Whether you’re at work, the gym, or riding public transport, nowadays there’s a good chance someone in close proximity to you is donning wearable technology. From the fitness tracker counting their steps, the sleek new smartwatch, or even (dare I say it) a Google Glass headset, this new technology is fast becoming old news.
Cisco's latest Visual Networking Index was also sobering for wearables, predicting that by 2018 only one wearable device would be shipped for every twenty smartphones. But it’s perhaps no wonder if wearables are often only noted as smartwatches, fitness trackers and headsets, when the possibilities are so much greater.
A drop of prices and rise in functionality will no doubt affect the market – with sports and healthcare alone expected to grow their stakes in the wearables market from 20.8m devices in 2011 to 169.5m in 2017 – but it’s the whole new array of gadgets, clothing and accessories set to fall under the ‘wearables’ umbrella that may be the real driver of success.
The promise of smart clothing and accessories that solve common problems and improve lifestyle is vast, and brings together a range of industries never before known to collaborate.
The next big thing
The tech industry is working to promote wearables as the next big thing. At CES 2015, Intel unveiled its ‘Curie’ module – a microcomputer designed especially for wearables no larger than a fingernail.
Qualcomm too has developed a wearables chip. US startup Ineda Systems is developing a low-power chip that can extend the battery life of wearable tech, while also allowing devices to listen for voice commands.
Chip manufacturers are just one part of the equation, however, as the future of wearables doesn’t rely on functionality, but on wearability and design.
“Everyone loves to use the phrase wearable tech – and to talk about how many billions there are to be made – but if wearables are so great, then why do they all suck?” asks Liza Kindred, founder of fashion tech think tank, Third Wave Fashion. “I’m interested at looking beyond strapping a screen on your wrist or a sensor in a bracelet.”
Mike Bell, Intel’s general manager of new devices, agrees with Kindred’s sentiments around current wearables, in particular the latest smartwatches, telling the 2014 Web Summit conference in Dublin: “Taping a cellphone to your wrist is not what I’d call a wearable. There has to be a reason why you’d use the technology.”
Third Wave Fashion hosts workshops in fashion tech, and partners with tech companies and luxury fashion brands to produce new ideas and strategies for wearables. In getting the two sectors to work together, Kindred is able to apply her unique background, jumping from managing a clothing boutique to being a managing partner in open source software firm Lullabot prior to founding Third Wave Fashion.
“I understand both worlds, but with the popularity and importance of wearable technology, there’s a lot of demand now for someone who can help the two industries talk to one another, which they don’t do very well,” she says.
Kindred jokes that the tech industry’s lax approach to work attire was part of the reason she had to get out of pure tech. “I couldn’t handle another conference t-shirt,” she laughs.
The issue with pure fashion, however, was its cyclical nature which when compared to technology’s constant strides forward didn’t present the same challenges and opportunities Kindred had grown accustomed to.
“I quickly realised when I started [with Lullabot] that technology moves forward… it was really exciting to be able to build on the year before, and something new and interesting and different always happens, whereas in fashion a lot of the same things become popular again."
Wearable technology can help fashion move forward and be innovative, while without fashion, tech companies would be less able to create wearables that are, well, wearable.
Creating invisible technology
There is a long way to go before wearables become mainstream and useful, says Kindred.
“I think a lot of wearable technology today doesn’t have a whole lot to add, value wise, to our lives, and it really is focused on novelty,” says Kindred. “Where I think it becomes interesting is where wearable tech helps us to become more human, rather than less human.”
The main issue with the current wearables climate is that products like smart watches and Google Glass result in people looking like they are wearing technology, rather than a person simply wearing helpful accessories.
According to a survey by PwC on the future of wearables, 72 per cent of 1000 respondents (plus focus groups and sessions) are concerned wearables will hurt their ability to relate with other humans, 68 per cent said wearables might make them too dependent on technology, while 52 per cent expressed concern that wearables would “turn them into robots”.
“There’s a lot of wearables out there that make the wearer look like an android or robot and I think the market for people that want to look like androids is really small,” Kindred says.
“What we’re seeing right now is things that look like technology, however in the direction we’re heading in, the devices are going to end up looking like what they are – a shirt is a shirt, a bag is a bag.”
Another approach for wearable developers is to actually draw people away from their smartphones, rather than encourage further interaction with it, like most smartwatches.
Notification wearables like Ringly and Kovert double up as appealing jewellery that can also be programmed to vibrate if an important call or email comes through. HiSmart and Gioanoi do the same while also serving as a multi-use handbag. What’s important is defined by the user, creating less need to always be checking our phones.
“I’m a big fan of the idea of giving people control over how they’re living their lives as opposed to losing control and looking at our phone screens all the time,” says Kindred.
Despite their many benefits, mobile phones are often blamed for the demise of social interaction and human connection, a lack of real mindfulness, plus more sinister impacts such as accidents caused by people walking and driving while checking their phones.
In 2013 San Francisco, nobody noticed when a man held his gun in plain sight for a considerable period of time on the light-rail, even aiming it at numerous other passengers and wiping his nose with it, before eventually shooting a 20-year old man in the back. The security footage left experts troubled by the lack of awareness demonstrated by smartphone users.
Next page: Smart fabrics and accessories, addressing challenges