Opinion: Winning the wearables war

Opinion: Winning the wearables war
Wearable tech has an image problem. The industry has worked hard on attracting geeks. But this is damaging to mainstream adoption

Culprit A: the smartwatch. Why would I want to weigh down my wrist in the name of taking calls and texts, browsing the net, sussing my fitness, or anything else I could do using a smartphone. With the added advantage of avoiding looking like a spy movie wannabe?

Culprits B to F: the ridiculous. Among this lineup is Dutch designer Pauline van Dongen’s clothing line with embedded solar cells to charge your phone when you’re standing in direct sunlight. 

Okay, maybe that’s useful, but it's also a tad crazy. But what about the sensor-packed MBody shorts, which for 890 euros ($1300) tell you about your athletic performance so you can create training programmes. Or the GER mood sweater, the woolly-sleeved equivalent of the mood ring, which detects excitement levels and translates them into a palette of colours shown on an LED-powered collar. 

Exhibits G to Z aren’t so much culprits, but a motley bunch of devices and systems that could be defined as wearable tech. That bunch includes fitness bands, smart glasses, e-textiles, exoskeletons, jewellery and patient monitoring setups in hospitals and homes, with sensors measuring every vital sign imaginable.

Wearable tech’s not new: commentators typically acknowledge US researcher Steve Mann’s 1981 computer-in-a-backpack as one of the earliest efforts.

Kiwi company Zephyr Technology is among our pioneers. Co-founder Brian Russell is a former Fisher and Paykel electronics designer, but he started Zephyr as three guys in a garage in 2003. 

Now US-based, Zephyr makes a range of remote monitoring technologies used by sports teams, the military and first responders. Take its BioHarness strap and sensor. It was developed for athletes, but was used in 2010 to remotely monitor the health of Chilean miners trapped underground in an accident. 

There is also a heart rate monitor that connects to mobile phones using Bluetooth; and the ZephyrLife patient monitoring system.

Wearables are the sum of their parts: sensors, processors, displays and something to attach them to us. That’s why they benefit from the advances that made other tech lighter, smaller, sharper and faster – and why the market will attract a stream of new entrants. It’s in chip makers’ interests to cater to a sector on the up side of the curve.

Design and user experience are also improving: think less clunky, more stylish and more personalised options for the fashion conscious. A continued drive for simplicity and cool – and more companies cutting the cord between watches, fitness trackers and mobile phones – will whet the appetite of first-time consumers.

With the game now played out in giant labs at Nike, Google and Apple, can these companies, their peers and their competitors make products with lasting utility and offer value for money? 

US analyst Markets and Markets has cast an eye on the future. It tips the space to be worth more than $US8 billion by 2018, with another global forecast predicting a $US70 billion value by 2024.

They see fashion, the industrial sector and military as likely to account for sales growth down the road, as those with deep pockets see the potential in big, smart data.

In the meantime, the intersection of fitness and medical is today’s beating heart of wearables. Proactive data collection and management allows people to prevent illness and governments to save money. 

Clinics can feed data to centralised institutions to evaluate trends and channel health spending to where it's needed. The hurdle to jump is combining data from disparate systems.

Still, if wearables are to move from culprit to can’t-do-without, they will need to entice a new generation of users. To do that they have to pass the same acid test as any kit: do they improve business/life? And as with any kit, that becomes less about novelty – and geeks – as prices fall and competition grows. ⋅