Wearable technology may be useful, but so far its designs have been clunky and one-size-fits-all. Sure, Google Glass comes in five colors, but I don’t see options for cat-eyes or Buddy Holly-style frames, or anything else that might distinguish the wearer not merely as a Glasshole, but as a stylish Glasshole.
That may change, thanks to a hit of inspiration from nail art—decorative designs, including embedded rhinestones or crackled polish, that create one-off looks. Jenny Rodenhouse and Kristina Ortega, both nail art aficionados, think nail beds could provide the perfect place for unique digital sensors, allowing users to track their movements—or, in the case of someone trying to quit smoking, remind them not to make a familiar gesture, like lighting a cigarette.
“Everyone’s really excited about new technology for wearables,” Ortega tells me. “A lot of wearables are very one-size-fits-all. But they’re meant for the body, which is very intimate, so there’s room for getting really specific and seeing what could happen from that specificity.”
Both Rodenhouse and Ortega were talking about nails when they began researching their project. Rodenhouse typed “sensor-embedded nails” into a shared document while they were brainstorming. “I screamed,” Ortega says. “Because I thought the same thing.”
Women all over the U.S. currently use their nails as canvases for designs that incorporate objects as disparate as studs, hoops, rhinestones, and 3-D printed objects. One of Rodenhouse’s early manicures included a 3-D printed skull—far beyond the realm of picking one of five colors.
Even the tech industry knows that wearables like Google Glass suffer from a “cool” problem—namely, they aren’t. Not only are the options for individual customization limited, many of the devices on the market just aren’t, well, attractive. Clunky watches like the Samsung Galaxy Gear are par for the course. To make the leap into acceptability, wearable technology needs to be something people—regular people, not just tech people—will actually want to wear, even if they aren’t immediately paying attention to it.
The sensors in Rodenhouse and Ortega’s current nail designs are still large and require watch batteries, but it isn’t difficult to imagine a future where the power sources and sensors are smaller. Currently, the women are experimenting with Breadboard nail designs, which would allow them to run circuits on the nails without soldering. “Breadboard is one of the super essential parts of making anything electronic, so can we make that part of the nail aesthetic?” Ortega says.
Unlike many other wearables, which often take the form of watches or wristbands, technological nail art requires ritual self-maintenance, with regular salon updates. Depending on the types of sensors that are embedded, the women hope doctors or programmers might be on hand as well as nail technicians, to help people hone their data. The sensors could allow for coding specific behaviors: One person might want their nails to remind them to quit; another might have an LED light that comes on when it’s time to take a medication.
One of the benefits of targeting nails is that many people are willing to have nails that are too long to be useful—their gorgeous nails make it difficult to pick anything up. While smaller sensors would be great, the two want to see how far people are willing to go.
“We started so radically,” Rodenhouse says. “And now we hear people say, ‘Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, I kind of want an LED on my nail now.’”