LAS VEGAS, United States — Wearables, wearables, wearables. This emerging category of personal accessories with embedded sensors, displays and other digital technology (such as Nike’s FuelBand, Google’s Internet-connected eyewear and Apple’s rumoured iWatch) was the most talked-about topic this week at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the world’s biggest technology and gadgets gathering. And the fashion community, which has been noticeably absent from the wearables revolution, seemed to finally take notice when Brian Krzanich, chief executive of Intel, the world’s largest chip maker, announced that the company was set to kick off a series of collaborations, focused on wearable tech, with fashion industry leaders Opening Ceremony, Barneys New York and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).
The fashion collaborations will result in the development of a “smart bracelet” designed by Opening Ceremony, powered by Intel technology and sold exclusively, this autumn, at influential retailer Barneys New York. The product will be based upon existing Intel prototypes, but the final feature set, aesthetic characteristics and price point of the device have yet to be determined.
Intel and the Council of Fashion Designers of America have also joined forces to facilitate much needed interaction between technologists and fashion designers with the broad aim of fostering innovation in wearable devices.
“Our shared vision is to accelerate wearable technology innovation and create products that both enhance people’s lives and are desirable to wear,” said Ayse Ildeniz, vice president of business development and strategy at Intel’s New Devices Group, in a statement.
Intel declined to disclose how much it was investing in these collaborations, though Krzanich said the company would fund a competition that will offer wearable technology developers $1.3 million in prizes. (Intel, which dominated the market for the microchips that power PCs but was slow to adapt to the rise of post-PC devices like smartphones and tablets, has a vital strategic interest in wearables and other next-generation devices which it hopes will make use of its new ultra-small, low-power chips).
According to Credit Suisse, the market for wearables, currently concentrated in health and fitness and estimated to be worth between $3 billion and $5 billion, is set to explode, reaching $30 billion to $50 billion over the next three to five years, as chips, sensors and battery life improve and an ecosystem of entrepreneurs start to build thousands of apps and services on top of wearable devices, just as they have done for smartphones. The financial services company has gone so far as to call wearable technology “a mega trend” that has hit “at an inflection point in market adoption” and will have “a significant and pervasive impact on the economy.”
But, thus far, several much-hyped wearables (notably, Samsung’s $300 Galaxy Gear smartwatch) have failed to resonate with large numbers of users, not least because the devices lack the design sensibility and symbolic meaning of traditional fashion accessories, say industry observers. Indeed, much like fashion items, consumer adoption of wearable technology will depend on the stylistic merits of these devices — and their ability to communicate identity — as much as their functional value.
There are exceptions (like the Jawbone headset and Up fitness bands, designed by Yves Béhar) but for the most part, unlike traditional accessories makers, which have a deep understanding of how to create covetable items that carry and convey stylistic and social value, “fashion isn’t something that technology companies really understand,” said Danny Cristofano, a brand manager at Intel. “We’re focused on building an ecosystem of partners.”
“As Humberto [Leon] and I have seen the emergence of wearable technology, we’ve always said, ‘Someone needs to create something that’s a beautiful object that you would want to wear, regardless of its functional features,’” said Carol Lim, co-founder of Opening Ceremony.
“There are some interesting products out there, but [from a design perspective] it’s been a void. Until now, technology companies have tried to own the entire development process, but to push things forward, a marriage between a tech company and a design house makes a lot of sense. We want to create something that people covet. At the end of the day, all the tech features in the world won’t sell if the product is not something consumers want to wear,” she added. “We want to create something that can really stand alone on a design level.”
“One of the greatest opportunities for wearable technology as a concept to be successful is fairly simple: to design a beautiful accessory that our customers would desire,” said Daniella Vitale, chief operating officer of Barneys New York.
“[The Barneys customer] wants something that seamlessly works into their lifestyle and wardrobe. They might wear it layered with various other bracelets or just solo on their wrist. Either way, they are looking for a fashion accessory which delivers the technology,” added Tomoko Ogura, the retailer’s senior fashion director.
But fashion appeal alone may not be enough to convince large numbers of consumers to wear technology on their bodies. “The key for wearables is to offer something that people find valuable and useful. There is probably a limit to how many people want to track their physical activity and fitness level, which is why the challenge will be to figure out what else might appeal to a broad audience,” said Peter Rojas, vice president of strategy at AOL Brand Group and the co-creator of leading design, tech and gadget sites Gizmodo, Engadget and Gdgt. “That might be notifications on your wrist, but it will probably be more in the area of personalised and contextual information (like Google Now) that goes beyond just alerts and actually tries to anticipate what you need and when you might need it.”
Whether Opening Ceremony’s “smart bracelet” will embrace the right blend of functionality, fashion aesthetics and market positioning to resonate with consumers when it debuts at Barneys this autumn remains to be seen. But for the worlds of both fashion and tech, whose futures are set to become increasingly intertwined as wearables take off, Intel’s new fashion collaborations represent a step in the right direction.