Forget Google Glass—These Souped-Up Manicures Could Be the Future of Wearable Tech

Adding sensors to your nails could help you quit smoking or remember to water your plants.
Jul 2, 2014·
Patricia Dao is a regular contributor to TakePart. She is a Los Angeles–based serial tech entrepreneur and managing director of the nonprofit Girls in Tech–LA.

Remember when Napster hit the Internet? Everyone was puzzled by the technology behind MP3s, but they quickly became the way we listened to music. And don’t forget those huge brick 1980s cell phones that have evolved into tiny personal assistants, accessible to almost everyone on the planet. Soon we’ll be able to add wearable technology to the list of innovations that will be standard in our everyday lives—and it won’t just be a cool geeky item like Google Glass. In the future, even your manicure could help you live better.

Helping to lead the charge are two MFA candidates from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. Kristina Ortega and Jenny Rodenhouse are meshing the worlds of traditional nail art and wearable technology sensors to offer a unique way to form better habits and remember day-to-day activities through the sense of touch.

Why digitize nail art? “Wearable technology is in its infancy,” Ortega and Rodenhouse write on their website. “The future of wearable devices is still open for interpretation and shaping. Currently, wearables are designed by tech people for tech people.”

The pair realized that nail salons were an ideal place to explore wearable tech integrations that can be used by regular people. Besides, on the fashion front, the vibrant colors, intricate designs, and dazzling jewelry popular in nail art makes adding sensors to your fingertips not so far-fetched.

This spring, through the course Wearable Ecologies, Ortega and Rodenhouse explored the use of different sensors on nail beds and how they can provide benefits to the user. Five sensors were attached to fingers through gel manicures. In the video above you can see some of the experiments in action.

In the first trial, the LED sensors lit up in various colors as each finger tapped the table, resembling a psychedelic techno light show. Entertainment factor aside, the LED light can also be used as a daily alert from your fingertips: No longer will you forget to take your medication or water the plants on time.

Equally impressive is the test case of the “Do/Don’t Touch” distance sensor and vibration motor. It sends a buzz to the user’s fingertips when the individual is about to touch an object. If you’re trying to quit smoking, for example, picking up a cigarette would send a buzz to your finger to remind you to put that thing down.

After Ortega and Rodenhouse did their initial sensor tests, they took a trip to a nail salon to explore the service side of manicures and how sensors could play a role in the experience. They wanted to learn more about the interaction between the client and the nail technician.

The students found the interaction and negotiation about design between client and manicurist intriguing and envisioned a salon in which technicians could create custom nail sensors for clients, similar to the way they make custom nail art designs today.

These observations led to the pair’s proposal for a Pop-Up Sensor Nail Salon. They write on their website that this salon would make “fully customizable wearables. Your nails become a collaboration and a negotiation between you and your technicians. Not only does this new bespoke service industry provide [work for] manicurists, it also provides [jobs] for UX, developers, 3D modellers, electrical engineers and medical doctors.”

They envision a salon where clients can customize what type of sensors are used based on what they’re trying to accomplish. Some people may want LED lights just for looks and entertainment, but others may have legitimate medical needs that a behavior modification sensor can help them with.

Of course, these are early days for nail sensors. But as with MP3s, smartphones, and Google Glass, in another decade, a concept that seems unlikely could become commonplace.