March Post: Wearable Technology

Last month, the Wearable Technology Show showcased its 6th year at London’s Business Design Centre. The show itself exhibited 5 main categories: augmented and virtual reality, smart textiles, health innovation and AI business.

The wearables market is currently growing at an exponential rate and these days the most prominent wearable applications are in health and fitness. It’s now becoming increasingly common to see people wearing smart watches and Fitbits and we’ve already started seeing smart fabrics come into the commercial market.

Invited speakers not only discussed the latest in wearable innovation but also public perception towards wearables and the challenge of pushing wearables past just wrist-worn form factors. Personally, this was the most interesting discussion point: following the success of the Apple watch, smart watches have now been around for years and although it has definitely integrated into its users’ daily habits, the pubic’s vision of wearable technology has failed to progress much past wrist-worn fitness applications. This has made the term ‘wearable technology’ lose it’s impact somewhat. People often buy products to only use them a few times before losing interest or some just see them as gimmicks.

In my opinion, the Apple watch has been the biggest success story and even that took several versions to get it to where it is today (now being on its 4th series). Obviously, Apple weren’t the first to develop the ‘smart watch’ and other tech giants have come out with their own alternatives but we seem to have since hit a standstill when it comes to universal adoption. Whist initially intrigued by gadgets such as smart glasses and VR headsets, wearables seem to have lost momentum. Companies innovating in wearables now seek to change this.

Healthcare in particular sees the benefits of targeting a specific need or user. One example was a continuous health monitoring solution by B-Secur. By creating a small wearable sensor that can be implemented into your clothing, real-time monitoring of an individual’s unique electrocardiogram is made possible without the need for the standard 12-lead electrode system. This has a huge impact for personalised healthcare that can be controlled by the user and simultaneously relay real-time information to a health professional when necessary. The success of this device is its simplicity and portability – two factors that are at the forefront of design for all wearables. Additionally, the ability to sync to a user’s smartphone and tablet is another key feature. Many see the future of wearables as integrating into the user’s existing collection of smart devices rather than competing with them. Instead of replacement, wearables have the potential to come together with other smart devices to create a user-centred, connected system.

 

HeartKey dashboard for monitoring (image courtesy of B-Secur)
Some exhibitors at the show. McLEAR contactless payment rings (left), products from Bluefrog industrial design consultancy (middle) and HP1 Technologies helmet integrated with graphene sensors for impact and pressure monitoring.
KYMIRA Sport products focus on active wear designed with smart textiles for improving the wearer’s sport performance by promoting increased tissue oxygenation and blood circulation.

As well as advances for medical wearables, there has also been examples of benefits for the retail industry, which has seen a decline in sales over the past few years. A large proportion of sales still happens in-store and to boost these, InovRetail uses wearables to encourage retail staff on the shop floor to make smart customer-orientated decisions, which saw both increases in sales (up to 16%) and improved mentality towards wearable devices. They have since worked with many retail clients to implement the technology across the globe.

Although all these examples are no doubt interesting, there was a definite focus on physical devices and wearable hardware. Wrist-worn developments involve advances in flexible and foldable screens (just look at Huawei’s Mate X) and we now have manufacturing methods to miniaturise devices and sensors with relative ease. But what about wearable fabrics? I believe a more accessible way to changing people’s view on wearable technology could be to look at smart materials. For example Gore-Tex, although not conventionally thought of as ‘wearable technology’ was a revolutionary material and immediately considered the gold-standard of waterproof clothing. I do think the research and science behind the material’s development required just as much innovation as your typical wearable gadget even though its application was so simple. Of course, we now also have e-textiles, which are fabrics that integrate electronic components and soft circuits. CuteCircuit is a brand that merges fashion with these types of materials and in 2016 created the Sound Shirt which converts sound into a tactile response to enhance the sensory experience of those that suffer from deafness. Similarly, adaptable fabrics (with temperature or structural adaptability) have huge implications for the fashion and lifestyle industry.

Overall the impression is that wearable technology still has some way to go and some of its biggest challenges aren’t in the science or innovation but rather in the social factors such as public perception. One problem lies with the lack of user data and hence understanding of the user. Companies and innovators need to know their user’s daily habits in order to tailor devices to their needs and ensure the technology is easy to integrate into the user’s day-to-day routine. On the other hand, maybe we need to simply redefine what ‘wearable technology’ means and what to expect of it. Despite this, having seen and talked to exhibitors, the progress that’s been made is no doubt astonishing and reiterates how much potential wearables have to change many aspects of our lives. 

Written by Deana Tsang