The wheel is one of the most important inventions in human history, but when it was first created, the only thing we could do was strap it to a stupid wagon and force oxen and horses to pull us around. Today, wheels are the foundation of cars that can move hundreds of miles per hour; they let planes touch down, and have helped Pat Sajak remain employed for 33 years. Right now, wearables—the catch-all term given to any piece of clothing or accessory that incorporates some sort of technology meant to improve our lives—are at the wagon phase of their lifespan. That didn’t stop the minds behind tonight’s Met Gala (including Vogue’s Anna Wintour and The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Andrew Bolton) from setting “Manus x Machina” as the theme for tonight’s event, and dedicating it to the crossover between fashion and technology.
Wearable technology has the potential to change every aspect of how we go about our daily lives. But, just as wheels didn’t have the same impact before the invention of the engine, transmission, or battery, the technology used in wearables hasn’t been developed far enough to unlock their potential far beyond a gimmick. In effect, when we slide on a smartwatch, we’re really wearing a horse and buggy. How long until wearables can really hit the gas?
First, the term “wearables” itself already represents an outdated approach to the concept. When wearables really do make it big, they might want to go by a different name, like anyone smart who receives sudden fame. “We’ll get to the point where the phrase ‘wearable’ becomes obsolete, and you enter this age where [everything is connected],” Fashion Tech Forum co-founder Maia Wojcik tells Complex. Wojcik talks about meeting a company called Evrything that carries the motto “Born Digital.” “Its whole idea is bringing digital capabilities to products at inception,” she explains. In other words, it’s not about squeezing tech into something that already exists. This, Wojcik says, is “the next stage;” it will be much more enticing to consumers because that approach requires that each smart item does one specific thing really well, as opposed to trying to do everything all at once. The possibilities there are endless, says Wojcik, “from a bottle of alcohol, where it can be monitored and you can be alerted if it’s refilled, to a bottle of shampoo that reorders itself when it’s empty, to clothing that has technology built into the tag at the time of manufacturing.”
Apple is seemingly taking a the opposite strategy with the Apple Watch, which might explain why it isn’t catching on like the company hoped. The watch wants to be everything to consumers. Its impressive treasure chest of features runs deep, but none are essential—it only amounts to more frivolous technology in the wearer’s life. Wearables in the future will be able to accomplish a lot more by individually doing a lot less.
“What we now lump into this category of wearables is really going to translate into a constellation of different devices,” says Leor Stern, the co-founder of Cronologics, the software that powers the style-conscious smartwatch CoWatch. “All these things are going to work in concert to help you as you go about your daily life, and you’ll be able to use them individually or all together. So, think about a T-shirt that can sense your level of perspiration or body temperature, working together with a shoe insert that’s tracking your gait or the way you’re jogging. That’s connecting to a heart rate sensor that’s strapped to your chest, that’s connecting to a watch that collects the GPS track of where you’re running or is playing music for you to enjoy while you’re running, and pushing that to headphones that you’re wearing to listen to that music.”
That all seems fantastic and futuristic, but also leads to another issue currently plaguing the wearables market: The stuff doesn’t actually look all that great. The big breakthrough will come when fashion brands begin incorporating tech into every design, as opposed to tech companies trying to make stylish clothing. “If every jacket in your closet is something that can help you thermoregulate—where it’s not designed by a tech brand, but designed by your favorite designer—that’s something people will like,” claims Madison Maxey, founder of The Crated, a company that researches and develops smart fabrics. The idea of a wearable becomes a lot more palatable when you think about an Acne sweatshirt that knows when you’re hot or cold and can adjust accordingly, right? Or how about a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses with a tracking device embedded so you never lose them, or an Our Legacy sweater that you can use to pay for things? Wearables like these all have a very focused purpose and wouldn’t look like something you bought from SkyMall.
the department of defense gave mit $317 million to develop smart fibers—Like the interest they previously took in gps, microwaves, and plane travel.
Companies that have succeeded already in the wearables space seem to understand that hyper-focused, design-first approach. Whoop, for example, built an ultra-light band designed specifically for elite athletes to measure heart rate variability, skin conductivity, and ambient temperature—the kind of stats you would only need if being in shape were literally your job. They can now count Lebron James as one of its biggest fans. Ralph Lauren’s PoloTech shirt uses fibers embedded in the shirt to track workout data, and looks like a shirt you would wear to work out. Rihanna’s go-to designer, Adam Selman, partnered with MasterCard to create prototypes of a dress laced with microchips you can use to pay at the same terminals that accept Apple Pay from a phone.
The Selman x Mastercard project hints at things to come. “The [technology of the] future is going to be integrated seamlessly with brands that already have years of experience and know-how to make beautiful products that customers will want to buy independent of their tech capabilities,” Wojcik says. Last year, Google and Levi’s announced a joint partnership called Project Jacquard. In essence, the companies are coming together to develop fabric with technology integrated directly into it via smart fibers that can be manipulated to respond to gestures that will allow the wearer to answer a phone call or skip to the next song on a connected device with a wave of their arm.
The companies also say all Project Jacquard garments will be easy to wash, addressing another one of the biggest hurdles tech-enabled fabrics need to overcome. Currently, comfortable smart fabric that consumers will actually want to wear hasn’t been available to designers. “It’s like wanting to make a T-shirt, but you can’t buy cotton jersey, so you need to knit your own cotton to make a T-shirt,” Maxey says. “It just makes it a lot harder to be the person who knits the fabric for the T-shirt, designs the T-shirt and makes the T-shirt, and then manufactures it.”
Wearables and smart fabrics are also starting to gain recognition outside the fashion world. MIT just received $317 million to work with the Department of Defense to develop innovative smart fibers. These types of technologies developed for the military have a tendency to trickle down to the consumer—see also GPS, microwaves, and even plane travel. “It means people see it as important,” Maxey says.
Wearables certainly have the capacity to be important, but they’re only now just beginning to scratch the surface, despite the hype. Whenever the sector does reach its full potential, what wearables can do is truly unimaginable. Stern compares it to trying to explain Uber to someone a decade ago—“you’ll have your phone, and it’s a computerized phone that can track your location and send it to a server in the cloud.” It would have been almost impossible to comprehend then, but now the app has become integral to many people’s lives. Wearables are on the same trajectory. Now, all we need is the industry’s Henry Ford to come along and make tech-enabled fashion a must-have for the masses.