There’s no doubt it’s the future of technology, but is wearable tech the future of fashion? And how is it going to change the face of retail?
We are entering a new era of technology as our digital devices make their way off our desktops, out of our palms and into our clothing.
There are sensor-filled socks that track your distance, speed and stride as you run, a onesie that monitors baby’s heartbeat when they’re sleeping and even clothing that can be customized via your smartphone to suit your mood.
Worldwide spending on wearable technology is forecast to reach $1.4 billion this year, with that figure set to hit $19 billion by 2018. And UK-based analysts Juniper Research predict that 2014 will be “the watershed year for wearables” in terms of roll outs and market traction.
“The industry as a whole now acknowledges wearable computing as the next big thing,” says senior analyst Nitin Bhas. “With players ranging from chipset manufacturers to handset vendors developing products within the wearable segment.”
“We’re still very much in the early days but it’s certainly the next wave coming forward from a technology perspective,” says business strategist and writer Matt English. “Following on from the internet and mobile revolutions, what we’re talking about here is the next wave again. It’s going to combine a lot of the benefits of those technologies but in a way that is a lot more portable and usable in a miniature sense.”
So in which areas is wearable tech likely to really take off?
“What we’ve seen over the last few years is the rise of health and fitness wearables like pedometers from Fitbit, Jawbone and Nike that log your activity and relay that data to your mobile devices,” says Simon Goodrich, director of technology company Portable. “And now we’re starting to see apparel that can track biometrics and monitor the wearer’s health.”
Like OMsignal, a shirt that talks to your smartphone and monitors your heart rate, calories and even emotional wellbeing.
“It’s a really exciting space,” continues Simon. “Whether you’re coming at it from a utility point of view, with particular industries trying to synthesize materials and smart textiles that can repair themselves or repel dirt. Or the potential breakthroughs from a health point of view, using Google Glass to help surgeons for instance, right through to a fashion point of view and the fun that designers could have with nanotechnology and Bluetooth-enabled clothing.”
While the big tech players and innovative start-ups have already jumped on board, clothing manufacturers and fashion brands are also starting to show an interest.
Google Glass featured on the catwalk of Diane von Furstenberg as well as the pages of this month’s US Vogue, while Hermès says it’s dedicated to making “technology the craftsmanship of the future”, and has experimented with augmented reality and cutting-edge materials like transparent leather.
There are also up-and-coming labels making a tech statement such as Berlin-based Moon Berlin that integrates LEDs and sensor technologies into its designs and former Valentino designer Francesca Rosella’s Cute Circuit which has produced showstopping pieces like Nicole Scherzinger’s Twitter dress and Katy Perry’s custom-made catsuit that flashed to the beat as she performed on American Idol.
And if further proof be needed that the worlds of fashion and technology are colliding, news that Apple has appointed Burberry chief executive Angela Ahrendts has inevitably sparked rumours that it’s to work on wearable tech projects – and points to the fact that Apple intends to make its entrance into the wearables arena a super-stylish one.
As the technology becomes smaller, more advanced and less expensive to produce, hardware will start to be embedded into fabrics and fashion designers will be free to let their creativity run wild. As Goodrich puts it, “Essentially people are interested in something stylish. The thing about wearables is they have to look decent – otherwise they’re not wearable.”
The really exciting part is that aside from transforming the clothes being sold, wearable tech also has the potential to revitalize the shopping experience and bring customers back to stores. Opening up a world of possibilities in terms of product scanning, loyalty promotions and mobile payment – as well as an entirely new way of engaging and interacting with consumers – this technology is presenting retailers with new opportunities rather than signalling the end of the physical store.
Agrees Simon from Portable: “Particularly with things moving online, retailers need to focus on enhancing the in-store experience. Wearable tech is a way of doing that. You could use it to give customers more information or to make in-store a more enjoyable and intriguing experience. Making it a spectacle that people want to go and see. When I think of retail I liken it to the movies – we’ve been talking about the death of cinema for over 100 years but the fact is there will always be a role. Especially if you create exciting environments where people want to go and hang out.”
Adds Matt English: “Think about inventory management in a retail environment – the ability to walk around the store and simply by a miniature device be able to update stock levels or look for damaged goods or whatever else it might be. From a consumer perspective in the same store, it could be using a miniature device to work through a shopping list and having the products talk to it.
“It’s potentially a very interesting two-way process. On one hand there’s the customer pull, but on the other hand there could be a significant amount of product push – so if the customer is near a store maybe through a wearable device the retailer could alert them to specials and different promotions etc.”
So where will wearable tech take us and how can retailers prepare for this new reality?
“We don’t really know how far this is going to go,” says English. “And the big question is what kind of social change is this going to herald? No one could have predicted the social change that social media has brought to the world. Social media has given an enormous amount of power to individual customers and consumers. Wearable technology is just going to extend that power even more.
“It will mean a greater ability to be connected, to communicate and seek opinions and therefore make more informed choices from a consumer point of view. But the question I don’t think anyone can answer is how far that is likely to go and what the implications of that might be.”
- Not Just for Geeks: Wearable Technology is for Everyone (blogs.calgaryherald.com)
- Wearable Tech: 5 Obstacles to Going Mass Market (entrepreneur.com)
- Get Ready: Wearable Tech Is About to Explode (entrepreneur.com)