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Multichannel: Wearable technology

From outfits incorporating phone apps to the launch of Google Glass, wearable technology is on the way.

Imagine a day when you leave the house with nothing in your hands (or handbag) because it is all built into your chosen outfit. You can search, scan or even buy from the technology in your clothes.

Wearable technology is still in its infancy and many are sceptical that it could ever be more than just a fad. In the US, however, the craze does seem to be taking off, at least in the fancy dress world. Former NASA scientist Mark Rober has turned costume designer and teamed up with Morphsuits to launch Morph Costume Company, which sells a range of fancy dress outfits that incorporate smartphone app animations.

Rober says the idea came to him when he went to a Halloween party in 2011 with an iPad duct-taped to the front and back of his costume to create the illusion of seeing through his body. Not only did the costume get a reaction at the party, he then went home and filmed a YouTube clip showing others how to do it. Within a day the clip had received 1.5 million views.

Fast-forward two years and the duct tape has been replaced. Individuals who buy the costumes receive instructions on how to download the Morphsuits app. They can then place their phone inside a Velcro pocket and play whichever animation reflects the costume (these range from a beating heart to a Facebook-like button).

While the Morph Costume Company is fancy-dress focused at present, Rober believes this type of technology will one day become part of mainstream fashion. “This technology drives further interaction with the consumer and the people around them,” he says. “Imagine the things you could do by incorporating augmented reality into a T-shirt and getting people to wear things that are triggered by what they see.”

It is not just the fancy dress world that is venturing into wearable technology. San Francisco business Misfit Wearables invents and manufactures wearable accessories that incorporate an activity monitor. In a similar concept to competitors such as sports retailers Nike+ and Fitbit, Misfit Wearables technology estimates how many calories a wearer has burned each day.

Misfit Wearables chief executive Sonny Vu thinks its point of difference is the look of the accessories. He says: “Wearable accessories can often be clunky and many of the current products in the market are made of plastic or rubber. They are not fashionable products, they are worn for functionality. We want our product to feel nice to wear so we have designed accessories such as a necklace or leather wristband, which incorporates the technology.

First and foremost we want to sell something people want to wear - with the added extra of technological functionality.”

Wearable technology is in its initial phase and there is plenty more to come, thinks Vu. “Using the technology to record fitness is just the beginning,” he says. “Next we will see it related to alerts or payments, such as a smartwatch that can alert you when you’ve forgotten your phone, or a device incorporated into something you’re wearing that identifies who you are and allows you to make a payment from it.”

The one everyone is talking about is Google Glass. Put on the glasses and you can take a photo or video and share it with friends, get directions, send a message and even set reminders - all through technology in the glasses. Developer versions have been sent out (at £985) but the official release is next year. Google Glass could be a new way of advertising for brands and another channel for retailers to reach their audience.

What the experts say

  • Martin Newman, chief executive, Practicology

Smartphones are becoming an all-in-one device that act as a satnav, e-reader, digital wallet and music player. They also provide a web browser and email access and even still make phone calls and send texts. For Google Glass and other wearable technology to really take off it must either strongly complement what smartphones provide or act as a replacement and offer everything smartphones can and more.

Retailers are experimenting with location-based marketing to mobiles - delivering messages when they are most relevant, such as when a consumer is near a store.

In the future, consumers could store loyalty or payment card information on a smartwatch, or be identified as they
enter a store through something they are wearing.

Google Glass brings new possibilities for augmented-reality marketing. But this is future-gazing and for now retailers and brands should remain focused on investment in developments with a more proven return on investment.”

  • Tim Kalic, head of digital, Pretty Green

Wearable technology is going to be a large part of the next wave of technological innovation. As these innovations mature into useful consumer products they will no doubt find their way into everyday garments.

Google Glass is a brilliant piece of new technology. Yet it opens up a new realm of questions about privacy and acceptable user behaviour. Google Glass is the first iteration of a new era in personal computing which, over time, will have a significant impact on consumer behaviour.

However, as with most first iterations, Google Glass, or any of the first wave of wearable technology, won’t be the actual devices that will have the greatest impact on consumer behaviour.

This new technology has introduced some interesting new concepts in advertising (see the recent patent by Google for ‘Pay Per Gaze’). It will be some time though before Google Glass, or an iteration of it, will be mainstream enough for serious consideration as a new channel to reach customers.

Give it a few years and then we’ll see some really interesting developments.

  • Dan Wagner, Chairman, Venda; Chairman/Chief executive, Powa Technologies

Wearable technology is already changing fashion at the cutting edge. While this has not hit the high street yet it can only be a matter of time before it does, as the benefits are potentially huge.

A recent UK and US survey found that although only 18% of respondents had actually used wearable technology, 82% in the US and 71% in the UK found it had already enhanced their lives. There’s clearly an appetite for this type of technology because in recent years gadgets have become fashion pieces in their own right. However, function should take precedence over form if these devices are to stick around longer than any other fad.

With augmented reality, as viewed through devices such as Google Glass, there is the potential for anything you look at to transmit a range of data about brands, companies and products. Those who innovate and develop their strategies around this paradigm will really reap the benefits.

Wearable technology has the potential to turn anything into an advertising channel.

  • Sarah Watson, Group Mobile Manager, Net-a-Porter group

Wearable technology is a hot topic and has many different guises, from Google Glass to intelligent wash labels.

Essentially, it is about creating more opportunities to connect with customers in a multitude of ways.

Whether it is for our full-price businesses, Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter, or off-price at The Outnet, the Net-a-Porter Group ethos has always been to give our customers the best possible service and this means to be where our customer is. So if they wish to shop on their watch or receive messages on their glasses, then so be it. Fashion and technology are a match made in heaven.

  • Jonathan Wall, group ecommerce director, Shop Direct

I think we’ll see some really interesting apps coming out during 2014 that highlight the potential of wearable technology. But it will take a good 12 to 18 months to bring these to the market.

Google Glass will potentially be very powerful for bricks-and-mortar stores and less so for pure-play. But we have to consider that customers may read their emails via Glass and make sure we have them optimised for speech or reading on an even smaller device than mobile.

  • Rob Feldmann, chief executive, Brand Alley

Looking at the way that people are inseparable from their smartphone, it seems that wearable technology is already mainstream. Making this even more subtle and seamless will be the obvious next step.

The more practical elements of wearable technology such as communication and monitoring things such as physical activity are more likely to outlive technology that is purely for aesthetic purposes - although this is interesting too.

The potential pitfalls are in an increasingly distracted population who become more engaged with technology and less engaged in real life/social situations. There is, of course, concern around security and privacy as technology such as Google Glass essentially acts like CCTV.

  • Brent Hoberman, chairman, Made.com; co-founder, lastminute.com

Wearable technology is great for fitness and fitness tracking, and it will become much more normal for people doing sport to be wearing it - especially as costs go down. Google Glass is just another version of augmented reality. We have seen this on the phone but it hasn’t really taken off yet.

The big thing is the behaviour change - will people feel comfortable wearing it? And for shopping, is it that different to taking out your mobile phone and pointing it at something?

Augmented reality is the future but it will be weighed down by issues such as expense, battery life and size for a few more years. Retailers should think of it as just an extension of mobile - allowing customers to constantly check online and have more information and power in their hands.

  • Sean Mckee, head of ecommerce and customer service, Schuh

I have no doubt that wearable technology is going to be big - and is on the way to being mainstream by Christmas 2014 - but how big will demand be on the technology?

I cannot fundamentally see something as physically disruptive to the user as Google Glass having mass appeal, but will be happy to be wrong. Until 2010 we didn’t know we needed tablets. For me, the money is on wrist-borne technology as long as manufacturers get the basics right quickly and demonstrate that smart watches can do what your phone can do, but with even more convenience.

For retailers the key question will be to what degree mobile push messaging is deliverable in an acceptable format and in the right context. For us that will be about service messaging predominantly and I would see us doing largely the jobs we are currently doing.

We’ll be keeping a close eye on consumption in the market and any changes in the device mix. It’s potentially a great add-on to mobile traffic but little more than that.

We’re already undergoing the big paradigm shift in how retailing is conducted through smartphone and this, for me, falls into the same area.

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