For most retail tech innovations, the nuts and bolts of gadget functionality are usually the determining factors in whether it’ll be adopted by the industry. However, when it comes to consumer-facing tech-enabled products like wearable devices, how well the technology works is only one part of the equation. If customers don’t like the way they look wearing fitness trackers and enhanced apparel, they’ll just leave them in the closet.
That’s the finding that many retailers have stumbled on as multiple merchants have played around with new wearable tech strategies. In summary, powerful and accurate technology is necessary, but a sharp eye for fashion is crucial, which is why MasterCard partnered with fashion designer Adam Selman, according to BT Group. By designing wearable tech products that emphasize form to the same degree that retailers have been almost single-mindedly focused on function, Selman explained that the resulting products should be a successful blend of fashion and tech.
“Technology is vital to the fashion industry,” Selman told BT Group. “What sets the program apart is that it features the technology, while still remaining invisible, yet interactive and totally functional with the wearer.”
A sterling example of this philosophy is a jacket designed to make contactless payments simpler. In the cuff of a sleeve, wearers can insert a mobile payment chip – when they’re ready to pay at sufficiently equipped retailers, a simple wave of the hand over the sensor will let the jacket, designed by Lyle & Scott, handle all the payment processing. There are no visible sensors, no flashing lights and no direct indication that the jacket is anything other than what it appears, allowing the function of the concealed payment chip to shine without worrying about its form.
The sooner retailers come to a sensible design stance on wearable tech, the better, as a recent report from the American College of Sports Medicine, which surveyed 2,800 health and fitness professionals, found that wearable tech is expected to be the most popular trend in fitness through 2016. Walter R. Thompson, Ph.D., lead author of the report and associate dean of Georgia State University’s College of Education & Human Development, explained that wearable tech will soon overwhelm other temporary trends like the do-it-yourself fitness movement and high-intensity interval programs.
“Tech devices are now central to our daily lives and have changed the way we plan and manage our workouts,” Thompson said in a statement. “Wearable devices also provide immediate feedback that can make the wearer more aware of their level of activity and can motivate the user to achieve their fitness goals.”
However, retailers don’t need to sign deals with avant-garde fashion designers to give their tech devices a more natural and palatable feel. In May 2015, Google and Levi’s announced a partnership to literally weave technology into the fabric of every product they release. The program, called “Project Jacquard,” promises to release products that allow customers to tap the arm of a garment made with conductive yarns to interact with the Internet of Things around them.
“When it came to choosing a first partner for Project Jacquard, the Levi’s brand was a natural fit,” said Ivan Poupyrev, technical project lead for Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, in a statement. “Levi’s is an iconic brand with deep Bay area roots — authentic and also highly innovative and fashionable. Levi’s brings to Jacquard their deep knowledge and understanding of apparel, their consumers and what they value.”
That “deep understanding of apparel” may be exactly what Google and other tech companies need from partnerships with retailers like Levi’s. Developers already have the capabilities to create powerful and data-driven devices, but it might take an eye for fashion to turn them into “wearables” that customers actually want to wear.