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Wearable Technology and the Future of the Product Lifecycle

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Google Glass press image

In a WhichPLM exclusive article, originally running in our Annual Review 2014, Ben Hanson considers the intersection of fashion and technology that is rapidly emerging in the form of “wearables” – function led devices that bear all the hallmarks of desirable accessories. Examining the trend of fashion executives migrating to Silicon Valley, Ben’s article also looks at the business aspects of this convergence, and sets out some of the potential implications for the future of the product lifecycle.

It’s getting harder to tell where fashion ends and technology begins. And I don’t just mean for bleary-eyed members of a PLM project team on their fifth flat white of the day.

This very topic – the intersection of silicon and style – has occupied the minds of board members and industry analysts for more than a year now, and from a business perspective at least, the crossovers are numerous and well-documented. Former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts began a new role as Senior VP of Retail at lifestyle technology giants Apple in May 2014, who in the past year have also poached Patrick Pruniaux (VP of Global Sales and Retail for Tag Heuer) and former Yves Saint Laurent CEO Paul Deneve.

Google, too, have driven a stake in the ground in the burgeoning hiring war, bringing on board  Ivy Ross, a marketing expert who has previously managed the identities of Calvin Klein, Gap, and Coach.

The average shopper has also implicitly become part of the convergence – choosing their technologies on the basis of personal style.

Today, you and I buy into technological ecosystems the same way we do brands. “I’m an Apple man through and through” becoming just as viable a brand allegiance statement as “I love J. Crew”. We made a conscious decision somewhere along the way to throw our lot in with Google or Apple, and that choice has come to define us in the exact same sense that our choices of knitwear, boots, handbags or tailoring do.

Jawbone Up lifestyle 1

Almost without anybody noticing, the technology industry has been doing an extremely thorough and clandestine job of aping the early stages of the fashion business model – something that goes beyond just hiring their big names.

Think of it this way. New phones, tablets and laptops are released on a seasonal basis, and people tune in to the Apple’s WWDC or Google’s I/O (despite both being ostensibly conferences for developers) the same way they might stream a catwalk show, scanning the stage for hints of what’s to come next.

And those products are driven by design and a “newness” that really goes beyond pure functional clout – and even beyond aesthetics. Time was, you could add a camera or a touchscreen to a phone and call it revolutionary, but today the points of differentiation between household technology names are just like those that separate clothing brands. Nuanced and stylistic.

There’s even a chance that, without realising it, you’ve become better acquainted with technology’s “rockstars” than you have with fashion’s. Do you know who was responsible for Maison Kitsune’s fall collection? I had to look it up. Ask me who designed the latest iMac, or Android’s upcoming “material design” language, though, and I can reel off the names Jony Ive and Matias Duarte without a moment’s hesitation.

Perhaps that just makes me unfashionable. That’s certainly a possibility, as I prepare to become a father for the first time at the tail end of 2014, and sweat pants and a t-shirt start to look like acceptable workwear. But I suspect it’s indicative of something larger at work – a force that’s quietly but very purposefully drawing together the folds of fashion and technology, and manifesting them in the first instance as “wearables”.

And I think it’s time we considered what that means for us. As consumers as well as technologists on the other side of the equation.

Before we get too deep, though, I’d like to start by talking about some wearable technologies you might have heard of.

Google Glass is the likeliest candidate. A piece of eyewear incorporating small independent processing capacity, and able to produce an optical display as unobtrusively as possible in the user’s field of vision. Glass is operated via voice (with some simple touch commands) and duplicates much of the functionality you might find in a smartphone. Not quite popular enough to be considered truly disruptive, Glass nevertheless – at least in concept – threw a lot of our social mores into sharp relief: it asked big questions, and did so simply by transposing functions like picture taking, video recording, Tweeting and searching from a confined device to something more personal.

DVF Glass 2

As a society we should have been confronting the concepts of ubiquitous recording technology and an almost unfettered access to the sum total of the world’s knowledge, and considering their implications for our lives. After all, these are quandaries that have obsessed futurists for decades, and all of a sudden we can mount that kind of technology on the bridges of our noses? What of privacy? What of personal identity?

But these questions never really got asked, and that’s down to more than just slow adoption rates. As it turns out, the more pertinent question – and indeed the sneakiest method of fomenting widespread desire and, eventually, adoption – is to ask what of personal style? Companies like Google, in their race to define what wearable technology means, are banking on a strategic secret the fashion industry has guarded for a very long time: that identity and style are just two words for the same thing.

So Google did a clever thing with Glass. They came straight out of the gate with the assumption that we all wanted the sum total of the world’s knowledge perched on our faces, so that side of things wasn’t worth talking about. Instead, they focused on the intensely personal effect that kind of technology can have on our individual lives.

With Glass, nobody asked whether we wanted it. They showed us instead how it would fit our lives, and asked what size and what style we wanted it in.

Sound familiar? Selling a personalised piece of a lifestyle is something the fashion industry has done incredibly well for generations.

The best designers don’t allow consumer the luxury of asking themselves questions like, “plaid, hmmmm…. is that for me?”. In their place, they throw the full weight of their marketing and aspirational lifestyle tools at us, never wavering from the conviction that, yes, of course plaid is where it’s at this year. Just like with Glass, the pertinent question becomes something else entirely: what kind of plaid do you want, and how do you want to wear it? Because like it or not, that choice is going to define you come winter, and speak for you when you enter a room, radiating a set of assumptions that friends, colleagues and potential partners can make about you.

And as we saw from the hiring of Ahrendts, Pruniaux, Deneve and Ross, technology companies aren’t shy about hiring the people who know how to make that happen. Luxury marketing is an art, after all: crafting a lifestyle image just so, constraining supply just the right amount; fostering the right kind of celebrity partnerships, and knowing how to avoid the wrong ones.

Jawbone Up lifestyle 2

While it falls a little outside the definition that most people would accept for “wearable technology”, Apple’s recent acquisition of the Beats Electronics headphone brand quite neatly encapsulates what I’m driving at. Apple as a company is perfectly capable of designing stylish audio gear – with its typically high margins too, no doubt – but what it bought with Beats was not headphones. It bought a beeline straight to the hearts and minds of young, fashionconscious consumers the world over – a kind of backdoor through which technology can continue its steady infiltration of the fashion industry. Not to mention also netting two extremely savvy marketers in Jimmy Iovine and Andre Romelle “Dr. Dre” Young.

But hiring and acquiring isn’t always the solution. Google recently tasked New York fashion icon Diane von Furstenburg with creating a line of eyewear specifically designed to complement Glass, and the technology mammoth made its New York Fashion Week debut at DvF’s spring 2013 show. You’ll find some examples of her work dotting these pages – and more online – and although I don’t think the designs quite do enough to overcome the quintessentially “techie” nature of Glass, this is certainly a further step in a rather obvious direction.

I don’t, however, want to give the impression that this revolution is limited to – or even particularly galvanised by – Google Glass. If anything, Glass is an outlier, a device that perhaps one or two people in a crowd of thousands might be bold enough to actually wear.

The real salvos in the wearable war will begin with the launch of Android Wear and, presumably in late 2014 or 2015, Apple’s response. Both are widely predicted to take the form of “smartwatches” – small devices worn on the wrist, and tethered to the smartphone in your pocket, delivering timely information to the wearer in a more convenient and less intrusive manner than grabbing a phone from your jeans pocket or handbag. [On 9th September 2014, shortly before going to press, Apple indeed announced the personalised, customisable, fashion-forward Apple Watch for a 2015 release.]

Google has partnered with Motorola and Samsung for the initial launch hardware of Android Wear, but given the design nous visible in the Motorola 360 smartwatch, I doubt that further collaborations with fashion designers can be far behind.

Rather than just copying the form and fashion of existing devices, though, wearables can also take the form of more abstract-looking and utilitarian devices. Fitness trackers like Nike’s FuelBand are becoming increasingly popular, adorning the wrists of the health-conscious the world over. And yes, they come in multiple colourways.

The fitness band category also includes the impeccably-designed UP24 bracelet from Jawbone, which features the clean lines of designer Yves Behar – yet another name I didn’t need to look up.

Indeed, fitness trackers are possibly the most interesting wearable from the perspective of a retailer or brand looking to push their consumer engagement to its logical conclusion, and to draw performance, location, satisfaction and other information back into their cyclical product development efforts.

Fitness trackers typically work by counting and analysing movements – like a sensitive pedometer – but also, in wireless partnership with a smartphone, by pushing reminders to the user to get out there and take a brisk walk, go swimming, drink their eight glasses of water a day, see the world, and get a restful night’s sleep.

In that sense, wearable devices like the Nike FuelBand might well be good for you and me, but they’re certainly good for Nike. The bi-product of all that tracking, analysing, inputting and uploading is reams upon reams of usage data – the kind of information analysts, healthcare professionals, and brand executives would kill (not literally) to get their hands on.

Jawbone Up lifestyle 3

How long until that sort of extended product lifecycle information can come from even less intrusive devices, or even from our garments themselves?

And what could you, as a brand, do with it? If you knew not just where your products were being sold, but where they were being worn? If you had the data in-hand to show which of your own and which of your competitor’s products your garment was being paired with? If it was being sold on or thrown away? How about if you knew, through a voluntary exchange of information, what kind of lifestyle the people wearing it led – right down to the social hangouts they visited, and where else they shopped? What if you could offer discounts or loyalty rewards organically, tied not to a particular device or arbitrary account, but driven by your customer’s continued choice to affiliate themselves with your brand, and walk into a retail location wearing your technology?

There’s a great deal of talk at the moment around the “internet of things”, which is an old label that has been brought back to the fore now that the world has caught up with the initial heady vision – an interconnected vision not unlike the one I’ve just described.

The potential is startling to consider. And, if we’re entirely honest, a little scary. Connectivity to that degree raises the same ethical questions that Glass should technically have thrown into the public arena, and although there are huge opportunities here, the potential for abuse is equally potent.

Either way, though, the brands who do wearables right will find themselves not just at the forefront of a whole new market, but potentially an entirely new paradigm of consumer interaction.

I don’t believe, then, that smartwatches and fitness trackers are necessarily the heralds of a new era in and of themselves. And neither do I particularly want one of the former, although I will admit to being a card-carrying owner of one of the latter. But let me be unambiguous and say that they are the start of one.

Once we commit to wearing our technology like an accessory, and agree to take part in the ecosystem and the lifestyle that comes with it, the only way is up.

I believe that there are still hurdles to overcome from the consumer’s point of view. Acceptance of this kind of ubiquitous technology may be rocky, and the need currently remains to have a smartphone and a wearable device –neither Glass nor Android Wear can operate independently. But I believe the decision from a business point of view has already been made, and the hiring we’ve already seen this year will soon start to go both ways, with brands beginning to poach the technology industry’s savviest designers and marketers.

Moto 360 Cafe

Because, whether it’s next year or in five years’ time, Silicon Valley and Savile Row will find themselves competing for the same customers, sparking competition of an entirely different kind.

Wearable technology, at least for me, is not something that’s coming soon; as an industry, we are already irreversibly far down the road to convergence. Predictions suggest that 250 million wearable devices will be in use by 2018. And that’s based solely on the products available this year, without factoring in the potential for something truly disruptive – an iPhone-level event for the fashion technology industry.

Choices do remain, though, and luckily they happen to be ones you’re already well equipped to make.

How will you use this rich source of consumer interaction to inform the future direction of your brand? And which of your favourite technology companies are you ready to wear like a heart on your sleeve?

*Press images provided by their respective copyright holders: Google, Motorola, and Jawbone.
Ben Hanson Ben Hanson is one of WhichPLM’s top contributors. Ben has worked for magazines, newspapers, local government agencies, multi-million pound conservation projects, museums and creative publications before his eventual migration to the Retail, Footwear and Apparel industry.Having previously served as WhichPLM’s Editor, Ben knows the WhichPLM style, and has been responsible for many of our on-the-ground reports and interviews over the last few years. With a background in literature, marketing and communications, Ben has more than a decade’s worth of experience, and is now viewed as one of the industry’s best-known writers.