When computers live on the body
We are becoming increasingly intimate with technology. Portable screens aren’t only in our pockets and backpacks, they’re on our wrists, fingers and feet, and it won't be long before they’re all over our bodies in the smart fabrics currently being developed by technology, military and fashion companies (see Samsung’s launches at CES and our Shift Sneaker). We strap alarm clocks to our wrists, we monitor our calories burned, we swipe left or right on Tinder, remotely take pictures from our phones and are forced to rethink our go-to excuses for not texting our significant other.
The primary difficulty facing wearables isn’t procuring new consumers (those numbers are consistently rising with rocketing sales forecasted in the coming years), but in ensuring customers continue to use the devices after purchase. Many current generation wearables are still struggling with a lack of adequate battery life, the provision of accurate and contextually sensitive data, and finding a proper marriage of relevant user experience with a suitable interface (an area we explored for our Jawbone project).
It's safe to say that wearables are likely to succeed in the fashion industry in the long term as the lines between technology and fashion continue to blur. The versatility of wearable tech means it can be easily visible and bold, concealed in everyday apparel, specifically tailored to suit professional needs or generalised for the public persona. Fashion doesn't generally focus on functionality, but on providing consumers with apparel that enables them to characterise and express themselves; whereas, tech concentrates on functionality and performance. Therefore, the best wearable tech contributions will be the garments that are both needed and desired, purposeful and expressive - rather than wearable tech for the sake of wearable tech.
In terms of the immediate future, wearables are proving to be very effective within industries that are designing wearables for a practical application and a purpose. The principles we wrote for designing the Internet of Things apply equally to wearables.
“There’s no point connecting something if it isn’t useful. Making things smart and connected only makes sense if it’s done well.”- Tim Rodgers, Founding partner of +rehabstudio
Products that are proving most successful are ones that solve things or offer services that smartphones can't. That’s why wearables are proving so effective in the healthcare industry; they’re allowing patients and doctors to track wellness. Many, perhaps most, of us share the common experience of visiting the GP and being assigned an unfamiliar doctor, who diagnoses us based on the snapshot of our overall health that we’ve presented in a 30 second babble. Wearables can constantly monitor our bodies, providing a data-rich history of our health to the doctor and helping to inform a better plan of treatment based on a continuous assessment. Further to this, wearables can remind patients when to take their medication and of the correct dose, meaning they are being monitored and assisted while away from the surgery.
We can learn a lot from successful devices like Vivi, a HUD (heads-up display) for doctors to quickly assess their patient’s vital signs during operations. Simple and efficient, the device focuses on enhancing an experience made possible by other devices rather than trying to replace them altogether. The data is carefully curated for the user needs, and the interface is unobtrusive and intuitive. Together, these components distinguish has a wearable with exceptional competitive value and viability.
Vivi is at the forefront of a growing trend of smart wearables which are starting to turn collected data into actionable advice. These devices include: the Automatic Ingestion Monitor, which tracks eating habits to detect eating disorders and promote a healthy lifestyle; Muse, a smart headband that measures brain signals and delivers feedback to reduce distractions and stress; and Athos, a line of smart fitness apparel that measures muscle activity and heart rate in real time to optimise workouts.
Wearables that, provide data, inspire action and give advice will encourage sustained engagement and be more successful than wearables that solely supply information.
Wearables like Vivi have their origins in the medical and fitness industry, but also demonstrate growth into other areas. Field service, insurance, electronic payment, event management and retail are among the first sectors to adopt technology into workplace attire; many other fields are expected to follow suit in the coming years. Sport will also be hugely impacted, with the ability to oversee crowd flow, live updates and the performance of individual players.
Sports players are beginning to wear wearables in training so that their managers can monitor their movements and their fitness through hard data, helping to assess performance and prevent injury. Reebok's Checklight is a good example of this, with concussion being such a huge issue within the world of rugby and american football, companies are trying to find ways to tackle it using wearable tech.
Checklight, often used with NFL players, provides coaches with the ability to monitor any direct impact that the player’s experience to prevent them from injury.
Advertising should also welcome wearables as a platform. Brands and agencies will be able to collect more individualised data to create hyper-targeted messages that lead to increased conversions. Augmented reality devices for instance can use eye-tracking software to pop up ads when users look at a certain item. Smartwatches may not necessarily offer distinguished use-cases from what our phones already offer given their lack of distinctive properties and smaller screens, but they can still be used to acquire valuable data.
And despite the fact that most people are glued to their phones, for most of us, their are times during the day that we don't carry it with us (we don't wear our phones to bed or hold them whilst we do yoga). It's in these instances that brands and agencies will be able to acquire and use additional data from smartwatches and wearables, and consumers will receive fewer, better options as they shop from anywhere. Imagine a push notification from your H&M app, informing you that a nearby store is carrying the sweater you looked at online last week that was out of stock. Where there’s a new screen, there is a higher potential to get closer to consumers. With this new opportunity for highly targeted messages, brands will have to reconsider how they get in front of consumers to create more personal relationships and more relevant messages.
As wearable devices spread across all industries, the data discovered will spread into everyday life. These connections will require new regulation at a level far higher than individual industry. Under an umbrella network, virtually everything will be optimised to offer insights into goals and habits, streamline mundane processes and deepen interactions with current technologies. A wearable ecosystem will inevitably house an infrastructure reliant on some sort of multi channel network (Bluetooth, at first): devices will transmit data collectively, not individually.
This phenomenon will become more evident with the introduction of additional smart/IoT devices - a connected home, workplace, car and so forth will quickly embrace wearables as the interface for these connections. Wearables like the EM-Sense, which can recognise household appliances when touched, Nod Ring, which can manipulate gadgets through gesture controls, and Microsoft’s HoloLens, which can overlay information appropriately, will all exemplify differing ways of interacting with pools of data. Manufacturers will have to issue these devices to speak and listen to multiple data streams at the same time.
A recent PwC report stated this clearly:
“A critical inflection point for the wearable category will be its ability to account for environmental surroundings and take data in as seamlessly as it pushes data out. Most notably, wearables cannot be divorced from the IoT - whether local or remote, they must interact with other services and be used in conjunction with the cloud and corresponding Big Data applications”.
Imagine waking from a perfect amount of sleep, regulated by your smart watch, to see the morning sun shining into your room through your SmartThings-connected curtains. You walk down the stairs to a hot Smartoven-cooked breakfast, as instructed by previously logged and reccomended meals on your wearable, based on your health plan and personal tastes. After breakfast, the on-board maps in your cycling helmet suggest a different route to work to beat traffic, thanks to real-time data collected from early bird commuters. It may sound futuristic, but then so did smartphones, the internet, and Siri.
Projected to be a $19b USD market by 2018, the advent of small scale computing integrated into the wardrobe challenges everything we know to be true about computing. Still, reaching this valuation will require plenty of effort.
For wearables to provide indisputable value, they need to perfect the way they interface with the user and the way they interface with the ecosystem. For users, wearables need to be purposeful, functionally correct, specialised with unique application and customised to cater to the specific need of the consumer. Brands and marketers should get ready to target consumers in innovative and disruptive ways, through the inevitable next wave of wearable technology platforms.