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Wearables are Low-Key on the Rise, So Let’s Just Make Our Own

The 2K17 McGuyvering of Things

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The Internet of Things (IoT) has been creeping into our lives and homes for a while now, but lately internet connected slow cookers and doorbells are sharing bandwidth with much smaller, wearable devices.

One Business Insider report predicts that by 2020 there will be 34 billion devices connected to the internet, and 70% will be IoT products. That’s 24 billion smart egg cartons, backpacks, sneakers, jackets, and bracelets reporting useful (and not so useful) data back to us (and the cloud) about our lives. Manufacturers are making great strides on the aesthetics of wearable IoT, but there are still a lot of real privacy questions to answer.

The rise of IoT raises a lot of good questions about what we do with electronics that have outlived their usefulness? Do we just toss obsolete devices aside?

Or can they be repurposed? Can they be… MacGyver’ed?

No, I’m not proposing to repurpose coffins as jet skis for unexpected aquatic escapes (that’s for next year’s fellows). But I’d love to find a few ways to turn vintage mobile devices into something more interesting than a wind chime or a fire starter.

A quick web search does turn up a few creative ways to re-use a smartphone, but none involve taking the phone all the way apart. The maker community is thriving and full of DIY surveillance projects, most instructions start with new, boxed components from maker marketplaces.

This means we have a fun opportunity.

Most people are simply too afraid to open electronics. There is, however, a community of people who are at least curious. Here at Open Lab we love finding novel ways to share compelling narratives through art and technology. I hope to demystify opening your old electronics and reconstructing them into an IoT-“thing”. And with these newly constructed “things”, comes a space for the everyday person to find their voice and use it to share a story.

For the next year I’ll be experimenting with deconstructing old electronics, gadgets, children’s toys and mobile devices, fashioning them into discreet, wearable surveillance equipment. Along the way, I'll build nearly anything I can out of salvaged circuit boards, cameras, sensors and effectors. I am particularly interested in how first-person storytelling through handmade surveillance equipment encourages a shift from passive media consumption to active media creation.

Conversations about citizen journalism tend to turn quickly to user-generated content and then structured crowdsourcing platforms, and whether an unpaid army of coordinated citizens can take the place of shuttered newsrooms. But we do need much more diverse voices in the stories we see about our world. I’m not interested in replacing professional reporters with volunteers who can do the work for free, but I am interested in giving many more people an opportunity to tell their story and the stories they see throughout their community.

Creating a whole new line of home-brewed wearable surveillance equipment does raise some important questions. Am I dabbling in privacy? Am I dabbling in fashion design? Of course, and unfortunately, the answer to both is yes. However, I’ve determined a north star, of sorts, for myself during this fellowship - accessibility.

I aim to develop a kit that encourages first person story-telling by way of an accessible, open source tool.

So not only do I want you to dismantle your outdated electronics and morph them into a wearable surveillance scarf, I want you to use it to create immersive media content in which others can empathetically align.

Let's get started!

For my first trick... I dismantled a baby monitor.

I’m still looking for your ideas about how it should be reconstructed. So far, we have one nod for a drone.

@afrodjiak I'm putting my money on a drone!

Right now it is discretely filming the Open Lab from the folds of a scarf, but I'd love to know what you think it should be next. Feel free to comment below or even email me - I love talking about my Open Lab project!


Open Lab for Journalism, Technology, and the Arts is a workshop in BuzzFeed’s San Francisco bureau. We offer fellowships to artists and programmers and storytellers to spend a year making new work in a collaborative environment. Read more about the lab or sign up for our newsletter.

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