WEAR Conference: The Challenges and the Bright Future of Wearable Tech
The recent WEAR Conference at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City offered speakers across a wide range of industries, from textile-based wireless monitoring to start-ups and academia, an opportunity to outline the exciting state of wearable technology in one venue. A range of material suppliers presented durable and flexible substrates that can increase speed of adoption for textile applications. Insights were gleaned about challenges in developing wearables, considerations to facilitate success, and opportunities for future innovation.
Based on efforts by early explorers in the space, there are clear challenges in designing, developing, testing, approving, and executing wearable tech. Soft, molded plastic wearables have come and gone, offering a cautionary tale to next-gen innovators. In the development of wearables, it’s important to set the stage for success and address challenges including technology, usability & human factors, regulation and timing.
"The WEAR Conference was a reminder that business appears to be nearing a tipping point where varying, but critical, industries are converging to help make products more meaningful and compelling with users’ needs at the center of the conversation."
For starters, worn IoT (Internet of Things) products require careful consideration around power; such as batteries, charging, consumption, density, size, weight, and heat. These critical factors loom large in otherwise small products. A means of conductivity becomes a critical consideration for transferring power and data to and from sensors, controllers and batteries. This requires a delicate balance of material selection and product design. Conductors need to be durable enough to survive every day wear and washing while also flexible enough to provide adequate freedom of movement without adding too much weight. Also, wireless connectivity is an important consideration for communicating data from the wearer. For example, Bluetooth, RFID, and NFC are different, but related, formats each offering strengths and weaknesses that should be selected on their merits by application.
On the manufacturing side to implement the technology, our friends at Myant discussed distributed manufacturing with their Digital Textile Factory model. Machines that knit with the same yarns, running the same production data, can be located next to each other, or across the world, to produce consistent products. This can increase the efficiency of less-used equipment and provide opportunities to on-shore manufacturing
Usability & Human Factors
In contrast to technical challenges, human factors (anthropometry, biocompatibility, empathy), and usability (comfort, intuitiveness) are important to consider. A host of emotional factors play important roles in wearables. These devices speak to others about our choices and preferences. Subtle details can make the products a joy to wear or turn them into nagging irritants. For example, Penn State researchers map the human body to route wires along “lines of non-extension,” where skin stretches minimally, to reduce stress in leggings that monitor gait. Also, it’s likely that multiple sizes will be needed to fit the intended wearer population. Further, how intuitive (or not) is it to know how to wear and use the product correctly?
It was encouraging to hear non-designers adopt terms like “Design Thinking” and “Iterative Prototyping” that put people at the center of concern. User centered design crosses all of our teams from human factors research to software engineering to soft goods prototyping.
Depending on the product, regulatory compliance may be an important or necessary step in the process. Are selected materials biocompatible? Will it catch the eye of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)? Will medical wearables meet FDA requirements? To aid in the medical device development process, we have recently received ISO 13485 certification for successfully implementing a Quality Management System (QMS). Understanding the landscape of the industry or country you’re entering and complying with standards is critical for a successful launch, especially in the medical space.
Timing & Acceptance
With some products launching with a viral response, and others quickly falling flat, it’s important to ask, “Is the product entering the market too soon, where people will not appreciate its benefit, too late to feel relevant, or just right?” Not understanding, respecting, or addressing any of these critical factors can diminish, or doom, a product. However, thoughtful companies that have, like Apple with Watch, are rewarded with escalating profits and enthusiasts. User research is a useful tool for seeking guidance and testing a product for any red flags. While research won’t give you 100% certainty in product validation, it can help provide a checkpoint and boost decision-making confidence. Ultimately, launching a wearable device is a risk led by intuition, but asking the right questions can help point developers in the right direction.
A Strategy for Success
Despite the tactical challenges, starting with a strategic plan for the overall experience can make an incredible impact in the success of your product. Rather than providing merely convenience, ask yourself “does this product offer a compelling benefit?” For example, Fitbit “tracking” is convenient, but Fitbit “weight loss advisement” is compelling. People are tired of aggregated sensed data and are looking for wearables to help them know what to do next. Developing a meaningful feedback loop from the technology to the user is what sets a product apart and provides a superior experience.
As barriers to entry in the wearable space continue to crumble, such as tech becoming smaller and lighter, it’s important to consider “platform thinking,” and not just “product thinking.” In other words, how does your product fit into a larger ecosystem? Wireless connectivity offers individual products a means to connect with other products, whether digital or physical. Software/hardware platforms offer links between wearers and their friends, family, caregivers, and other stakeholders. Look for opportunities where connection can magnify benefits to wearers exponentially.
Looking ahead, in a world of connected devices, the items you wear like glasses, earphones, clothes, and jewelry, can sense your environment, and provide you with real-time, actionable feedback. They could also wirelessly turn house lights on/off, start/stop your car, and adjust room temperature to your preferences. The lines begin to blur between home, office, transport, and wellness. The opportunities are vast; crossing industries and anticipating thoughtful, well-executed solutions.
It’s clear that companies wishing to enter or evolve the wild west of wearable tech have significant challenges to overcome. By setting up development with a strategic vision to offer compelling benefits through integrated platforms, companies will set the path for real innovations. Developing plans for addressing tactical challenges with an informed team, can deliver:
• streamlined technology
• appropriate and intuitive usability
• compliance to regulatory standards
• product launches with timely acceptance.
The WEAR Conference was a reminder that business appears to be nearing a tipping point where varying, but critical, industries are converging to help make products more meaningful and compelling with users’ needs at the center of the conversation.
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About the Author
Jeff is driven by learning something new every day. He applies research, strategy and design expertise in the categories of medical, industrial and consumer products. In normal day-to-day conversation, you may also hear him using strange sound effects to “make a point”, which he says is a more effective means of communication!