The Problem with Wearables

Last week I wrote about the smart watch. Specifically about the problems technology might face the moment it plans to come closer to us.

Smart "gadgets" are coming. In the next weeks smart devices are going to be all over the place. IFA is just around the corner and the big guys are lining up their products around watches and wearables.

But we should look beyond the watch, because something amazing is just about to happen and we might be missing sight on the bigger picture. What is about to happen is that technology is going to enter into new area, a whole different space where other rules apply, and that is fashion.

On one hand, that's great. It is because every place technology touches is turned upside down. And we should be grateful for that, because it means more room for innovation and evolution, and in the end, as a user you are gifted with better experiences.

But on the other hand, we might have overlook some issues running deeper in this wearable technology thing. As we pointed out earlier there are a set of rules that apply to the fashion industry that in some way are immune to the purest technology as we know it. We could argue that some brands have already embodied some culture and trend among their products. I'm thinking of Beats, or even Apple, brands that translate into fashion the moment you "wear" them, because they have the potential to say something about you to the world. But the transition to the wearable is deeper than this and will imply profound changes in the way we think of tech.

 Beats by Dr. Dre are more than just a pair of headphones. They say something about you the moment you wear them.

Beats by Dr. Dre are more than just a pair of headphones. They say something about you the moment you wear them.

Fashion means subjectivity, differentiation, personality, uniqueness... One "problem" with these values is that they don't share a common pattern. Fashion is what lets you say to the world "hey, this is me!". So that's something that defines you and sets you apart. This is your style and since we are all different by nature we can't follow any pattern here. In terms of design we are kind of lost. Even if we could group some of these patterns, even if we pick a small region or city, we are still faced with vastly opposed demographics among the same culture. Just think of your city and the distinct styles you can see walking down the street.

But this is just the seed of a bigger problem. Because this uniqueness is dramatically accentuated when we jump across different cultures. You can think that your neighbor is nuts for wearing those straight pants you'd never buy, fine, but just stare for 5 minutes at Shibuya crossing and suddenly you don't understand anything. I mean it, you are in another planet in terms of fashion patterns.

This is a huge problem tech has never encountered. Desktop beige PC never had these problems. Some symptoms started to show up with portable PCs (Mac) and got accentuated by smartphones (iPhone) and tablets (iPad), because you brought them into more open environments. In some way they might help to project some values or status, but they were perceived as the attrezzo to the big picture, so one-size-fits-all worked perfectly. Apple doesn't sell different iPhones in India because their fashionables don't look like American ones. We have one iPhone design for every body, and we are very happy with it so far.

But (and that's a big but), when we start to turn on watches, clothes, accessories, jewelry and all the stuff tech is targeting to put their soul in it... that's a whole different story. How a tech company can fight to stay on top of the most demanding industries in the world, while it has to think of all the shades of fashion? This companies are global and I can't imagine them selling a whole set of different products for each demographic and region. Their product lines will become caos. 

So if you are LG (for example) and you think of launching a new wearable, it will not be longer enough to master the technology that set you apart from your competitors, you will also need to precisely understand the fashion in order to be appealing around the globe. Because nobody is going to wear your thing, even with the greatest tech on it, if it doesn't look good on you. First things first, and causing a great impression in that party is way more important than counting how many steps you've walked so far.

  Apple doesn't sell different iPhones in India because their fashionables don't look like American ones.

Apple doesn't sell different iPhones in India because their fashionables don't look like American ones.

And (yes, there's another thing here) you have to plan for sizes, of course. While everybody holds a phone the same way... your wearable thing must fit different sizes, because we are all, you know... different. So I have great faith in technology and what this companies can deliver in order to change things, but this... it is too much. 

I wonder what their new "competitors" from the fashionable industry might be thinking about all this. These fashion companies have been around for a while, so there's something they've probably understood about the market dynamics in order to stay in business.

These brands have built a reputation, a prestige; they represent their products, of course, but there's something more here: people wear them because they want to say something to the world. This intangible value is (for the most part) what this brands stand for. They spent years positioning themselves, creating this culture and that's something they are not going to give away easily.

So it's clear now that technology is coming to wearables. A watch might go first, but who knows what will be next. It's also clear that technology has the power to push on this revolution, as it has done in other places several times before. But the main key to a massive adoption will definitely be the understanding of fashion and trend. Understanding it in a way that those new propositions appeal to a mass market, globally or locally, but above all, those products must "speak" to the people in a way they've never done before, in a fashion way.

In the next article I'll be discussing how this technology wearables could eventually work out.