Entropy to Empathy: Leaving Theoretical Physics for Wearable Tech

25/06/2015 17:16 BST | Updated 25/06/2016 10:59 BST

For most of my life I have been a theoretical physicist. I worked on quantum gravity trying to unlock the great secrets of the beginning of the universe, the nature of time, what is inside a black hole. I came up with and worked out details of theories of the fundamental structure of spacetime, quantum mechanics, and emergence of space as order. It is an amazing profession and I've had fifteen years of talking and working with some of the best minds in some of the best places. From my PhD at Imperial College in London, to the Perimeter Institute in Canada where I was one of the founders, to sabbaticals at MIT and the Santa Fe Institute for Complex Systems. But I've stopped growing my Einstein-style white hair. I've moved out of cosy universities to a trendy studio in the heart of London. I am now working on a very human, empathic wearable technology called doppel.

I should have known a change was coming a long time ago. When I arrived in Canada to take up my first professor position at Perimeter. I found a lovely house, an old farmhouse with a wonderful living room with wooden floors and big windows. Which I furnished not with a sofa and armchairs to chill out, or with a reading chair and light to sit and read and ponder the universe, but with a workbench, complete with a heavy duty vise and work lamp.

I was just making the house feel like home. I grew up in a making environment, my mum was a sculptor and our flat was her studio. We did not have a "living" room, just her stand with a work-in-progress armature in the middle of the room and bags of moist clay on the floor. I missed the pile of tools and the smell of material. Theoretical physics is all about thinking and working with pen and paper or a computer. The bench was a nod to the significance of making, thinking with your hands.

The full and proper switch came ten years later. I switched from the origins of the universe to tech design. Quantum gravity is not the best preparation for making new tech, let alone tech people will really want. I had to learn an immense amount of new stuff. I took the plunge and I signed up for an incredibly intense two-year Masters in Innovation Design Engineering, run between Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art. I now have several benches and several vises.

In some regards design is not as different from theoretical physics as people might think. Often they think 'design' is about making pretty stuff. Aesthetics is crucial but only a part of what you need to make something that fits into people's lives. For great design you need to do a lot of research, a lot of fleshing out ideas, testing and reiterating, pulling together conflicting needs and breaking complex situations to their essential aspects. These are the same skills you hone in theoretical physics.

Then in other ways, design is also very different from theoretical physics. First of all, it is about people. Theoretical physics is about the universe, not people. The designer actively intervenes in our world, has views and opinions and tries to make new things happen. In science you observe and analyse. To do the best science you need to be as dispassionate an observer as possible. I love combining skills, rigorously observe and analyse and get involved and do and change.

This is how our team developed doppel. We did a lot of research and experimentation on the field of psycho-physiology. We analysed the effects that technology could have on the feedback loop between mind and body. By intuitively designing this technological intervention we were able to have an effect on how people felt. We then closely observed them and designed with and for them to make a very human product.

Physics and science is so much about objectivity and doppel is, in a sense, about our intrinsic lack of objectivity. About how our bodies and our physiology play such a big role in how we feel and think and behave. In wearable technology terms, the physics approach would be a monitoring band that you measure with. doppel is a wearable that you feel with.

Please support our new creation doppel on Kickstarter here: