Wearable Tech and Where It’s Headed

There’s no denying that wearable technology is an industry gaining more attention these days, as there have been notable advancements in what these tiny new gadgets are capable of. Take, for example, Quell – a gadget that, when strapped to the body, will recognize signs of chronic pain and minimize such effects by both triggering natural pain relief responses and blocking pain signals. Or, if you’re an avid gamer, you may be interested in the Oculus Rift: a motion sensing, virtual reality headset that takes video gaming to an entirely different level.

Though these nifty pieces aren’t necessarily conducive to everyday style on the streets, they have brought attention to the latest and greatest collaboration between the two separate industries of technology and fashion. Our need to make things smaller and more space efficient pushed firms to create gadgets, which are now smaller and lighter than most could have ever dreamed. And since convenience is always an important factor in consumer decisions, companies are trying to create easy access to technology at any time by letting these gadgets come everywhere with us.

It is, however, important not to regard all wearable technology as simply smaller computers. Although computational power is certainly an aspect of wearable technology, it’s a fraction of what such technology can accomplish. Because these gadgets come in immediate contact with the body for longer periods of time, they facilitate the collection of scanning and collection of sensory data, also known as “sousveillance.” The ability to gather and process data in real time opens up many possibilities in a variety of fields, making them invaluable tools for academic and individual research and development.

The problem with trying reach the average consumer, however, is that wearable technologies are either highly specific to a certain field or simply aren’t fashionable or functional enough to justify both the price and the look. Such a dilemma pushes firms to make tech chic, accessible and relevant for consumers.

Fashionable wearable tech isn’t a completely new phenomenon. The retro calculator watch debuted over two decades ago, and since then, the occasional tech piece has made its way onto the fashion circuit, with Bluetooth earrings and microphone jewelry. In 2014, however, the period of fashion technology stagnation ended. New projects from large corporations and startups jockeying for investment popped up everywhere, and, consequently, the world has seen significant development in the wearable tech available in the market. According to a 2014 Forbes study, 71 percent of 16-24 year-olds want wearable tech. Granted, some may think that it’s destined to be a short lived fad. However, the tech industry shows no signs of slowing down as they strive to make subsequent generations of smart devices smaller and stronger.

After the sudden influx of new wearable technology, the confluence of fashion and technology has produced financial gains,, albeit not without some clear lessons going on forward. Big names in fashion have been quick to snatch tech corporations. Some have capitalized on the ever-increasing desire by consumers to pursue a healthier lifestyle, part of which incorporates fitness. Tory Burch and FitBit worked together on a line of fitness bracelets and pendants, whereas Ralph Lauren brought on OMsignal to create a smart shirt for men that tracks vitals during exercise and relays data for improved future workouts. Another marketing track seeks to capitalize on the obsession with social media; Opening Ceremony and Intel produced the MICA smart bracelet, which shows phone and social media notifications, and Rebecca Minkoff joined forces with AT&T to create purses with speakers and notification bracelets. Tommy Hilfiger separated from the pack to design a coat with removable solar panels and a built-in charger.

That’s just a sampling from big name designers. Looking at the wearable technology market as a whole, the products offered fit into four broad categories.

Fitness and health. Today’s consumers place a higher value on their health, and gadgets that help facilitate better lifestyles are not to be ignored. Nike+ was just the start – other companies jumping on the bandwagon include Numetrix (sports bras), Mira (bracelet), NEVO (watch), BodyMedia (misc), Withings (watch) and more.

Notifications. If receiving notifications via your phone is too much, have no fear – there’s a gadget for everyone who wants to know what their network is up to without getting your phone out of your pocket. Apple’s Smart Watch is a staple in this field, but that’s just the beginning: Motorola (watch), Samsing (misc) Altruis (ring), Cuff (bracelet), Ringly (ring) and Memi (bracelet) have rushed to let us know what everyone is up to by buzzing our hands.

Pure aesthetic value. Technology allows for more dynamic elements in fashion, and designers have caught onto this. Soft LED lights woven into clothing, circuits wired into fabrics, and textiles sensitive to heat are all things that designers like Kerri Wallace, Rainbow Winters and Ying Gao have used to elevate runway shows.

Wild cards. Beyond the world of workout gear and Twitter feeds lies a vast array of consumer needs that can be met through wearable tech. Some highlights include: Alexandr Kostin’s Hand Tree: a bracelet that purifies the surrounding air, Adafruit: bike helmets that have blinking lights indicating turns and stops, Tzukuri and Asher Levine, who created clothing and accessories with tracking chips, Heapsylon: socks that let you know if you’re about to injure yourself in a workout, and Netamo: the June Bracelet, which tracks your UV exposure and reminds you to put on sunscreen.

In order to move forward, the industry faces two main hurdles. Firstly, companies must prove that the product and its experience is not just an extension of what already exists on the market. Smart watches have been the recent craze and have held their own in revenue reports. There are, however, only so many ways that you can repackage a cellphone or a portable charger before consumers figure it out. Second, companies must justify steep price tags. Pre-established categories like health and fitness or smart accessories have their merits, but the industry is oversaturated with products that essentially do the same thing, the only difference being minor variations in presentation. “Wild card” inventions that fill real consumer needs are areas are not receiving the attention they deserve, as they answer both questions. Designers need only guide technology corporations into understanding consumer fashion preferences.

The long term goal is the more abstract notion of creating an entirely new experience, independent from technology or fashion. Wearable tech is based on the concept of efficiency – looking good and getting things done with one piece. This goes far beyond surface integration of technology and fashion, which is largely where we are now – taking pre-existing pieces of tech and splicing them into fashion. Complacency, however, is nowhere to be seen in some up and coming collaborations. Levi’s and Google are in the midst of developing smart fabrics that allow gesture interactivity, and Chromat’s collaboration with Intel focuses on smart fabrics that will change hemlines based on temperature. To top it off, Intel now sits on the British Fashion council, indicating that major companies consider this crossing of paths an investment for the foreseeable future. There is no denying that technology is a cornerstone of how society functions, but its presence into fashion and style was minute. Wearable technology is challenging this – in 10 years, we may even shake our heads at the clothing we sport today.