In his latest exclusive for WhichPLM, Expert Rob Warner shares a look into where the wearable tech industry is today. Rob is an internationally recognised Design VP, and the Co-founder & Creative Director of Spark – a virtual design agency with a global network of creative talent.
It’s hard to believe that the wearable technology revolution has been going on for almost 750 years.
That’s right, depending on your view of what constitutes a wearable, they’ve been with us since the 13th Century, when spectacles were first invented.
It’s only really been since the 1970s, though, that portable devices incorporating electronic technology have become commonplace. From the calculator watch to the Walkman, to the digital hearing aid – gadgets and gizmos designed to improve our lives have appeared at an astounding pace.
While some of those technologies have evolved, others have faded away – either being usurped, no longer relevant, or (in the case of Google Glass) never having caught on in the first place. In some cases it seems obvious why the products were rejected by consumers, whilst in others, such as smart jewellery, it’s clear to see where the potential pitfalls would lie.
Today’s wearable tech remains mostly consistent with its predecessors in one particular way: it’s usually an accessory. Smart clothing hasn’t really felt the explosion that has so benefitted the market of watches and bracelets. Whilst taking an item which is already technical, like a watch, and making it better is an easier fix than adding tech into clothing, have brands and manufacturers really put enough emphasis on trying to make a breakthrough in the field?
Back in 2007, O’Neill launched the NavJacket, a Gore-Tex snowboarding jacket that incorporated a GPS with an LCD display into the sleeve. Met with critical acclaim, it seemed that this could be the pioneer of a brave new world for clothing. Yet the NavJacket stood alone and failed to inspire other brands to follow suit.
Image: O’Neill NavJacket
Now, with the incredible capabilities of smart watches, there may appear to be no need for something like sleeve GPS. But try peeling back the layer and using a touchscreen whilst up a mountain wearing snowboarding gloves. It’s far from practical.
The next big noise around smart clothing was heard in 2017, with Google and Levi’s having finally managed to commercialise Jacquard: fabric with in-built circuitry that enabled simple gestures to control calls, texts, navigation and music through your phone.
Still available today (but good luck finding one in stock), the catchily-titled “Levi’s® Commuter™ Trucker Jacket with Jacquard™by Google” retails at $350 – not an outlandish amount for such a rare item with such a huge technological leap.
In the mainstream, though, there’s still a gap between what consumers would pay for a smart watch compared to what they might be willing to hand over for an item of clothing, even one with enhanced capabilities.
A recent report by PwC featured consumer research demonstrating huge appeal for wearable technology that may not exist yet, but which may not be far away. Of those questioned, 83% of people would see “thermoelectric pulses to heat, cool, and soothe your body via a bracelet that senses temperature, pain, and stress” as being of interest; whilst 82% wanted “the ability to track your child’s health, safety, or location via wearables”.
Clothing, you would think, could play a vital role in both of those scenarios.
The Tommy Jeans Xplore collection, launched last summer, featured GPS technology that rewarded customers for things like how often the item is worn or where you visit whilst wearing it. Gift cards, concert tickets and the like were promised in exchange for allowing your $99 hoodie to interact with an app on your phone.
The concept wasn’t universally applauded, though, with Sarah Perez of TechCrunch calling the idea “ridiculous” and labelling it an overpriced loyalty program. There’s also the issue of privacy, particularly in the post-GDPR era. At the time of launch, Tommy wouldn’t reveal what data was being collected from the wearer, how much of it, or what it may be used for.
Image: Levi’s® Commuter™ Trucker Jacket
Back in 2006, the then UK Prime Minister David Cameron (whatever happened to him?!) talked about the perceived public danger of hoodies. Being spied on by an item of clothing is probably the opposite of what he had in mind.
With Gen Z getting older and having increasing spending power, coupled with a conscience around environmental and social responsibility, it’s not hard to imagine their attitude to clothes and shopping to see the industry needing to make a change.
Forbes have predicted that the wearables market will be worth $34bn by the end of next year, suggesting that smart clothing could help breathe new life into the fashion world, truly propelling it into a new direction.
Wellness is a key concern for all generations, and this shift clearly supports the growth of wearables. Whilst passive technology such as Fitbit delivers wellness-based information to the wearer through their own apps and website, autonomous wearables are a real opportunity for apparel companies.
Serving as something of platform, they’re able to communicate with third-party apps, meaning the concept behind Google Jacquard (controlling or being controlled by other devices and software) can deliver genuine value to the consumer. Not only are they able to help collect and interpret data related to health and wellness, but they can assist in activities around that too.
Nadi X yoga apparel features haptic sensors that give feedback on poses during practice, whilst Neviano swimwear includes UV sensors to remind you when to apply more sunscreen. The sensor will last for 280 days off one charge, and the app takes into account different skin tones to ensure the guidance is accurate.
Away from wellness, Samsung continue to develop their range of tech-packed clothing, The Human Fit, now featuring an NFC suit that lets the wearer swap digital business cards, unlock their phone and change the setting on a range of Samsung gadgets.
As circuitry becomes smaller and more affordable, with conductive prints able to carry power and signals around a garment or wiring simply knitted in as any other yarn, so the UX of smart apparel improves. No awkward washing instructions, longer battery life, and a greater range of features all increase the appeal of an area of wearable tech that has so far been woefully under-explored.
Younger consumers have grown up with products that do more for them. Remember the revolution when Steve Jobs declared that the iPhone was “a phone, the internet, and a camera”? That’s the way phones have always been for Gen Z. We now live in a world where you can use an app to look inside your LG fridge whilst walking round the shops, and by talking to a music speaker you can command virtually any electrical product in your home.
So, is it realistic to think that clothing can continue to be just a stylish way of protecting our modesty and keeping us warm? Or is it time that we really begin to dress smart?