Wearables far more than 'strapping a smartphone to your wrist'

The future of useful and appealing wearable technology will involve collaboration between a diverse range of industries

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.

Despite this, wearables have actually been a slow starter, with just 6.8 million smartwatches sold in 2014, and only 3.3 million fitness trackers sold in the US between April 2013 and March 2014.

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.

Intel's 'Curie' module, designed for wearables.
Intel's 'Curie' module, designed for wearables.

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”.

Wearables like Google Glass "make people look like robots"
Wearables like Google Glass "make people look like 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.

'Ringly' doubles up as jewelry and a notification device, without visible technology
'Ringly' doubles up as jewelry and a notification device, without visible technology

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

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Smart fabrics and accessories

While notification wearables can make people more present, this is only the tip of ice berg. Beyond gadgets, trinkets and baubles, there is research into smart fabrics that Kindred believes will change the whole wearables game.

“Fabrics are something we need to pay more attention to – wearables that don’t have screens – because right now there are a lot of designers and developers working on wearables by asking, ‘how can I shrink down the interface of my website or app onto a smaller screen?’ But there’s a much broader range of things we’ll be able to do when we have smart fabrics,” says Kindred.

“They can be relatively simple charging fabrics for instance, fabrics that can capture the energy of the sun or movement and kinetics to keep our devices charged. That’s something that’s really interesting and figuring out how we can interface with those is exciting.”

London fashion tech brand, CuteCircuit, founded as far back as 2004 by Ryan Genz and Francesca Rosella, was the first fashion company offering smart textile-based garments that create an emotional experience for their wearers using micro-electronics.

Special projects from CuteCircuit have included the Hug Shirt, which recreates the sensation of touch, warmth and the emotion of a hug from a distant loved one using Bluetooth technology; the Kinetic Dress, which lights up in various patterns according to the wearer’s movements, as well as the M Dress, which operates on a SIM card, allowing users to take calls via their outfit without carrying a mobile phone.

CuteCircuit's 'Pink & Black Collection' included coloured Micro LEDs controlled by Twitter users voting #makeitblack or #makeitpink to promote Magnum's new range of ice creams.
CuteCircuit's 'Pink & Black Collection' included coloured Micro LEDs controlled by Twitter users voting #makeitblack or #makeitpink to promote Magnum's new range of ice creams.

More mainstream brands are also getting on board with smart clothing. Ralph Lauren has produced a sports shirt to monitor heartbeat, respiration and stress levels, while the NuMetrix sports bra, made by Textronics, has a small transmitter that snaps to the garment to track a user's heart rate.

A new Tommy Hilfiger jacket comes complete with solar panels to charge your personal devices on the move, while Spinali Design has just released a line of customisable swimwear with an integrated UV sensor and associated app that will tell you when it’s time to apply more sunscreen.

Accessories can include smart jewellery or bags. For kids, Jewelbots are a high-tech friendship bracelet that teaches young girls how to code by programming the bracelet to light up or vibrate if their friend is near, has sent them a message, and other actions of their choice.

Beyond first world issues, companies are also looking to promote wearable tech for social good in developing countries. Women in rural India, for example, may now have access to a Bindi that also features a dose of Iodine that can be absorbed through the skin.

Grey for Good, the philanthropic arm of Grey Group Singapore, and the NGO Neelvasant Medical Foundation and Research Centre, worked together to create the Bindi after many women in rural India were suffering from illnesses from nutritional deficiencies, but lacked money or access to supplements.

The successful integration of wearable technology into clothing designs will be a critical differentiator for wearable successes. Fashion stylists face the challenge of maintaining aesthetics to be on the forefront, and tech manufacturers shouldn't forgo functionality just to be ‘wearable’.

CuteCircuit's Hug Shirt™ can mimic the strength, duration, and location of the touch, the skin warmth and the heartbeat rate of the sender, designed to connect with distant loved ones.
CuteCircuit's Hug Shirt™ can mimic the strength, duration, and location of the touch, the skin warmth and the heartbeat rate of the sender, designed to connect with distant loved ones.

“As consumers, we’re going to get to a point where we start to demand more functionality too. It’s not going to be enough that a backpack just looks aesthetically pleasing, it’s got to keep our electronics charged, have a 3G hotspot and notifications and all those kinds of things.

“Right now I think functionality is more demanding than wearability but in the future that’s going to switch and that has a lot of implications for people designing gadgets and clothes,” Kindred says.

Addressing the many challenges

While challenges around design address how to attract consumers, attention must also be paid to wearables, post-purchase.

The PwC survey also found 82 per cent of respondents were concerned that wearables would make them vulnerable to invasion of privacy. How will the data be accessed by the consumer, their employers, and the brands they interact with? Policies will need to be in place to protect the privacy of individuals and potentially also their place of business.

On the functionality scale, wearables could be only as good as the weather. The user caught unexpectedly in the rain may find their new drenched smart shirt or backpack suddenly not so smart. Providing defences against the elements will be critical to usability.

Technology also often involves metals and materials that could cause skin irritation in some users. Plus the presence of electricity could place some users at risk of overheating, if the thermal impact of an overworked smart accessory or outfit was too much.

Liza Kindred presents at fashion tech hackathon in Hearst (Photo by Paige Hogan for Third Wave Fashion).
Liza Kindred presents at fashion tech hackathon in Hearst (Photo by Paige Hogan for Third Wave Fashion).

“There are very real challenges that we have not managed to solved in any other way that we are going to have to solve for wearables,” says Kindred.

“Computers crash all the time. We haven’t solved that for our desktop computers, so we’re not going to have solved that for wearables, and there are implications for that.”

Meanwhile, it’s worth considering how a boom in diverse wearables could contribute to the growing e-waste issue. Kindred says one of her design principles is to always be mindful of creating something for long term use, rather than ending up in a landfill.

“I’m worried about what might happen if we don’t design things to be sensible or future proof. When it comes to clothing, it can at least fail and still become a piece of regular clothing, similar to escalators failing to become a functional set of stairs.

“I really hope we can apply that same principle to wearables but we have to be really cognisant about that stuff, especially because we’re building wearables as novelty right now and I don’t want to see us throwing it away. I want see us building beautiful things that are extensible for the future.”

Despite ongoing challenges, both the consumer and business market will experience a considerable shake up with the continued introduction of wearable technology. The application of smart clothing and devices is already underway in fields like sports, medicine, entertainment, retail, manufacturing, workplace training, and employee well-being programs.

Infrastructure, policies and protocols around security, communication and engagement with employees and consumers will change dramatically, while the potential of this new layer of productivity and big data can deliver major insights with tremendous value.

“This stuff matters so much because our privacy and the health of ourselves and our loved ones, to communicate, to engage in commerce, all these things are going to be changing,” says Kindred.

“There are people who are really embracing smart design and building things for the future we all want to live in – that I want to live in.”