Wearables Disconnect

What can we expect to see come down the wearables runway, and what does it really represent?


One of the great opportunities created by the pandemic is a result of conferences going online. I know many people miss the social aspects of not being able to get together with your thousand closest friends, who you see every year at the same shows, but requiring a physical presence is limiting in both time and expense. Personally, I have used the opportunity to “attend” conferences that I would never otherwise have considered.

Such was the case recently when I decided to listen in to a fashion conference in Germany. Of course, it had a technology slant to it because it was looking at wearables – Wear It Innovation Summit. While some of the talks came from the semiconductor industry, many of the speakers and attendees were from the fashion industry. What I found the most interesting was the disconnect between the two groups.

From our side, it was very much, ‘This is what we have that you can use.’ Of course, much of this technology has not been designed or developed with the fashion industry in mind. It was developed for phones, watches, or perhaps even at a stretch, an IoT device. These are high-cost, high-margin devices with decent volume. They also are associated with products that provide the wearer with a significant value. Some device classes may not have tipped the balance between value provided and cost, such as smart glasses, but there is a reasonable expectation they will get there eventually, and then the market will have been worth the investment.

When many of us think about fashion, we see it at two levels. The first is what can we buy in the stores and why we buy them. For many people that is a simple question of utility. I am cold, so I buy a sweater. I am going to be doing a dangerous job where something might fall on my feet, so I need steel-toed protective boots. And yes, for some it is because they think they will look good in it, and it reflects their personality.

Then there are the crazy things we often see, and laugh about, at a fashion show where the more appropriate questions might be, ‘Who would ever buy that and how much did they pay those models to be seen in them?’ This is perhaps a little unfair, because we also have seen such products be launched in the high-tech field and people have asked, ‘What is the point?’ Again, think about smart glasses when they first came out, or early Palm Pilots.

These products are basically attempting to investigate a market potential. I can remember back to the days when I was a developer in EDA and being told: never ask one of your customers what they want to see in the next version of a tool because the only answer you will get is that it should be cheaper, faster, and the bugs need to get fixed. They are too focused on the here and now to think about how they could change the job they are doing in ways that would ultimately be better, faster, and cheaper.

When I became a technologist, my job was basically to answer the question about what engineering should work on. The most effective way to do that was to present to customers what futures might look like. Take people out of their comfort zone and then let them critique what you are suggesting, or perhaps provide a different perspective than you may have had. This was where the really new ideas came from, and that was no different than sending a model down a catwalk in some crazy outfit.

The fashion industry has not worked out what smart clothing looks like yet or what purpose it may fulfill. I am sure you have seen the ads for smart underwear that tells you when it needs to be changed. All I can say is what is wrong with just changing them daily? Also, I do not need the day of the week printed on them, and certainly don’t need technology to tell me I have a mismatch between today’s date and the ones I should be wearing. Neither is it useful to be told I have them on backwards – the label gives me a heads-up about that.

So, why do we need smart clothing? It is possible that we don’t, but that doesn’t stop the industry from investigating if there is a market for clothes that change color depending upon our mood, or that provide constant monitoring about certain aspects of our bodies, or that can balance the energy we expend against the food we consume. But, at the end of the day, there has to be a true value.

There are also technical hurdles that have to be overcome before this becomes reality. For example, semiconductor technology is not particularly fond of water, and the idea of putting a smart device in the washing machine would make most people cringe as they consider how much rice it will take to dry it out again. While smart watches are somewhat waterproof, I don’t think they would stand up to a cycle in the washing machine. To us, this is perhaps a challenge to develop circuitry that would stand up to these conditions. But for at least one speaker at the conference, the challenge is more about how to redesign the washing machine.

I hate the cliché, but real progress often requires thinking outside the box. We need to submit our ideas for peer review, and that often takes being bold and courageous.

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