The wearable device market is evolving as tech manufacturers try to figure out what it will take to appeal to a broad audience. The connection between fashion and tech wearables is getting stronger as manufacturers recognize that people want to not only wear something that works well, but looks good, too.
Face it. Putting on a wearable makes a statement, whether it's to tell someone that you are into health and fitness, or that you're a techie and you want instant access to texts and emails.
"We're at the very beginning of wearables. People are finally waking up to the fact if you're going to be on someone's body, you have to at least be not unfashionable. With Shine, we were trying to be not unfashionable," said Sonny Vu, founder of Misfit Wearables, which developed the stylish Misfit Shine fitness tracking device.
Watch TechRepublic Senior Editor Teena Hammond talk about fashion and wearables in a Two-Minute Drill:
Making wearables appealing
There is a problem with the drop off rate once someone buys a health and fitness wearable. A previous TechRepublic article focused on an Endeavour Partners survey that revealed more than half of the people who bought a health and fitness wearable had stopped wearing it, and a third of those had put it aside within the first six months of receiving it.
Dan Ledger, principal at Endeavour Partners, said that the appearance of a wearable is one of the key things that keeps someone wearing the device.
With this in mind, wearable manufacturers are looking toward the fashion industry to add style to their tech products, including Ayse Ildeniz, vice president of the new devices group and general manager of strategy and business development at Intel Corporation.
"What we have seen are the technology companies taking the lead on the wearable domain, and we believe it is time the fashion companies take the lead. They should be defining what a wearable aesthetic should look like and the kind of functions it should provide. There's a larger sensitivity in the industry toward that," Ildeniz said.
Fashion is an important consideration when designing a wearable. And yet, many of the wearables on the market have a uniform look that doesn't draw people into wearing them daily.
Fitbit is working to incorporate even better design into its colorful wearable devices, said Tim Rosa, vice president of global marketing for Fitbit. "The fusion of fashion into technology will be an important part of the widespread adoption of wearable technologies. If you are making a product that is intended to be worn 24/7, like a Fitbit tracker, design is key."
To achieve a more fashionable look, Fitbit has partnered with designer Tory Burch to create accessories for the Fitbit Flex, from pendants and bracelets to wristbands designed to hold the Flex tracker. The products will debut later this spring.
It makes a personal statement when something is visibly worn on the body.
Ildeniz said, "Anything we wear is very personal. I like to think that whatever I wear as a woman is a true reflection of myself, rather than the basic functionality of it. There's a clear distinction of having technology and carrying it with you versus putting it on yourself. I think this is almost unavoidable that the two have a clear interplay and if people are to carry technology it will have to be fashionable," she said.
To keep the wearables market strong to a broad audience that includes women, devices will need to become more fashionable, she said.
"If this thing is to go beyond Silicon Valley males, then it has to have some aesthetic appeal to it. I actually think wearables are at the start of a journey. It is a journey we all collectively, the fashion as well as the technology industry, will have to explore. We need to look at what audience is resonating to. It's interesting how the genders are approaching this technology," she said.
To achieve this goal, Intel has partnered with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) to work with the designer brand Opening Ceremony and Barneys New York to create a smart bracelet that will debut later this year. This will be the first time a department store has created and carried a smart wearable, Ildeniz said.
"Our relationship with CFDA is very strategic. They've got the best of the best. The intention is the technologist, the innovation company like Intel, we introduce our software engineers to the people who actually make the wearables. We create a giant platform where everybody comes together and talk how innovation can be done with technology and fashion. It introduces technology to the fashion industry but also creates a platform for future collaboration on not what just we want to do but everybody else," she said.
Intel is also sponsoring a Make it Wearable campaign to challenge small companies, startups and individuals to create a wearable concept. "We wanted to create the platform so they could enter a challenge where certain people who are selected we will be coaching and supporting and helping them take to market all these interesting ideas they're playing with," she said. The contest will result in 10 finalists who will be paired with mentors. The winner will take home $500,000, with $200,000 for second place and $100,000 for third place. There's also a video entry that gives $5,000 to each of five winners.
Making wearables less visible
Simon Lamason, principal of design strategy at PDD Group, a London-based consultancy firm, said, "you've got the tech industry good at making technology, but not good at making desirable devices."
A wearable device isn't like a smartphone that can be laid down and not tied into your outfit or overall appearance. With a wearable, it becomes part of you and makes a statement, he said.
"I see wearables becoming much more integrated and hidden on the body and continue to get more powerful and as the sensors get smaller and smaller. Why is it on my wrist, why isn't it embedded in my shoe or my clothing? If you hide it, it avoids having to be a fashion item," Lamason said.
For instance, graphene imaging technology is being embedded into contact lenses to give thermal infrared vision and UV vision, he said.
"I think that points to augmented reality and what Google Glass is doing with its heads up display. As humans, we want to see this information whether it's through a smartphone or an implant in your head. It's science fiction stuff, but it gives you that same benefit and fulfills that same need. We as designers here are always looking to satisfy that need," Lamason said.
Wearables growth and future
There is early fallout already in the wearables market. Nike, with its FuelBand fitness device, has already pretty much bailed from the whole concept. Last week, CNET reported that Nike fired the majority of the team responsible for developing its FuelBand fitness tracker. Nike said it will continue to support the Nike+ FuelBand App and Fuelband SE, but plans have been shelved to release a slimmer version this fall.
Despite the news from Nike, wearables remain a strong growth category, with ZDNet reporting the IDC forecasting the global market for wearables growing to 111.9 million units in 2018.
Robert Thompson, i.MX business development manager for Freescale Semiconductor, which makes a wearable reference platform for wearable development projects, said, "the future of wearables is brighter than ever. A lot of the forecasts that analysts are coming out with will happen."
Thompson said that many of the products currently on the market are first generation put out by companies wanting to test the wave of the wearables spectrum. "The Galaxy Gear is a perfect example of that ... Samsung learned very quickly from their mistakes. The large companies that play a long view of this and take the approach that we get into the market and test it, and we are reducing the risk long term, will benefit."
The positive side of Nike pulling out of the hardware market and focusing on software, he said, is that it leaves the hardware market wide open to smaller companies wanting to try to become the next Nike.
Right now, the early tech wearables aren't appealing enough to survive long term and be the catalyst that makes everyone suddenly want a wearable, he said.
"I don't think anything being launched is the iPad or iPhone or Kindle of the wearable market," Thompson said. "I don't think [wearable] devices have evolved to the point where people are willing to put them on their body," he said. "To make that decision to put something on my body, even if it's a Fitbit, it's a very important decision and not to be made lightly."
Thompson said, "I think we're just at the beginning of understanding the wearable space and understanding what needs to be done ... We're just starting to see technology companies developing just for the wearables market. We need to start understanding the fashion and the garment industries. Traditional a tech company or a chip company has nothing to do with those industries. But until you understand those markets, how can you design for them?"
The nature of fashion
Fashion trends, by their very nature, have a short life span.
Vu said, "Fashion, by definition, is something that comes and goes. You're trying to fit into someone's sense of fashion and sense of self-expression. If you try to be fashionable and be the symbol for someone, it's not going to last a long time.
He said that there will be more partnerships between technology brands and fashion brands. "Appealing to a person's sense of fashion will be part of what makes wearables a lot more wearable. There will be better designs and better materials and connections to brands. When you have a Louis Vuitton purse it says something about you versus a Kate Spade purse versus a Stella McCartney purse. This is going to be one of the things that make wearables a lot more mainstream."
Vu said that materials will also be a big deal, with more manufacturers using glass and metal instead of plastic. Comfort will also be important, since people wear these devices 24/7 in many instances.
"I think comfort, design, materials and connections to brands will propel wearables to be more mainstream. Until we have those in place, the number wearing them will still be relatively small. It will be in the millions or tens of millions of users, not the hundreds of millions or billions of users," Vu said.
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.