Turn Onto The Future

A Look At The Growing Trend In Wearables

Wearables TechnologyRetailers and consumers are hailing the rise of wearable technology. Ad specialty suppliers, though, see more risk than reward. Here we analyze a growing trend.

When Steve Jobs wanted to redefine the look and language of the Mac computer in 1982, he hired Frog Design. By 1986, Apple's revenues had increased by nearly 500%. So when Frog recently held a competition – among its own designers, no less – to mock up the next generation of wearables, the world of technology and fashion paid close attention to the results.

"We've had quite a few clients coming to us and asking about wearables," says Jonas Damon, creative director at Frog. "The technology is improving, so we thought this would be a great forum."

Across a dozen offices from Seattle to Munich, designers took to conference rooms, whiteboards and their own workstations to brainstorm ideas that would address real needs, not just be attractive to the eye. A creative team, including Damon, then chose eight concepts to present to the public. The winning ideas included everything from an AirWaves mask that can monitor pollution levels, to a New York subway navigation bracelet that could provide real-time information about scheduling, delays and pricing.

"The bracelet is meant to make the system smart, help people have a better commute and let the city know where there's traffic stress," says Damon.

What might surprise the average consumer is that the technology for Frog's concepts, as well as those of other leading-edge designers and engineers, is largely available today. The real challenge, though, comes in unobtrusively synching systems and enhancing the advances that already exist. "It's about making devices smaller and using less power, while still storing more data," says Skooks Pong, vice president of technology at engineering firm Synapse. "Wearables technology is a new frontier, a land rush, and everyone wants to grab a piece."

And the piece is no doubt considerable and lucrative. A spring research note from Credit Suisse predicts the wearables technology market will generate $50 billion annually by 2016. Considering the magnitude of what's ahead, in what follows, Counselor explores some of the latest wearables trends, gadgets and ideas, and asks suppliers this question: Can any of these notions find a niche in the ad specialty market?

The Players
If there was a place to see and be seen in the wearables space this year, it was the April Smart Fabrics conference in San Francisco. Adidas' Stacey Burr, Pebble's Eric Migicovsky and 3lectromode's Valerie Lamontagne all presented to audiences of reps from companies like Apple, Nike, Microsoft and DuPont.

"We've been running the conference for 11 years, but this was definitely our biggest ever," says Stephanie Whitman, marketing coordinator for the event. "We had 40% growth."

Besides exhibits, the conference included sessions on body sensors, textile switches and every gizmo imaginable. But there was also a practical side, as speakers used case studies and offered market applications – from medical and military to safety and security. "In the past, it used to be the promise of smart fabrics and the potential of them," says Barbara Fowler, the conference's director. "Now the talk has gone to more and more users, with big brands adopting them and asking how we can solve new challenges with materials like batteries, LEDs and conductive inks."

Conferences like Smart Fabrics certainly show off the latest technologies, but they also tend to be centers of news, rumors and well, gamesmanship. At the popular D11 Conference held in May, for example, Apple's CEO Tim Cook said "it's tough to see" Google Glass having a broad appeal, especially at its $1,500 price point. "There's nothing that's convinced a kid that doesn't wear glasses, or a band, or a watch, to do so," Cook said.

The Google device, a wearable computer that connects to the Internet through voice and other commands, has drawn even greater criticism over privacy concerns. Some worry about Google eyewear's use of facial recognition in public, while others are anxious about Glass' ability to record and broadcast conversations. Fittingly, Google recently used its own I/O developers' conference to play down fears.

"The process for taking a picture or video has clear social queues," said Steve Lee, the product director for Google Glass. "When Glass is active, the display lights up. Because of that, you can rest assured I'm not recording you."

Google Glass, Fitness Trackers
While Google Glass has captured most of the spring 2013 headlines, the market's attention is fickle. As pre-order shipments reach their first customers, Pebble's smartwatch – which connects by Bluetooth to phones – could steal the spotlight. The device allows wearers to check their texts, e-mails and even their Twitter or Facebook feeds. "We made the first 600 prototype watches in our garage," said Eric Migicovsky, Pebble's CEO, at London's LeWeb Show. "The first batch of Pebbles will be 85,000."

Pebble's case is unique because it raised $10 million in capital, in just 30 days, through crowdfunding website Kickstarter. "We weren't the first to use Kickstarter as a fundraising platform for hardware and we won't be the last," Migicovsky said. "You find out if people actually want what you're making, and you find out if people are actually willing to pay for it. Those are the two most important things you can learn as a start-up."

Pebble is likely to soon face strong competition, as whispers persist that Apple and Samsung are working to release their own smartwatches. In the short term, though, through a growing list of apps, Pebble is looking itself to sap market share from the Fitbit, the Jawbone Up and the Nike FuelBand, which are all types of fitness trackers. Backed by Nike's marketing machine, the FuelBand is considered the market leader.

"The idea for the FuelBand kind of came from the Lance-bands that everyone wore," says Synapse's Pong, who helped develop the FuelBand. "It includes an accelerometer, you can wear it every day and it's a fun way to monitor your activity."

But Nike's competitors are clearly attempting to exploit the FuelBand's limitations, namely its inability to measure lower-body movements, liking cycling. That's why Nike's greatest threat could come from Misfit Wearables, which is preparing to debut a device called the Shine. Set to launch this summer, the waterproof Shine is a button-sized, brushed aluminum tracker that measures not only steps, but also swimming strokes and pedal movement on bikes. The $99 Shine is more of an accessory clip than a band and can attach to shirts, pants, shoes, ties – virtually anything.

"What makes the Shine different is we focus on elegance," said Sonny Vu, founder of Misfit, at this year's Digital Health Summit in Las Vegas. "We thought about first what people normally wear. It's cotton, precious metals, leather – but it's not plastic and rubber. They don't wear rubber. So we decided to make something out of metal. It's beautiful and you can wear it anywhere."

While the Shine aims to naturally blend into someone's wardrobe, the Myo from Canada's Thalmic Labs screams to be seen. The device, which is worn on the forearm, is a stretchable gesture-control band that uses motion and muscle-activity sensors. Video game enthusiasts will liken the technology to Xbox's Kinect, although with the $150 Myo, no cameras are needed.

"We use the electrical activity from muscles to detect what you're doing with your fingers," said Steven Lake, Thalmic's CEO, in an April video demo. "We also sense all of the motions and rotations of your hand and we plug that in over Bluetooth to almost any electronic or digital device."

The future of the Myo is really in the hands of developers, so industry applications are virtually limitless. "I'm amazed at the ideas I'm getting," said Scott Greenberg, Thalmic's director of developer relations. "We're going to be launching our developer program in the next few months. We're going to be giving out exclusive access to an early version of the software and devices."

Lights, Batteries, Data Make Clothes Smarter
Smart watches, control bands and computerized glasses (like Google Glass) may seem revolutionary, but recent advances in fabrics and skin-touch technology are just as significant. Lamontagne's 3lectromode, for example, offers a washable LED-embedded dress that uses conductive thread from Germany. With an Arduino luminosity sensor, the dress can be programmed for day or night wear.

"The lights respond to the environment and communicate with each other," Lamontagne told Counselor. "The Lily patterns are pre-programmed and there's clean code. We use a lithium battery that's rechargeable."

Lamontagne's efforts aren't commercially driven, but intended to appeal to a DIY-audience of students, fashion designers and decorators. That's why 3lectromode's dresses can be ordered in a kit and assembled. "I've really tried to simplify and democratize the technology, so it can be reproduced," she says. "If you can sew and have just a little knowledge of engineering, you can do it."

Bioelectronics firm MC10 is also trying to make technology user-friendly, while making data more easily accessible. Its products use conformal electronics, which are meant to track information – like someone's heart rate – without getting in the way of normal movements like stretching, bending and twisting.

"We've figured out how to reshape the once rigid, high-performance silicon-based electronic system," Ben Schlatka, co-founder of MC10, told Counselor. "Our technology is also ultra-thin, so devices are virtually invisible to the user."

Nothing is more ultra-thin than one of MC10's latest offerings, a microchip that can be printed directly onto skin. The sensors, which have the life span of a temporary tattoo, exfoliate after about two weeks. While the chip is in place, though, it collects data like body temperature and hydration levels. "The direct connection between device and tissue provides superior data," Schlatka said. "It's a departure from the bulky devices we see today."

Ad Specialty Advances
Distributors won't see the latest Pebble- or Google-inspired devices in supplier catalogs this fall, but there is a breakthrough that's about to go mainstream in the industry's apparel: temperature control technology. As body temperature goes down, the technology will reflect heat and warm up someone wearing a jacket, for example. If body temperature goes up, the technology will provide cooling.

"We're looking more on the functional side of things," says Chris Clark, senior vice president of sales for Top 40 supplier Ash City (asi/37127). "This is also something you're seeing at retail." Clark describes the heating material as looking like "tinfoil" and compares the cooling effect to something like "putting your hand on a marble countertop."

While the technology has become sound and repeatable, its real strength might be in doing more with less. "The new liner we're introducing is like a silver Mylar, it's extremely thin," says Will Andrew, president of Trimark Sportswear (asi/92122). "When our developers brought this in, the micro-layers in soft shells were incredible. It was almost like you had to pull them apart with tweezers."

Besides temperature control technology, Trimark is also preparing to roll out a new product that promises to cut out duplication in the supply chain. It's the company's early and somewhat cryptic response to so-called less expensive fast-fashion, like clothes you might see at retailer H&M. "Everything about this item we've done differently," Andrew says. Apparently, "everything" includes the style of decoration. "The decoration technique will only go on this garment," Andrew says.

There are still other industry apparel improvements to look for soon. "We're taking a look at a water-resistant sweatshirt," says Rainer Friedrich, vice president of production at Charles River Apparel (asi/44620). "It's something the industry has sort of left alone recently. Under Armour has done it with polyester and we're looking at more of a cotton/polyester blend."

Beyond 2013, Friedrich also has his eye on a couple of advances he recently saw during a trip to mills in Asia: LED patterns that could replace or enhance reflective safety clothing and flat speaker systems that could be included in running apparel. "I saw speakers that you could roll up like a piece of paper," he says.

Reasons for Reticence
There are dreamers who design and there are pragmatists who sell. Most principals in the ad specialty industry seem to fall into the latter category. So it's probably no surprise that suppliers whose livelihoods depend on consistency recoil when asked about still unproven e-textiles and smart wearables.

"We've looked at these things and talked to distributors, but there's just not a good fit at this point," says Taraynn Lloyd, marketing director at Edwards Garment (asi/51752). "It wasn't that long ago when QR codes were in vogue. The concept sounds great, but it takes dedicated people to implement the program and someone at the end-user level to manage it."

Marc Held, the national sales director at Top 40 firm Bodek and Rhodes (asi/40788), doesn't think the ad specialty industry has the space for products that even retailers haven't embraced yet. "We'd all have marginal success if everyone does it," Held says. "It's something you'd spend a lot of time on, but it would be like catalog candy. We have to concentrate on volume business."

Even apparel-focused distributors don't think smart wearables will enter the market in the near future. "The top brands that are using this technology are very protective," said Jeff Becker, president of Kotis Design (asi/244898). "There are already tons of restrictions. They wouldn't want a logo on their products. And then there's the problem of price. This technology is expensive. People still want $3 T-shirts."

–E-Mail: dvagnoni@asicentral.com; Twitter: @VagnoniASI