The Rise, Fall, and Future of Wearable Fitness Devices
Published: September 8, 2018
A few years ago, everyone was convinced wearable technology was having its moment.
Predictably, tech startups like Jawbone bought into the impending wearable “revolution”. Even retailers from adidas and Nike were on board with the sure-to-come wearables boom.
But then, progress stalled, Jawbone folded, and no one—not even Fitbit or Apple Watch—could take wearables to the next level.
Now, all signs point to a second wave, and this time, wearables are out for more than your wrist.
Tech companies think active apparel and smartphones will go beyond counting steps and tracking heart rate, and they’re pushing the envelope in some pretty interesting ways.
Whether it’s in your living room or embedded into your gym clothes, real-time data hopes to impact your day-to-day life. The strategy: make wearables actually meaningful.
But the same question remains: is this the moment or will you shed your ‘smart’ clothes as quickly as you ditched your wristband?
Started from the bottom, now we’re… somewhere
Back in 2015, the wearable revolution was seemingly in full swing. adidas had purchased Runtastic, Under Armour was working on HealthBox, and everyone owned a Fitbit. People were expecting wearables to be the next smartphone in terms of reach and frequency of use.
But instead of becoming a cultural mainstay, the trendy wristbands started to seem more like a fad. By 2016, the wearables market was saturated, consumers weren’t completely sold, and Fitbit’s sales started to decline.
At the same time, companies like adidas and Under Armour started to realize the resources they were dumping into wearables wasn’t worth it, and in turn, most decided to back off.
From there, things continued to get worse. In 2017, Fitbit’s sales dropped 35% in the first nine months of the year. The company released a smart watch in August, but it didn’t perform as well as expected, and more bracelets wound up in dresser drawers.
The caveat? Even though the interest in and expectations around wearables cooled, some companies have continued to dabble, hoping to develop a product that adds real value for their customers and their bottom line.
Take Under Armour as an example. Their CTO, Paul Fipps, told Wareable he believes that, in time, customers will expect that wearable technology is embedded into everything they’re wearing and using.
And that might just be universal enough to be effective — not everyone is comfortable wearing a bracelet, but everyone, at some point in their life, has to wear a pair of pants.
Ready or not, expect to see more wearables hitting the market. Companies are saying “take two, here goes nothing”.
IDC Mobile Device Trackers predicts major growth in smart clothing over the next few years; their data estimates it will account for 9.4% of the share of wearables by 2021, with 22.3 million garments shipped by then. (Oddly enough, that’s the same number of Fitbits sold in 2016.)
Based on predictions, wristbands are expected to fall from half the market share to a quarter, with other wearables, like smart clothing, making up the difference.
Take, for example, the Nadi X yoga pants from Wearable X, which have sensors behind the knee and at the hip and ankle. These pants sync up to an app that comes loaded with yoga poses; follow the videos while wearing the pants and they’ll buzz to alert you when to shift your weight or straighten your spine, just like a teacher would.
Helpful? Probably. Impactful? That’s the million-dollar question.
Clearly, the more sensors there are, the more data points can be collected, and more information is great. But the trick will be personalizing the products enough so that all that data can actually improve performance. Or, at the very least, build a reliance on the product past the average New Year’s resolution.
Because no matter how scientific and precise the metrics, if you’re only capturing a user’s attention for 60 minutes, possibly three times per week, that’s never going to translate into a wearable that’s effective, actionable, or valuable enough to have long-term staying power.
If each coming iteration of wearables captures more accurate and extensive data, and relay it back to users in an actionable way, there might, MIGHT be something to this.
But then tech, fashion, and activewear companies would still need to make the segment affordable and useful. Part of that includes blending several services into one shirt (or bra, or sock): fitness, sleep, general well-being, and specific health concerns.
Even then, how much are people willing to spend on the technology? Peloton probably can’t scale a $4,000 treadmill into every home, but wearables might have a shot.
As of now, though, the numbers still seem too high. Products like the Lumo Run, a motion sensor that clips onto running shorts to track movements and provide real-time feedback through headphones, costs $130 for a tracker and smart shorts or capris. These are on the cheaper side when it comes to wearable technology, but $130 isn’t feasible for those not in the bougie boutique fitness movement.
See, if you’re not all in, you’ll likely just think it’s a pain in the ass to only wear your pricey pants.
The Internet of your Wardrobe
For as skeptical as we’ve been about the latest wearables exercise, there are a few bright spots that put function ahead of aesthetics and focus more on overall health than heart rate.
Fitbit acquired a healthcare startup that connects people with chronic conditions to doctors or coaches, all using Fitbit data as part of health assessments.
Hexoskin, a Canadian company, caters to both activewear and general health too, selling clothing that monitors lung function as well as heart rate, steps, pace, calories, and sleep. They go beyond hours logged, though, measuring breathing rate and volume while sleeping, and tracking sleep positions.
Another company to keep an eye on: Sensoria, which currently makes smart socks, sports bras, T-shirts, and shoes designed to track cadence and foot-landing technique, and deliver real-time suggestions in an effort to reduce injury or strain. While still fairly minor, these tweaks are what give smart clothing and shoes an edge over bracelets.
Many of the aforementioned, innovative companies will come together at the annual WEAR Conference. There, it may become clearer who is leading the charge — despite all the forward motion, there doesn’t seem to be one top dog at the moment. And without that, it’s hard to say when and if wearables will catch on to the extent those inside the industry hope.
At last year’s WEAR event, adidas Innovation Explorer Jon Werner spoke to the Fashion Is Your Business podcast about what’s to come. “Everything you wear is going to be instrumented and created in a way that will help you reach your goals,” he said.
The invisibles revolution, as he called it, may not be overhauling activewear quite yet, but it’s making a sincere effort to revive that same hype of years past.
Unfortunately for the companies, CTOs, and innovation officers, it’s not up to them. It’s up to us. And until activity monitors can remedy our inactivity, the wearable revolution is far from a reality.
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