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When will tech be ready to wear?

Written by Josh Russell on Tuesday, 03 February 2015. Posted in Disruption, Analysis

Whilst wearables are a favourite of tech journos and early adopters, they have yet to reach critical mass. What hurdles need to be overcome before we see real consumer uptake?

When will tech be ready to wear?

Wearables have expanded from a fringe interest to one with a great deal of potential in a comparatively short space of time. Whilst a few decades ago the prospect of carrying trackers and internet-ready devices on your wrist may have seemed like a sci-fi flight of fancy, wearables are on a real upsurge, with many businesses – tech giant and start-up alike – getting in on the action. Research released last year by Samsung Electronics estimated that wearables would generate £104.7m for UK retailers that Christmas; in total it predicted the British public would be buying around 156,600 smartwatches, 474,900 fitness bands and 316,800 health trackers.

Nonetheless, despite the boom we are seeing in wearable innovation, acceptance amongst consumers is far from unanimous. A survey by Kantar Worldpanel ComTech found just 6% of iPhone users currently own a wearable device; in November 2014, another piece of the firm’s research revealed 84% of consumers weren’t considering buying a smartwatch. Clearly then there are several hurdles to overcome before wearables reach their true potential.

Whilst press coverage of wearables is often gushing, you only have to look below the line to find less than favourable comments from the public. One of the most common complaints is wearables are all flash and no substance, that the majority of the time a clear use case doesn’t exist. Certainly smartwatches have drawn their fair share of flak because they add little functionality that isn’t already available on people’s smartphones; this is one factor that has slowed consumer adoption. “A lot of the wearable tech that’s been brought out is all just for show,” comments Lauren Bowker, founder of The Unseen, the fashion technology start-up. “So why would you wear it?”

But this is gradually changing. When new technology enters the market, it often functions more as proof of concept but the making of new innovations is in how they are used. Whilst Google Glass has attracted its fair share of criticism, Sam Clark, the managing director of Conjure, the app developer, feels it has very practical applications for certain industries. “I’ve read reports of surgeons who are wearing Glass and livestreaming the surgery for the students next door,” he says. “That’s a great use case.” From working on production lines and receiving live data on the process to tracking the operational information of heavy machinery, existing wearables can easily be put to innovative use within many industries.

However, the true potential wearables can offer is in the creation of devices to solve problems in specific verticals. Marko Balabanovic, innovation director at Digital Catapult, a national centre aimed at advancing the UK’s best digital ideas, gives the example of healthcare; he points to the American start-up Qardio, which has developed a wearable ECG that helps users track the health of their heart. Another company Applied Nanodetectors, that attended a recent Digital Health Pit Stop event held by Digital Catapult, has developed breath analysis chips that can detect the early stages of asthma. “People need to have that kind of stuff monitored but you cannot always be in and out of a hospital,” he says. “So it’s about taking things that aren’t working very well today and making them much better.”

There are no shortage of big players recognising how tailored wearables could improve their industry. For this reason, IC tomorrow, the Innovate UK programme that stimulates innovation and economic growth in the digital sector, is running a £210,000 innovation prize to bring together significant stakeholders across a range of industries, from Disney to Network Rail, to run trials with digital innovators in the wearables space. On each count, there are clear use cases for wearables in the given sector: GLH Hotels is focusing on ‘guest-centred experience through wearables’, whilst Atos is looking at how wearables can help improve digital access amongst those with physical and cognitive disabilities. McLaren Applied Technologies, the cross-industry innovation wing of the automotive giant, is also participating, eager to explore the wider applications of sensor technology and performance tracking in a range of verticals.

Once these kinds of use cases are expanded upon and fully explored, the average user will begin to see a far greater benefit in wearables. “Where it will really start getting interesting is where it actively starts to impact everyday life,” says Bowker. When wearables can help address everyday issues, such as discretely monitoring health conditions, she feels people will warm to their benefits. “Helping in that sense is the more important part of the journey,” she says.

However, the real potential to help in these cases comes not from the wearables themselves but the data they generate. And this is something that could have major ramifications, not just on a personal level but for the industry as a whole. “If a device is something you’ve got on your body, then you’re getting data at the kind of frequency that you just wouldn’t be able to get any other way,” Balabanovic explains. “That’s a huge shift.”

Cliche though it is, there are plenty of people who believe big data is the new oil and, if this is true, wearables are perhaps the largest untapped reservoir available to us. This area is of particular interest to McLaren Applied Technologies, which believes that this will offer the most significant benefits to users and stakeholders alike. “The whole proposition around the technology is that it helps people to learn and understand more about themselves,” says Jim Newton, market development director at McLaren Applied Technologies. “If we can help with that then hopefully we can move from a flash-in-the-pan gadget to an essential item that people won’t want to live without.”

As we’ve seen from the world of fitness trackers, this kind of continuous feedback can have significant long-term benefits for consumers. “Where it gets interesting is where you start driving behavioural change,” says Matt Sansam, programme manager at IC tomorrow. Whilst, in isolation, receiving data on how many steps you’ve taken or calories you’ve consumed is useful, creating feedback loops that enable people to act on data in real time has been shown to be a powerful driver of behavioural change. “If you can drive behavioural change and help people modify things like their exercise patterns or dietary behaviours, that’s when it becomes very powerful.”

But whilst data is at the heart of what gives wearables such potential, it is also one of the real reasons wearables struggle in terms of public perceptions. Given the huge questions still surrounding government access to data and high-profile data leaks, not all consumers are willing to risk giving so much away. “The world of surveillance is definitely one that we don’t understand well enough how to deal with,” Balabanovic says.

However, he feels that most of us are already engaging with this kind of technology on our own terms; given 1.35 billion monthly active users trade off data to make use of Facebook, evidently there is at least tacit acceptance of this. But the question of who has access to data from your trackers remains: is it acceptable for a child to have access to their elderly parent’s health data? What about an insurance company? “We need new kinds of cultural norms based on the devices that people have,” Balabanovic continues. “That is where the real work needs to happen: getting that to all work in a way that people find acceptable.”

But Newton thinks this is perhaps less of a significant adjustment than people commonly assume. “We underestimate people and people’s willingness to embrace new things and new technology,” he says.

He believes that ultimately there is a triumvirate of factors at work: control, privacy and value. Whilst previous innovations like chip and pin were resisted by some because of security concerns, uptake was rapid because of the value it represented to consumers – essentially it was perceived to be worth the trade off. “People adopted it because it was quick and easy to do,” he says. “The same is true with wearables.”

However, even if the public grows comfortable with the way wearables work, it’s likely it will still be uncomfortable with the way they look. “There is a curve that these kinds of technologies go through,” says Paul Brindley, the runner of IC tomorrow’s wearables contest. “Initially they’re perceived as being a bit gimmicky and clunky.” Whilst the explicit identity of wearables as gadgets has certainly attracted attention, this overtly technological identity can be off-putting to those that don’t want to wear a conspicuous device on their wrist. “If it’s going to move beyond the early adopters and into the mainstream consumer market then it has to be something that’s really seamless,” Brindley continues.

There is a sense that the conspicuousness of wearables will gradually fade. “Their overt, gadget-y nature will go away as soon as people can make it go away,” says Balabanovic. Again Glass is a prime example here: even those for whom it has an identifiable use case can be wary of strapping a very visible display to their faces. But the technology is rapidly advancing and already the capability exists to display information within the lens itself. “It’s not a clip-on separate display; it’s in the actual glass that you look through,” he says. “And obviously if we move towards contact lenses in the slightly more distant future then that’s very discrete.”

And if these kinds of developments are followed to their logical conclusion, it seems that the obsession with conspicuous wearable tech is destined to come to an end. “In the future, you won’t see any of this technology; it’ll all be seamless,” says Bowker. Ultimately she feels that the idea of wearables that feel the need to advertise their presence are likely to very quickly drop from favour. Instead smart design will favour functional technology that is integrated imperceptibly into everyday attire, with the distinction between the two gradually eroding. “We’re not going to be walking around in Blade-Runner-esque stuff,” she says. “That’s not the future of wearables.”

This dissolution of the boundaries between tech and non-tech wearable items may eventually overcome the resistance some have to current wearable technology. “Long term, we see a future where increasingly more and more products are intrinsically intelligent anyway,” Newton says. “The whole idea of wearables as a separate category will start to fade.” When there is no ontological separation between wearable tech and everyday accoutrements, users will cease to see a difference between items that contain tech and those that don’t. “Ideally you want it to be part of your daily life,” says Caroline Hargrove, technical director at McLaren Applied Technologies. “When it’s really ubiquitous to the point that you don’t think about it then attitudes will change.”

Clearly when these issues have been addressed, we will start to see major consumer uptake. But how far off is that? Where are we on the adoption curve?

While typical tech-advocates and early adopters have already been won over by the concept of wearables, there may be some way to go in the mass market. “Peers of mine who are not working in technology-related fields rather sneer at the whole idea of smartwatches,” Brindley says. But he feels that as some of the aforementioned issues are addressed, wearables will begin to see significant adoption. “I cannot believe that most consumers would not see the potential benefits of the additional functionalities they can provide,” he continues. “Those value-adds to the consumer’s lifestyle are pretty significant.”

Clark feels there is a lesson to be learned from social networking; eventually the sheer number of people who’d adopted social media encouraged others to join because they had to if they wanted to remain a part of the conversation. “The tipping point is where not being part of it is more detrimental than being part of it,” he says. This is one strength he feels there is to the Apple Watch; whilst features like conveying your heartbeat through its haptic feedback have been maligned in the press, it encourages greater adoption because both parties need the device to take part. “Eventually not having a smartwatch will mean you’re not included in that conversation,” he explains. “That viral adoption will be at the heart of any wearable growth.”

How close we are to reaching a critical mass with wearables remains to be seen but we’re not lacking evidence that attitudes are changing. “Early devices have proven consumer willingness to engage in this area and have blazed a trail,” says Newton. Whilst she concurs with this, Hargrove is still wary of putting a timescale on how long real adoption will take, at least whilst these issues are still being addressed. “But it’s starting to be realised,” she concludes. “And at some point it will explode.”

Cut from a different cloth

The Unseen

When it comes to seamlessly marrying up fashion and use-led technology, there are few with as much insight as The Unseen. During founder Lauren Bowker’s time consulting in the materials industry – for everyone from Parisian fashion houses to the Royal Academy of Engineering – she saw plenty of technology being used but it was often thrown into a finished product almost as an afterthought. “I wanted to form a design house that was sensitive in the design but literate in the technology,” she says. “One can’t exist without the other.”

Whilst The Unseen doesn’t work with wearables in the traditional sense, it is stretching the way we define the relationship between information and the things we wear. “The purpose of The Unseen is to use the materials and technology available to visualise what you wouldn’t normally see,” says Bowker. From a jacket that changes colour with the wind to a headpiece studded with Swarovski gems that fluctuate in colour over the areas of the brain in use, each design feeds back something about the wearer or the world around them.

The Unseen is now attracting offers from all corners of the fashion world. “Pretty much everyone you could name has been in touch with us to see whether we’ll work with them,” Bowker says. It has begun to create commercial goods but everything it’s been working on will be based on one single maxim. “It should be aesthetically driven but also application-driven,” she continues. “Ultimately we shouldn’t just be creating more stuff around us; the stuff around us should be much more intelligent.”

Fighting fit

Fitbit

Few players have capitalised on the explosion in wearables quite like Fitbit; the start-up was first formed when co-founders James Park and Eric Friedman realised that the available components could provide huge insight into users’ exercise routines. “Inspired by the Wii game console and the use of accelerometers in the hand-held controller, they realised the potential that technology posed,” says Gareth Jones, general manager of EMEA at Fitbit. “Fast-forward seven years and Fitbit is a pioneer in the fast-growing health and fitness space.”

Fitbit was astute to identify the potential of the market at such an early stage; as use cases go, fitness has proven to be a banker. “Consumer interest in tracking health has spiked - there has been an upsurge in tracking health and fitness,” Jones says. But the start-up is under no illusion that one can just occupy a single niche forever. “As consumers become more health-savvy, technology needs to keep up and be able to monitor activity in a range of different ways,” he continues. 

Responding to user desires is clearly a major thread for the company and the geeky aesthetic of wearables is something it is actively trying to challenge. “The fusion of fashion and design in particular is something we’re exploring now,” says Jones. This is the reasoning behind its ongoing partnership with American designer Tory Burch to design new iterations of its Fitbit Flex, trying to capture a wider slice of the market by shedding wearables’ overtly tech-y image. And the tactic looks set to deliver a very healthy future for the start-up. “We’re looking forward to a really exciting year as the connected health and fitness category continues its rapid growth.” 

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

As editor, Russell is the man in charge of properly apostrophising our publication and ensuring Oxford commas are mercilessly excised. Our digital doyen, he’s also a Photoshop Pro, a dab hand with InDesign and the man to go to if you need a four-hour soliloquy about the UK's best silicon startups.

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