Brands and retailers were late to social revolution, they’re now at risk of being late to our next wave of technology evolution. With a potential value of $30-$50 billion, wearable tech is something we must understand from the start. From Google Glass to biomimicry, sensor technology to RFID tags, technology is changing the way designers manufacture their products. Wearable technology is certainly one tidal wave the fashion industry can’t afford to ignore. Third Wave Fashion hosted a forward-thinking discussion in SOURCING at MAGIC last month, noting where we’re at, but more importantly, how far we have yet to go in the marriage between fashion and technology. Panelists came from:
Alison Lewis, Fashion Technology Designer, CEO, SWITCH
Sonny Vu, CEO, Misfit Wearables
Rachel Hinman, UX Expert, Former Senior Research Scientist, Intel
Mahin M. Samadani, Executive Director, San Francisco, Fjord
Moderated By: Emily Heintz, VP Marketing, MultiMediaPlus
The wearable revolution seems to be taking faster than the mobile revolution. Why is that?
Rachel Hinman, specialist in mobile and wearable technology: A lot of people in the mobile industry were surprised that mobile happened as fast as it did. Once the iPhone was released, within two years we saw companies like Motorola and Nokia go from top of the mobile phone world into basically junk stock. And I think a lot of people see wearables as sort of that next big tidal wave. People don’t want what happened in mobile to happen again, so they’re interested in wearables.
Mahin Samandani, vice president, Fjord: It’s about price points. It’s about $99 for a number of these wearable technologies. For cell phones, it’s about a $1,000 per year commitment. So in some ways, it’s apples and oranges from a mobile revolution standpoint.
Is there a particular product that seems to resonate with the consumer?
Sonny Vu, CEO of Misfit Wearables: One of the lowest hanging fruits in this space is fitness tracking. Because of mobile internet, wearable technology can be made meaningful. We’ve had wearable tech for a number of years like the wristwatch, but it wasn’t connected to anything. You couldn’t store or share your data.
Now, because of the cloud and mobile internet, wearable tech can be brought right in. Fitness is the first, but I wouldn’t say it’s a killer application. It’s not one of those things like if you forgot your phone at home and you’re halfway to work, you would probably turn around and get it. Does fitness tracking pass the turnaround test? I don’t know if it has that effect. At least not yet.
So, there’s a race. What do you think it’ll take for a wearable technology to be successful?
Alison: First of all, it shouldn’t be wearable tech; it should be fashion tech. I think the wearable tech companies need to stop being wearable tech and start being fashion tech. And as soon as you take that little degree turn into thinking about it that way, I think that’ll launch it out to the rest of the world.
Mahin: The three basic principles for success are: stability, simplicity, delight. With stability, it has to work. It’s reliable and the tracking is actually accurate. With simplicity, there must be use case that’s easy for people to comprehend. To Alison’s point, it’s fashionable, it delights you and lives past that ah, ha! moment when you can build a relationship with it.
Rachel: A lot of wearables that you now are not very fashionable and people don’t like putting them on their body as a fashion statement. If you can contribute and collaborate with the technology industry to create wearables that are functional but also make people look good, I think you’ll be far ahead in the game.
Sonny: That’s a good point that’s not always as It’s not as obvious in Silicon Valley, which is where I’m from. A lot of the wearable technology that comes out there looks like it was designed by Silicon Valley men for Silicon Valley men.
Not only does it have to be useful, but also the aesthetic and design are important to continue for the adaptation by the consumer. Beyond beautiful design, what’s the tech behind fashion tech?
Alison: The manufacturing industry has a challenge to overcome as far as combining textiles with electronics. Making it both washable and wearable is a challenge.
Mahin: The algorithms have to be accurate. Also, with the manufacturing in general, there has to be quality, and there are sensor issues. I think it’s the elephant in the room right now. If that stuff doesn’t work, we’re a just few major flaws away from everyone saying, “forget about it.” At least for a while.
Sonny: Wearblity is so important. There are two things that help make technology wearable: One is comfort. Just because something is curved doesn’t mean it’s flexible. Being flexible and bending to your body is more important than bending to some pre-specified shape because everyone’s body is different.
The other part of it, a top reason why wearable products are not worn, is because they have to be taken off to be charged. Battery technology has been flat in terms of innovation. As designers and engineers, we have to work around that constraint. It’s an important art and science that needs to be mastered in the next few years.
Rachel: The excitement is happening around the form factor. If you see anything as a technology object, it has hard surfaces. And if you think of things that have technology embedded in them that start to have the geometry of nature or human form to it, it’s fundamentally different. In terms of what’s possible in material science, I think that’s where the most interesting and game-changing innovation can happen because that’s something we’ve just never seen before.
What opportunities do brands and manufactures have with data?
Mahin: The opportunities with data are massive and endless. Consider the Weather Channel: it has a large business in selling weather data. You can only imagine once your wearable starts to say, “You’re a little hot today,” or “Walk a different direction because you sweat more.” The mash-ups become endless and magical in what they can provide.
Alison: Imagine being able to have a purse changes color and respond and react to its user. The body is an amazing space for data. Everything you think about right now can be collected from sweat to location to movement to breath. The possibilities are limitless, and it’s up to us as consumers to consider how we want that data to be used. I believe in putting the power of data in the hands of consumers and letting them decide.
Sonny: What’s important for us designers is to figure out how to make the data relevant. You wear some of the fitness trackers on the market now, and you take it swimming, it tells you how many steps you swam. Even something as simple as the metrics reported, we need to make it relevant.
Rachel: We’re also seeing technology that’s helping you collect data and understand yourself better. We’re still struggling with the intuitive way to share that data. When I look around, I see so many people buried in their phones. I think that comes from a human craving to connect to people. How are we using wearable technology to connect people? That’s a space where there’s not a lot of technology that can support those interactions. Wearables are well positioned to connect people in space and time.
What are the ramifications for privacy with this new wave of technology?
Rachel: I do recognize that privacy is a fear people have. People have varying levels of sensitivity. For instance, my level of sensitively to information is going to be way different from my niece who’s 12 years old and has only known of buying music through iTunes. There’s a different kind of mindset.
One of the things we haven’t seen a lot of is what happens when we don’t have these high levels around sensitively of privacy of information. When data can connect to other data, it can start to do really interesting things for people. But this whole issue of privacy stops that exploration in its tracks. I’m looking forward to seeing with wearables how we can break down those walls. We’re still respecting people’s concerns about privacy, but we can start to explore what’s possible when we have a different attitude of what privacy is.
Sonny: I have a feeling certain societal habits will shift over the next ten years—just how societal habits have shifted with email and now mobile email. I had a guy complain that I didn’t respond to him because he sent me an email this morning. That happens now. Ten years ago, would you ever complain if someone didn’t respond to you within two days?
What about wearable technology would you like to see change in the future?
Alison: I’d like to see a lot more collaboration between fashion designers and technology—and that is for technology to be able to amplify what designers already do with clothes and accessories. When you put on a power suit, it affects how you project yourself to the world. In the end, maybe the use case is to amplify what we already use clothes and accessories to do. How can we use technology the way we use clothes to tell our story?
A lot of women struggle with the concept of Google Glass. Why do you think that’s the case?
Rachel: In the mobile industry, we hearken back to Apple Newton. The reason iPhone happened was because of the failure of the Newton. I think we’ll look at Glass the same way. It’s provocative and it made way for something, but it also is sort of ill-conceived.
One of the fatal things that Google Glass didn’t consider was that the face is a sacred place for human beings. It’s one of the primary ways we communicate and connect with people. If you have something that obstructs that in any way, it becomes a deal breaker for a lot of people. When people thought about trying Glass, this was the biggest concern people had. You’re disrupting a primal thing people need which is face-to-face contact. I think Glass opened up the space, but it’s failure was the inability to recognize something that was very human.
Sonny: I don’t know if I’d put the nail in the coffin on Google Glass just yet. It is Google. They’re going to get it by generation four or five and it’ll be amazing. This is generation zero right now. Maybe it’s not about being first, but about being last.
Written by Laura Kudia, New York Correspondent