Kristian Barnes
Mar 7, 2016

My clothes are smart(er)

Will smart fabrics usher in the true 'wearables' revolution?

Kristian Barnes
Kristian Barnes

We recently moved house and took the opportunity to get rid of some of the consumer clutter in our lives. Well, that’s what I did. My wife, after making a very large heap of stuff to purge, then item by item post-rationalised it back into the moving boxes. Story for another day.

As I fossicked through drawers, I re-discovered my collection of no-longer-worn wearables: a Fitbit, two Jawbones (in two different colours, I don’t know why), a MotoActv and an Apple Watch. All items that once mesmerised me with the promise of an improved life through data, but all now unpowered, unconnected and gathering dust.

So much for the wearables revolution then. Or is it?

Currently smartbands and smartwatches dominate sales and mindset for 'wearables', but according to Gartner, the fastest-growing wearables category is 'smart garments', with an expected 26 million units to be shipped in 2016, up from 100,000 in 2014.

This is not surprising, as even with the current and prospective offering of smartbands and smartwatches, you still have to take them off, charge them, think about and put them on every day. Which is highly inconvenient and annoying. Also these single wearables are unlikely to be desirable, or fashionable enough to be worn all of the time, no matter what Apple tells you. Simply, they are still seen as tech gadgets and treated accordingly.

The real wearable revolution will be through the inclusion of technology into your everyday clothing, in a way that seems normal, and becomes ubiquitous; and this is well on its way.

Not unexpectedly, companies like Adidas, Under Armour and OMsignal are leading the charge, producing sports garment wearables that are designed to better track and improve fitness performance. This is really just moving the tracking from your wrist to your body, with more sensors tracking more elements beyond heart rate, calorie burn, distance and steps. Examples include breathing efficiency, fatigue levels, effort and movement.

More game changing is the drive to genuinely put technology into everyday fashion. Google’s ‘Project Jacquard’ created a conductive and connective yarn that can be dyed and woven, resulting in a partnership with Levi's to bring smart clothing to the high street. Nor is Google is alone in creating “smart fabric”. Clothing+, a Finnish company, and Noble Biomaterials, to name a couple, have also created conductive components for smart garments. Or consider Samsung’s recent prototype smart belt that monitors your weight and health.

Taking a slightly different tack, a number of financial companies are experimenting with incorporating everyday transaction technology into all forms of wearables. Ringly, a company that produces smart jewellry, has just become one of the companies that MasterCard is working with on their new programme to turn any item, from clothing to jewellry to handbags, into a secure form of payment. In the UK, Barclays and clothing company Lyle & Scott have produced a jacket with sewn-in NFC payment capabilities. Gartner predicts by 2018, up to 50 percent of consumers in major markets, will be making payments via some wearable items.

Whilst all of these may ultimately be more appealing to your average person than a gadget on the wrist, because the tech will be invisible in the garment, the questions remains: So what?

Currently, wearables are good at telling us what we have done wrong. The true benefit will be when they have the ability to intervene in real time to help us, to be able to evolve and learn with us, to be proactive and pre-emptive, not just to monitor. Imagine your Nest Learning Thermostat adjusting room temperature based on your core temperature, or your heartbeat signature unlocking your car as you approach it, or an app helping you calm down when anxious.

Along with the technology benefits will come the inevitable push-pull tug between consumers and marketers. As more real-time data is captured and potentially available to create marketing connections, more focus will be on permission-based access and people’s active management in their own data.

Whilst it may still be a little hard to imagine how this will all play out, do not underestimate the significance of this wearables revolution. To quote Microsoft's Steve Ballmer in USA Today in April of 2007: “There is no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”

Kristian Barnes is CEO of Vizeum APAC

 

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