Beyond Shiny Objects in Retail Wearables

Written BY

Michael Perman

April 1, 2016

Written by Special Guest Blogger Michael Perman, former Dean of Innovation at Gap, Inc.

Fashion wearables is an exciting market right now with a lot of shooting stars and shiny objects to admire upon the blue horizon. First, let’s bless the ingenuity of those who are elegantly merging form and function. At the same time, it’s good to pause for a moment and think about the future of fashion/function wearables and begin discerning what will become meaningful vs. what is just entertaining and stylish. And, in addition, consider the possible roles for wearables in a retail setting to augment the shopping experience.

To be sure, this is a viable marketplace, with 21 million units of wearable technology shipped in 2015 and a projection of several times that for 2016 and beyond. Last year, more than 15% of American adults owned a wearable fitness tracker, and Gartner is predicting more than 20 million units of wearable apparel to ship in 2016. But, how many of these will actually be useful (and thus relevant to retailers)?

In the health and fitness space, wearables that provide meaningful information and practical connectivity are going to win. Recording your steps is not enough and many fitness trackers fail to capture the inputs from major activities such as swimming, biking, yoga, meditation, or surfing. New wearables such as Your.MD provide real medical information, and Sentio Solutions’ Feel band measures blood volume and sweat gland activity to assess the user’s emotional state.

When it comes to wristbands, brands with the technology infrastructure still dominate, with Nike and Under Armour leading the way. Researchers at UC Berkeley have developed a wearable device that determines levels of glucose, potassium, and lactate from a single drop of sweat. There are even fingerprint wearables that doctors can use to enhance their sense of touch, and detect cancer earlier as well as more effectively.

Retailers are making strides in leveraging Augmented and Virtual Reality headsets (though clunky) to enhance the shopping experience. Volvo and Microsoft developed a digital showroom where you can build a custom car and test drive it from anywhere. In the apparel business, this holds great potential, as many retailers are reducing their physical footprint yet still need to provide access to the same breadth of inventory as before. So VR/AR devices could convey the wearing experience in situ: “How would this wool coat look in a New York snowstorm?” or “Let’s take an ultra-close look at the beautiful fabric we’ve imported from Italy for this sweater, while we show you exactly where it was made.”

And speaking of fiber, Project Jacquard is just the beginning of smart clothing, and is also a prospect steeped in psychological complexity. The technical capabilities are clear–being able to weave virtually invisible smart fibers for conductivity of signal or light. And perhaps it’s also a clue as to the eventual extinction of the smartphone, which could very well be replaced with the voice- and touch-activated utility of items worn on the body. But let’s face it, it is weird and unclear how people will feel about interacting – whether passively or actively – with technology on and around their whole body.

Meanwhile, we can enjoy a variety of really nice smart fashion statements from brands like Samsung, Fossil, Misfit, and Wisewear, which provide basic information along with aesthetic appeal.

Final thought: The future of wearables will emerge from the right intersection of meaningful information that mirrors our lives, communication of this information to the right places, and good looks–aka it has to look mahhvelous, too!

Michael Perman is an innovator through and through. His career – before and beyond his most recent role as Dean of Innovation at Gap – has been devoted to the creation of anything new. Don’t miss his unique presentation “C’est what? Leveraging Mindful Design for Innovation” at EWTS East this June–it’s guaranteed to be highly informative, interactive, and a breath of fresh air in the program!

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