Trying on wearables

This article by Fiona J McEvoy (YouTheData.com) was originally posted on All Turtles.

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The dramatic failures of Google Glass and Snapchat Spectacles demonstrated the countless challenges faced by wearable technologies. Beyond the ubiquitous activity trackers and smartwatches, wearable consumer products have yet to yield a mass-market success. Though the idea of wearable tech and human-technology synergy still gets marketers excited, product designers have yet to hit upon a breakout device that will prove as popular and indispensable as blue jeans. Still, the allure of developing such a product remains irresistible.

Take Tommy Hilfiger, who in July unveiled a new line of “smart clothes” called Tommy Jeans Xplore. Instead of counting steps or monitoring heart-rates, these intelligent togs encourage frequent wear. Items in the new line are embedded with Bluetooth “smart chips” that enable users to play a game and collect points; the more often they wear the garments, the more points they accumulate. These points can then be cashed in for discounts and rewards, including tickets to concerts and fashion shows.

Even though clothing is, of course, the ultimate wearable, adding so-called smart technology to it doesn’t immediately turn heads. The arrival of Tommy Jeans Xplore was greeted with some cynicism, and many consumers remain at least a little confused by similar offerings. These include Jacquard, a new take on the classic blue jean jacket from Google and Levi’s, and Sonic Connected running shoes from Under Armour that gather several running metrics.

While the superficial purpose of Hilfiger’s “in-clothes tracking” differs from that of say, a Fitbit, their objective is very similar: to shape and encourage our behaviors while gathering valuable data. Neither product steps in and solves a problem in the way we might traditionally expect technology to do, and you’d be forgiven for thinking they were elaborate consumer sensors mostly of interest to marketers. What’s more, these sensors don’t come cheap: Tommy Hilfiger’s new line ranges between $30 and $140, and a Fitbit will set you back around $130.

Rise of the jetpacks

The wearables market is forecast to reach $25 billion by 2019, driven by smartwatches and wearable cameras, but also allowing for a wide range of new wearable products that are about far more than just quantified-health and fitness.

Look at the hover backpack that students at the University of Tokyo are developing. This wearable technology, known by its brand name of Lunativity, is in its infancy. But if it comes to market it could keep pedestrians safe by allowing them to literally float over crosswalks. By augmenting natural jumps, effectively turning them into mini flights, the backpack and the ideas behind it could permanently alter the way we move around our environments.

Also in a future world, although one that looks a little less like the Jetsons, new wearables are may solve familiar, everyday problems. For example, might we soon wear cooling devices in the summer? Or capture perfect footage of our adventures and vacations using a wearable 360° camera? Could we see an end to sleepless nights by wearing noise cancelling earbuds to bed?

So the new, practical ideas just keep coming even though the public has been slow to try them. Last year it was reported that 75% of U.S. adult consumers had never purchased smart clothing or wearable devices. Yet if the forecasters are right, then as these devices evolve with more substantive purpose, consumers may be less reluctant to wear their technology.  So what does this mean?

The most obvious benefits would be felt in our day-to-day routines. Wearables free our hands, which can help us to move more quickly, assess our environment more easily, and provide us with the data we need to behave more efficiently—both at home and at work. Consequently, we may have more available time, which means more work, more play, more focus, more recreation.

Ready-to-wear data privacy

But it would be foolish not to acknowledge reasons to hesitate. The more technology we wear, the more connected we are, and connection brings pros and cons. To be connected is convenient, but it also has a built-in level of surveillance and requires at least some relinquishment of personal privacy (even if we aren’t being overtly tracked). For the most part, technology that we wear or carry knows where we are, where we’ve been, and what we’ve seen, as well as a multitude of things about our reactions to those things, both physical and emotional.

It is critical, therefore, that consumers have a greater awareness when it comes to what data our wearable devices collect and why. Transparency permits a level of control and potentially avoids a kind of chilling effect whereby users adapt their behaviors in response to feeling inhibited by surveillance and consequent judgment. Moreover, the public should be given assurances about data security given the proliferation and AI-driven data hacks.

If product teams developing wearables take the time to educate would-be consumers not just about benefits and conveniences, but also data collection and tracking,  then they might have the same trust and reliability of our beloved denim.

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