Wearable tech: who wears it?

Look carefully at the wrists of those around you and you will likely see someone sporting an activity tracker of some kind – a Nike Fuelband, a Fitbit or even a Misfit Shine. Bright and shiny, these health and fitness gadgets are a new type of personal accessory: devices, which in the words of Jawbone, makers of the Up, promise to ‘understand how you sleep, move and eat so you can make smarter choices’. The longevity of their appeal is however already in question. In recent weeks Nike has announced that the Fuelband is no more. There is more money in trainers, and the mobile phones we all carry exceed the function of any one of the wristbands currently on the market. For Alex Wiltshire writing in Dezeen this is evidence of their being a future that ‘still hasn’t quite happened’. While this may well be the case for the personalised wearable tech market, for some this future is already here.

The Motorola WT4000 Wearable Terminal is a wearable device that similarly makes use of data analysis and quantified feedback to improve performance. Classed as a labour-saving product, the WT4000 is used by companies, such as Tesco, with large-scale distribution networks to increase accuracy and efficiency within their warehouse operations. Worn by workers on the wrist or at the hip, the device allots tasks and tracks goods removing the need for pen and paper. The display verifies task completion and should the wrong item be selected, the wearer is immediately alerted.

Motarola WT4000 Wearable Terminal

The Motorola WT4000 first came to our attention just over a year ago when The Telegraph published allegations made by a former employee at a Tesco distribution centre in Ireland. He claimed that data collected from wrist-worn devices was being used to grade staff performance with those not meeting expectations being called before the boss. ‘The guys who made the scores were sweating buckets and throwing stuff around the place’, he added. This story was the second in a week in the national press to draw attention to wearable computing devices and their impact on the work environment. On 8 February 2013, The Financial Times ran an article on working conditions at the eight Amazon warehouses located across the UK. Employees interviewed at the Rugeley site complained of the blisters developed as they strove to fulfil tasks allocated via handheld computers. Devices which on top told them in real-time whether they were ahead or behind target in their race against the computerised clock.

The Motorola WT4000 is a sophisticated piece of wearable technology in its own right. Yet as an object of contemporary design at a given moment in time it is as interesting, if not more so, for what it tell us about how our jobs are changing. It is a device that enables the piecemeal allocation of work while at the same time gathering data about how this work is executed. Analysis of this data to optimise productivity is today’s equivalent the time-and-motion studies first carried out by F.W. Taylor a century ago. Now as then, the debate is about how such new technologies strip workers of initiative and reduce their effort to the machine-like repetition of standardised tasks. Devices such as the always-on, always-connected WT4000 make possible a new type of work. Knowing where things are, where they need to go, and what’s next is entrusted to an automated system. A networked computer is taskmaster, assigning an ever-changing roster of tasks across a workforce without need for human interaction.

Whether or not we own a Nike Fuelband or Jawbone UP, or even if they are only a fad, wearable technologies are a reality for thousands of people every day. The WT4000 is the flipside of the extreme efficiency we so enjoy when ordering a book for next day delivery or our groceries selected, packed and delivered to our doorstep.

The Motorola WT4000 is one of a series of objects we have collected over the course of the last year as part of the Contemporary team’s Rapid Response Collecting strategy. Others include the world’s first 3D-printable gun, an IKEA soft toy wolf, a pair of Primark jeans and a length or KONE UltraRope which makes it possible for a lift to travel a kilometre into the sky. Rapid Response Collecting is about being responsive to global events and situating design in immediate relation to moments of political, economic or social change. It is about paying attention to objects that shape, and are shaped by, how we live together in the 21st century.

Soft toy wolf Lufsig, designed for and manufactured by IKEA, 2013

Denim Co Slim Jeans, manufactured for and sold by Primark, 2013

UltraRope, designed and manufactured by KONE, 2013

The Motorolla WT4000 will be exhibited as part of our Rapid Response Collecting display opening on 5 July 2014 in G74.

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