Looks matter more than function in the wearable tech business, according to participants in a panel forum last week at the Wearable Tech Expo in New York.
One of the first panel questions related to size. Does an oversized wearable appeal as much to the consumer as a more moderately sized one?
"It's about the application that matters. Sometimes it's if the wearable is meant for a construction worker, size might not be an issue, but if it's for a hardcore athletic sportsman and sportswoman, then definitely size matters," said Mikko Malmivaara, sales and marketing manager for Clothing Plus Ltd., which makes sensors for wearable tech clothing.
It's not just the size of the device, but how it fits against the body, said Amy Puliafito, spokesperson for Misfit Wearables, which produces the popular Misfit Shine fitness device. "In everything we did with Shine we were trying to eliminate a lot of friction points people have with their activity trackers," she said.
Form versus function
The next panel question focused on whether form matters more than functionality.
Nick Warnock, president of Wellograph, which has developed a new health and fitness wearable, said, "When we started developing Wellograph a few years ago we had all these bells and whistles. Then we took a step back when we saw some wearables appearing on eBay. Instead of putting functionality first, we said, 'Let's start with form and design and then go into functionality.'"
Randy Granovetter, CEO of Comhear, which produces digital audio wearables, said, "No one wants to have something that you're wearing all day long that doesn't look good or feel good. And then you have sensors. Products have sensors in them and then you have audio. It all depends on what you're doing and when you're doing it. What is the technology and the M2M?"
Malmivaara said, "But cool is the word. It is important to design wearables to look good. Even before people know and understand the function of the wearable, they should want it and desire it. Design is the key to that."
Sylvia Heisel, designer/creative director of HEISEL, which designs clothing with tech materials, said, "I think there is this big segment of the population where it needs to work. If it doesn't work, forget it. But beyond that, they're not excited about what the technology is. They don't care. But it has to work and it has to look good."
Designing for aesthetic appeal
The next question focused on whether there are specific design strategies for wearable products.
Granovetter said there are design strategies. "If you're running it has to feel good. If you're listening to music it has to sound good. It has to look good, feel good, and be fashionable for what you're doing in your day."
Warnock said, "You want people to buy it on aesthetic alone, but by the way, it's an activity tracker, heart rate monitor, pedometer. That's what separates you from the different styles and features coming out and it's your own personal style and fashion."
Puliafito said, "The fashion and tech communities definitely need to come together and talk a lot more, but I do think we have one shortcoming in common which is we're often disconnected from the lives of most people in this country. In addition to make something that is fashion forward and very beautiful we also have to make things that are accessible and customizable so that people can wear it in the way that is most comfortable."
Heisel said, "It's an ongoing thing and as the two come together there is a lot of innovation coming from the textile industry. Electronics companies are getting more aware of design and fashion issues. Electronics are becoming luxury goods. It is the new watch. Something like Shine is a status symbol like a handbag was or a designer T-shirt."
Fashion means different things to different people, Heisel said. "You have to think of fashion as different groups of people with different style. There is maybe one electronics product that works with a huge scope of people but it's going to have to look different to appeal to different people."
Lower prices will encourage adoption and development
Soon, wearables will become more mass market as the prices drop, according to the panelists.
Puliafito said, "The cost of the sensors [within the devices] are rapidly decreasing. We think the future of activity trackers is that they're going to become a commodity and the price will rapidly drop. I think we're really seeing the industry changing in terms of what sensors cost."
Heisel said, "The price and the ability to prototype is going down so quickly. You can 3D print things. You can sample a lot of stuff and make a lot of prototypes quickly."
Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. With a background in fashion writing at People and W magazines and WWD, she ties together the style and substance of tech.