post that someone (whose name I forget and who I owe a thank you) linked to. Then I read all the rest of the post and came to appreciate Barberella and finally watched it thanks to your posts on it. And that helmet effect is just too cool, you’re right. Also, takes to long for emergencies. Well, in the end there was an end and I had read all that was online and I was sad. 🙁

        But now, thanks to Overtime I got a copy of the book! (best read in Announcer Voice, like that dude in the Slow Down PSAs, he kills me with his delivery)

        If I get some free time, I might just tackle that metalesson, but I will wait till I have read the book. Which honestly is my favorite medium for reading. Electronic text is fine and all, but nothing beats the interface of a book for information storage. Easier to transport than stone and doesn’t require power like an electronic device does. Also, paper can have notes add to it which makes it more personal.

        Again, thanks for the most excellent work and mostly, I just lurk because I agree with you or have just learned something new and thus nothing to say yet. Plus, it is always nice to meet a fellow Shirow fan. Have you caught or own any of his printed works? Beautiful essays in the backs of the Appleseed translated manga volumes, you should check them out. He sometimes discusses the designs he made and why things look and act like they do in his work.

        Breakfast calls, so I will close here with a minor wall of text but that is mostly the interface. It’s actually not all that much.

  2. Be part of the wearable revolution on January 30, 2014, by joining Golden Networking’s Wearable Computing Conference 2014 New York City (http://wearable-computing-conference.com). Topics to be covered include Key Features of Wearable Technologies, New World for Application Developers, How Wearable Technologies Will Transform the Human Experience, Wearable Computing and its Impact on the Technology Marketplace, and The Future of Wearable Computing Today. RSVP at http://wearablecompcon.eventbrite.com.

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