Wearable tech’s time has come

Smart clothing that does everything from track your vitals to protect your skin is one step closer to your local retailer


Clothes that track your every move, shoes that tighten themselves, and a smart TV that keeps a watchful eye over your connected home. A mirror that analyses your body shape and allows you to virtually try on clothes. A TV so thin that you could roll it up and put it in your bag as you await the arrival of your drone to transport you to work at the touch of a button.

These are just some of the things demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this month as the tech world provided a glimpse into the future.

For CES, 2016 is the year that wearable tech truly became wearable. And there is one thing that was clear: the future is rapidly approaching. The technology that had once been part of fiction – self tightening shoes, anyone? – was now visible on the show floor. And while some of it was a bit rough around the edges, the direction that it was heading for was clear.

A wearable translator that translated English, Japanese and Chinese in real time jostled for headlines alongside high tech sports goggles. Smart clothing that did everything from track your vitals to silence your phone is one step closer to your local retailer.

The new generation of wearables are a far cry from the smartwatches that dominated much of the talk around the category up until now. Despite the rise in the number of smartwatches and fitness bands hitting the market, it seems that consumers have yet to be convinced that the devices are worth the investment.

According to the latest data from Juniper Research, Apple Watch accounted for 52 per cent of smartwatch shipments in 2015, while Android Wear made up only 10 per cent.

“The smartwatch is now a category waiting for a market,” said Juniper’s James Moar. “Newer devices have offered more polished looks and subtly different functions, but no large changes in device capabilities or usage. With smartwatch functions established, it is now up to consumers to decide if they want them, rather than technology companies providing more reasons.”

But that hasn’t stopped manufacturers from coming up with new products to try to convince users that they need to buy the devices. Take Fitbit, for example. Since Apple launched its smartwatch, the company has been subjected to speculation that Apple is coming for its wearable crown. So to counter the competition, it came up with the Blaze. A more approachable design than the Surge, the Blaze is designed to be a smart fitness watch, complete with metal and leather bands, and stainless steel frames. Aside from the usual fitness tracking and telling the time, it can be charged in two hours and has a battery that lasts about five days – one of the chief problems with smart watches.

Withings, meanwhile, has gone another route: simple, easy to use. The company that brought the Activite to the market has now come up with the simple to use Withings Go. The band measure steps, sleep, swimming and running, has an always-on e-ink display, comes in a range of colours and never has to be charged – its battery will last for several months and you swap it for a new one, just like the watches of old.

Sports is the obvious application when it comes to wearable technology. Not only can the use of technology make sports safer for players, but it can also offer up insights that would be a lot harder to gain without it.

Although elite athletes have been using technology for some time to track performance, in the near future, that technology could be available to more than just the elite. Consumer brands have begun exploring that sector.

While Under Armour’s tech aspirations have been long flagged – the company has gone on a spree that saw it buy fitness apps such as Map My Fitness, Endomondo and My Fitness Pal – New Balance recently announced plans to create a tech division.

As wearable technology becomes increasingly mainstream, more companies are making the leap into the sector. The one that stood out most in recent weeks was L’Oreal, which has developed a wearable sensor patch that monitors UV exposure. The heart-shaped patch is designed to be worn for up to five days, and gradually changes colour according to its UV exposure. Using a smartphone camera and an app, the information can be decoded, giving the wearer some information on their level of exposure to UV rays.

The patch was developed by L’Oreal and Irish design engineering firm PCH, with technology from Massachusetts-based MC10.

PCH’s Liam Casey said he viewed the beauty industry as one that could help put wearables on the body, and indicated the patch was just the first in a range of products that will emerge from the partnership.

My UV Patch is part of L’Oreal’s plan to help raise awareness of skin health and the risks that come with overexposure to UV rays. And there is a pay-off for L’Oreal too; although the patch will be made available free of charge to customers, some anonymised data gathered via the accompanying app could be used to develop L’Oreal products in the future.

It’s also caused a crossover in the other direction. Samsung was just one company that showed off high-tech clothing at CES, with a smart suit that had a programmable button that used NFC to communicate with phones. That meant it could do anything from transfer contact information to change your phone’s mode. Although the clothing itself wasn’t smart, the addition of the button was an interesting take on how the future could look.

At the more high end was the Body Compass, which puts sensors into sports clothing that can give you information on your heart rate, body fat and breathing, plus provide you with real time feedback through an app on how you’re performing. It can keep track of your workout progress and even correct your form if it needs to.

It echoes Google’s Project Jacquard, which weaves technology into fabric to create smart clothes. At this year’s CES, there was plenty of that going around. Hexoskin’s smart shirt, available for pre-order, measures a range of body metrics, from ECG and respiration rate to sleep. Unlike the Body Compass, it’s machine washable, a bonus for sportswear. All the data is fed into an app, and it works on Open API, which allows you access the raw data and feed it into your own analytics.

Expect to see more of this. At this year’s CES in Las Vegas, Intel revealed a computer the size of a button that could cost as little as $10, that could be used in wearables. The ambition is smaller, more powerful wearables that are more accurate than anything we’ve seen to date.

Suddenly, the future doesn’t really seem so far away.

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