Wearables: Fitness vs. Fashion

Wearables have long been advertised as ‘the next big thing’ in the consumer technology market. Health and fitness trackers were a key part of the early hype around wearables, but obviously a lot of attention has also focused on smartwatches. For many experts, smartwatches have the potential to be a compelling new product category that could experience similar growth and revenues as smartphones have since the launch of the first iPhone.

There is no doubt that wearables have featured prominently at the major consumer tech tradeshows in recent years – especially at IFA 2016. However, market reports in late-2016 suggested that there had been a sharp decline in the uptake of wearables. While analysts had expected wearable usage among US adults to grow more than 60% in 2016, in reality growth stalled at 25%. The report also highlighted that: “Smartwatches in particular have failed to impress customers”.

Despite this gloomy prognosis, a more recent report from IDC has suggested that they were inclined to believe that things are looking up again for the wearables market. In fact, they have predicted global wearable shipments to grow from 102.4 million units in 2016 to 237.7 million by 2021. So what’s really going on here?

The short answer – there is now a significant division in the wearables market driven by fashion and aesthetics.

To help explain let me point to Vanessa Friedman, a writer at The New York Times, who proclaimed that she had “broken up” with her Apple Watch, primarily because it looked too much like a gadget. And this is part of a wider trend of the more traditional ‘gadget’ wearables continuing to perform sluggishly.

On the other hand, there is now a growing number of manufacturers who are approaching wearables as genuine fashion items rather than a technology product. As an example, the Tago Arc is an elegant smart bracelet featuring a flexible display that adapts to a wide array of patterns and designs depending on the wearer’s style and mood. And it is this ‘more chic than geek’ approach to wearables that is fuelling the more positive forecasts that we are now seeing.

What does this tell us? Firstly of course it tells us that manufacturers and developers need to get out of the mindset that wearables are technology products first and foremost. It also tells us that manufacturers and tech developers need to work with a wider selection of materials and designs if they are to make wearables more appealing to customers. Finally, I think it also tells us that, paradoxically, in order to see greater growth of wearable technology designers need to focus on making the technology invisible and more deeply embedded in devices.