Tomorrow’s Wearables: Stylish Clothing That Doubles As Your Personal Advisor For…Well, Everything


Shuang Yu, Senior Manager, Solutions Marketing, IEEE Standards Association

In the 15th century, Italian Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci revealed yet another of his many brilliant concepts: a wearable mechanical device that could be used to measure the physical distance Roman soldiers traveled daily by foot. And with da Vinci’s remarkable vision, the world’s first pedometer was born.

Fast-forward to 2014, dubbed “The Year of Wearable Technology”. From fitness trackers like FitBit and JawBone’s UP, to jewelry that lets you make music with the wave of a hand and smart socks that monitor the movements of Alzheimer’s sufferers, it’s amazing to see the diverse array of inventions the humble pedometer has spawned. And that the world of wearables has become fertile ground for innovative yet fashionable technologies with the promise to enhance our lives has never been so clear as it was at New York Fashion Week 2014.

Intelligent devices now make it possible to capture vast quantities of data about almost every facet of our daily lives – how we sleep, what we eat, when we exercise, and more. This wealth of data helps create a greater awareness of us, allowing personalized recommendations for improving our overall health, safety, and quality of life.

Nowhere is this trend more pronounced than in sports, health and wellness, and fitness. Accenture’s recent 2014 State of the Internet of Things study hailed health and fitness-oriented devices as a key driver in consumer adoption of wearables, citing an expected adoption rate of 43 percent within the next five years.

For example, Adidas has been working with AC Milan on a new system to track on-field data in real time. With sensors woven into base layer garments, coaches, trainers, and players can monitor key vital statistics – information that can then be leveraged to enhance overall performance. Ralph Lauren also recently announced that its own smart shirt would make its debut at the 2014 U.S. Open tennis championship. A sleekly designed compression shirt, the Polo Tech uses an accelerometer and gyroscope, along with other embedded sensors, to collect, store, and transmit biometric and psychometric data. Wearers can then analyze and use those results to up their game.

Beyond helping athletes to perform better, this year has also seen numerous new products designed to elevate people’s health and well-being. We now have contact lenses that use tiny sensors and a radio antenna thinner than a human hair to track glucose levels in diabetics. And then there’s the Mi Band fitness monitor and sleep tracker that also doubles as a security token for smartphones.

There’s an added benefit for these devices, too: by providing data that clearly illustrates real-world impacts of our day-to-day actions and choices, they make life easier for those whose job it is to coach, train, and heal us. In a recent Athletic Business Magazine interview, trainer Melissa DiLeonardo pointed to wearables as a “welcome asset” to her work, saying:

“Whether or not a wearable device is 100 percent accurate is moot. When people use a wearable, activity levels increase. It’s drawing attention to daily activity and giving them a little nudge. I can tell someone something over and over again, but until they see it or experience it personally, they might not make that change. When I’ve had clients begin wearing an activity tracker, the numbers start to make a lot more sense to them and drive them to be more motivated.”

As an ordinary consumer, I often feel like we need to have a professional or an expert on call (or become one ourselves) just to be able to meaningfully interpret the tidal wave of data being collected via wearables. I’m guessing that other average Joe’s out there neither know what to do with nor care about all of the diverse kinds of data that’s being sucked in by these devices. In fact, given the sheer volume of bits and bytes generated in today’s hyperconnected world, it might end up being a case of information overload.

As an end user, the last thing I need is for my devices to do a raw data dump and then leave me in the dark about how to interpret all of that information. How do I draw actionable conclusions from knowing how many steps I took in an hour? Since I’m not a health and fitness professional, I need my wearables to do the analysis for me. What would truly be valuable is if my wearables could give me personalized recommendations and suggestions – “put down that burger and run two more miles today instead” – based on the data being captured.

Oh, and if it’s not too much to ask? I’d like my wearables to be stylish, too. I want my devices and smart clothes to make me look good and coordinate with my wardrobe.

What if my favorite little black dress could also act as a personal nutritionist? A gown alerting me that if I eat another two scoops of ice cream, next week it’ll be too tight for me to wear is far more valuable than one that merely tells me two scoops of ice cream equals 500 calories. Or how about if my cute golf skort identifies that my hip rotation is the reason I have a push shot, then remedies that rotation – and my swing – by applying pressure to certain spots on my body, thereby guiding me correctly through the motion? Having a digital golf coach that provides personalized recommendations is much more helpful than just displaying what my club speed is.

Moreover, what if those glucose-monitoring contact lenses could work collaboratively with my pretty but comfortable activity-tracking maternity tee to determine whether I’m developing gestational diabetes? These two items together could then work symbiotically to deliver actionable intelligence and recommendations. For example, they could provide me with a daily menu based on my tastes, blood sugar levels, and food intake, as well as build a suggested workout tailored to my current physical condition and due date. What mother-to-be wouldn’t prefer having her life made easier by wearables that work cooperatively, than a collection of devices unable to talk to one another and providing only a list of raw statistics?

Wearables that produce encyclopedic volumes of facts, figures, and statistics but not consumable insights and solutions only aggravate the sensory overload we suffer due to the deluge of emails, messages, tweets, updates, posts, pins, Likes, and more, that we deal with on a daily basis. If however, a device provides everyday consumers like me with information that I can use to improve and simplify my life – and make me look chic while doing it – it will instantly win my heart and mind as a consumer…not to mention my wallet.

I’m very excited about the potential and opportunities that tomorrow’s world of wearables holds, including devices that can not only communicate with one another but can proactively deliver synergistic solutions that improve our lives. That’s a pretty tall order. One way to facilitate this future is through technology standardization. By uniting around common, industry-accepted standards, developers can better address interoperability challenges. That’s where IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA), a global leading standards development organization that I work for, can help.

All of this might sound a bit lazy or like it could take all the fun out of learning new things. However, for the general public, it’s data-based solutions that matter, not the data itself. I don’t need to know every mechanical intricacy of how an engine operates in order to drive my car; rather, I just want that happy feeling I get from tooling around town in my vehicle (especially true if I get to drive one of those cool connected cars).

The process of developing wearables that provide a balance of utility and fashion with consumable insights is still in a nascent stage, but already there’s a new wave of enticing, innovative, and intriguing products coming into play. There’s trendy nail polish that can help you quit smoking, a chic bangle that suggests just the right amount of SPF skin lotion based on current UV levels, or my personal favorite, the chic Ringly smart ring that sends alerts from my smartphone right to my finger so I don’t miss any important messages while out on the town. And then there’s the Apple Watch, which combines health monitoring, home controls, and mobile payments functions into one.

As the year 2020 draws nearer, the size of meaningful computational devices will approach zero, giving us the ability to turn nearly anything into a computer. As processor, sensor, and even modem sizes continue to shrink, I believe we’ll see products that successfully combine fashion and function – as well as serving as a doctor, coach, nutritionist, and more – coming to life.

As Intel futurist Brian David Johnson put it when asked about the tech’s impact on fashion, “When it comes to self-expression, your guess is as good as mine. Humans love to express ourselves, and, when we have the ability to wear a computer, I can only imagine what we will do with it!”

How do you see the technology and fashion interact with each other moving forward? Send me an email, or leave a comment below.

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