Keith Kirkland

Keith Kirkland, CEO and co-founder of WearWorks

“Movement is still taught the way music used to be listened to before the invention of the phonograph. I was trying to develop a way to allow movement learning to enter the digital economy and I thought communicating information with touch (haptics) could transform the industry. There was just one problem, there was no haptic language!”

Pronouns: He/His/Him

Meet Keith Kirkland. Keith is a designer and technologist, exploring the intersection between touch-based communication (haptic), movement learning, and social entrepreneurship. He hails from Camden, New Jersey and holds Bachelors in both Mechanical Engineering and Accessories Design; along with a Masters of Industrial Design from Pratt Institute’s Global Innovation Design program. Keith is the CEO and co-founder of WearWorks, which he describes as a “communicate information through touch company. What BOSE is for sound, we want to be for touch.”

Keith has worked with organizations including:
The MediaLab and the Copyist Program at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Cooper Hewitt Design Museum; Mini Cooper; BMW; Unilever; Calvin Klein; Coach; NYC Media Lab; Verizon Open Innovation; Sxsw Create and the Yokohama Government in Japan. You can connect with him on Twitter and on Instagram. Check out WearWorks here.

How Did He Get Into This Work?

Keith grew up in Camden, New Jersey, a community torn apart by substance abuse and gun violence, which prematurely took the lives of some of his friends and family members. “I shouldn’t be here,” he says wistfully. And yet, he has beaten the odds.

While an engineer by training, Keith discovered that he had a passion for craft, taking him into shoemaking and later, pattern-making. He was hired by Coach as a handbag engineer and loved the process. The disposable financial model of fashion began to gnaw at him, however, causing him to matriculate in a new program in Global Innovation Design that would allow him to explore ways to better use design to forward humanity. Keith was in the first class of his graduate program, which was launched by Pratt in partnership with Royal College of Art/Imperial College London, and Keio University Global Page’s Graduate School of Media Design (KMD).
Keith rotated every semester between schools, giving him an education that bridged aesthetics, storytelling and U/X, and technology.

Keith’s Master’s thesis work was centered around developing a bodysuit that would allow users to download kung fu and have the suit teach it to the user. While exploring this topic, he came across haptics as a potential way of communicating movement location information to different parts of the body.

“Movement is still taught the way music used to be listened to before the invention of the phonograph. I was trying to develop a way to allow movement learning to enter the digital economy and I thought communicating information with touch (haptics) could transform the industry. There was just one problem, there was no haptic language!”

“How do I tell you to move your wrist two inches up? Do I put a motor at the top of your wrist and vibrate it (so you know to go up) or do I put one at the bottom of your wrist (so you feel like you are being pushed up)? No one had done that work, so my cofounders (Kevin & Yang) and I decided to create a company — Wear Works — to create that language. If my kung fu suit is an iPod, we need iTunes.”

What Project Is He Working On?

Wear Works — which uses touch to communicate ideas — started developing a device for the blind and visually impaired six months after launch.

“We had always known their use-case was the best possible use for our tech, but it was also the most challenging case to design for. Ultimately, it was the blind use-case that was the most exciting. After meeting with the Texas Department for Blind Services — leaving in the middle of SXSW to do so — and seeing a blind woman’s expression when she felt she could “see” the right way, that visual changed all of us immediately. All of a sudden the blind use case wasn’t just the most difficult, it was the most meaningful. It gave us the opportunity to do something that most people thought was impossible.”

Keith and his co-founders joined MINI’s URBAN-X venture accelerator last year as part of its Cohort 02 and were able to build out Wayband, the first blind person to run the TCS New York City Marathon without sighted assistance.

“The biggest thing that the Marathon taught us was that we have a “proof,” a device that shows under the right conditions what is possible. To get to the stage of a “product,” a device that delivers the same experience to every user everywhere all the time, we need to approach the design and development from a completely different view. We are also working on a few experimental projects as well: helping a blind kayaker kayak from Asia to Europe without sighted assistance, and helping a blind motorcycle racer bicycle across the entire state of Georgia.”

“There is a period of acclimation after one loses sight that is both literally and figuratively a dark period in their lives. It’s filled with depression, often sedentary behavior. On average it lasts 2 to 2 1/2 years before someone decides, “I can’t live my life like this.” If we can build our device to cut down that period, it’s a win.”

How Did He Come to Civic Hall?

“I came to Civic Hall after meeting Peter T. Shanley at an event at A/D/O, our former Urban-X accelerator space. He thought we would be a good fit and asked me to apply. I thought Civic Hall was going to be created once the new building opened, so I allowed it to fall to the back of my mind until I realized that the organization was operating now! We immediately applied to the Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program and were accepted back in September.”

What Is His Ask of Civic Hall?

Wear Works is looking for blind and visually impaired users to beta test the Wayband and to interview them about their challenges, insights, and triumphs navigating in the city alone.

The company continues to grow and has two spots to fill:

  • A software developer with experience developing for iOS with some mapping interest or expertise, an interest in Machine Learning or data science, and some experience working with Bluetooth-connected IoT devices. “It would also be great if the developer had a strong understanding of user-centric design in both the interface and the experience.”
  • A data scientist and machine learning expert who can deal with large amounts of information and developing algorithms to smooth data-driven noise while optimizing routing algorithms. “We could use someone to help us find and pull insight from the data our devices are collecting so that we can build better, safer, more reliable navigation experiences for our blind users.”

Finally, Keith takes his responsibilities as a member of the Civic Hall community seriously:

“The conversations we have one-on-one are what really changes the world. My commitment is that every interaction – I don’t care what kind of interaction — if you meet me, anything I’ve touched, anything I’ve made, or any person I’ve ever met — I take personal responsibility that your interaction is better than had I not existed. At every level — a smile on a train, reaching into my pocket to give my last $50 to a homeless person because their story was compelling or spending my life helping blind people navigate. What are you doing? What can I do to help? My goal in life is that we (as a society) can’t leave anyone behind because we don’t know who will solve the next big problem.”

Keith notes that for every 100 papers written on vision, there’s only one on touch. Until five years ago, touch was only explored through video game controller and sex toys. “Walmart just bought a VR company; when VR goes touch, who will you trust? We’ll be the experts because we’ve taken on the hard stuff.”

Wear Works’ Wayband is currently featured as part of the Cooper Hewitt’s exhibition Access+Ability. For a trio of design tech nerds only a handful of years out of school, it’s an unbelievable accomplishment. Catch the show, it’s on through September 3rd. (Pay-what-you-wish is Saturdays.)