Wearables shift from gadgets to function-centric clothes

wearables function-centric
Image by Macrovector SLU | Bigstockphoto

Many kinds of wearable devices have emerged during the last few years, from smart watches and rings to shoes with sensors. But for most people, these are still gadgets with some nice-to-have data charts. Some smart wearable devices, such as Fitbit, Oura and Whoop, have become well-known brands. We’re now approaching the next phase of the wearables business – a shift from gadgets to function-centric clothing, and from new gadget brands to a market where any brand has wearable technology.

Inevitable sensorization of everything

I wrote earlier this year about CES and that wearables have become a prominent category at the conference. This shift illustrates how many sensors we all could be wearing in a few years. It also means that sensors themselves have become commodities. The wearables market is expected to have a CAGR of 18.5% and generate over $380 billion by 2028.

This also means that no brand or clothing company can afford to ignore this category. We will get wearable technology for all items we wear now: from pants, shirts, and shoes to special devices. These sensors and devices will measure way more things than our smart watches do today – for example, heart disease symptoms, blood pressure and circulation, blood glucose and physical mobility. Some will even look for signs of cancer.

This means that the market will evolve significantly in the coming decade. Right now, we have mainly individual devices and apps to visualize data separately. While your sensor-loaded pants, socks, shirts, jackets, and accessories can measure hundreds of data points,  they should not function independently from one another. You must be able to combine data from various devices and get applications that can use that combined data to help with daily activities, according to your needs and relevant health matters.

Function-centric wearables apps

It is hard to predict all possible applications for different purposes that are coming. But we can estimate some app categories:

  1. Lifestyle, exercising, and wellbeing
  2. General health and predictive healthcare
  3. Apps for a specific sport, hobby, activity or disease
  4. Professional apps (e.g. for fire fighters or military personnel)
  5. Apps that help to navigate daily situations.

Categories 1 and 2 have been most prominent as wearable devices went mainstream over the past several years. They measure daily activities, resting, and some health data like heart rate and body temperature. We already have some Category 3 applications, e.g., special apps for running or cycling, as well as apps for diseases like diabetes or gut health. Still, we are going to see many more of these types of applications. 

We also have some of the first examples of Category 4 applications. For instance, wearables data is increasingly used to provide data-driven insights about people working in the military, fire brigades, and health care personnel. Such apps have also turned out to be very useful for people to manage and cope with difficult circumstances. 

Category 5 is also coming, with applications to help find the right time and route to walk to avoid air pollution, minimize personal carbon footprint, or organize daily activities based on readiness and exercise breaks.

The above examples are simplified to illustrate different categories. And these are just guesses – just as we couldn’t imagine all possible mobile applications in 2008, today we can’t really imagine what kind of apps will be developed to make use of all the wearable (or user-generated) data our clothes and devices will be generating.

How to deliver data-driven solutions to consumers?

It has been estimated that there are tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of clothing brands worldwide. It is not impossible that most clothes, shoes, and sport equipment will have some sensors in the future. But even if only 20% of those companies adopt sensor technology, that works out to 10,000 to 20,000 brands.

When we look at it this way, it’s quite clear that consumers don’t want to have a different app for each of them (and of course no one buys their clothing from a single brand). Consumers want a model where they can buy any smart clothing product and import the data to the services and applications they already use. This is why it’s so important to combine data from different sources.

Also, many customers will have specific needs for wearables data – a particular disease, sport, hobby, professional activity, or unexpected life situation). It would be naïve to expect brands to develop all-purpose apps that could serve all those needs.

This basically means that devices are data sources, and users need a place to collect and combine data for whatever applications they require.

Nowadays, the market is very gadget-centric. Each device has its own app, and the app functionality is very much linked to the hardware – the application visualizes data that the hardware is able to measure.

In the future, the market will be much more centered around functionality: a person who has certain needs will want to get apps that help them with those needs. That means the applications must be able to receive relevant data from all kinds of sensors the person wears.

Building a viable function-centric wearables data ecosystem

Brands must think about how they get into the wearables market. It is not difficult anymore to integrate sensors into clothes, shoes or accessories. The real challenge is to build a data infrastructure, maintain it and build an application ecosystem. It is quite clear that all brands cannot do this on their own. So, they must find a way to cooperate with other parties or find a partner who can do these things.

Some will say the easy solution is to reach out to a data giant like Apple, Amazon or Google and cooperate with them. Yet, this is not so simple.

First, such companies don’t have very good reputations when it comes to data. Many people are wary of giving their data to those companies, who will then combine it with other data sources and either sell it or use it for the benefit of advertising partners. Second, wearables data is much more sensitive than your social media posts, purchases or music playlists. And third, by giving their data to third parties, brands basically lose their own position and give more people to the data giants.

The coming function-centric wearables data ecosystem will change the wearables market. All clothing brands should already start to think about how they prepare for this. Consumers want to get value from their data, but they also want to protect their privacy. They want to control and use their own data.

The billion-dollar question is: what kind of wearables data ecosystem will we get? The answer will have a major impact on our daily life, and how data and applications can help us live better, healthier and happier.

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