LONDON, United Kingdom — In recent weeks, there's been a flurry of activity in the emerging market for wearable devices — personal accessories with embedded sensors, displays and other digital technology — a space many analysts believe is set to be the next major technology battleground and a $10 billion industry by 2016.
First, three of Silicon Valley's most prominent venture capital funds, Google Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Andreessen Horowitz, announced an investment partnership targeting apps for Google Glass, the company’s Internet-enabled eyewear. Then, The Wall Street Journal reported that, according to Asian suppliers, Microsoft is working on a touch-enabled smartwatch to compete with Apple's rumoured iWatch.
A day later, Google released guidelines for software developers building services, or “Glassware,” for Google Glass. And just yesterday, Jawbone, a company backed by Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Khosla Ventures, among others, announced its acquisition of BodyMedia, a maker of wearable health tracking devices, for a sum that is reportedly over $100 million.
“We're very bullish on the idea of ubiquitous computing, which has been an idea our industry has had since the late 1980s. The essential idea is that computers will be everywhere — they'll be in your glasses, they'll be part of your clothing,” Margit Wennmachers, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, told BoF. “We already see people bringing their smartphones with them everywhere and reaching for them first thing in the morning so we know people want a computer with them at all times — to help them figure what they need to do or where to go or how to get there or to learn more about the person they're about to meet with. Google Glass is just a less obtrusive, always there, always on extension of that same idea.”
Much like the iPhone, the ultimate success of these platforms will be largely determined by the ecosystem of apps that grow up around them; it’s not hard to imagine a wide range of potentially powerful applications in areas like health and fitness (where companies like Nike and BodyMedia have focused their efforts), as well as navigation, social networking, gaming and commerce.
But critically, when it comes to wearables, consumer adoption will also depend on the stylistic merits of these devices and how users who wear them are perceived by others. In other words, as well as being functional, they will have to have both aesthetic and social value.
“I was intimately involved in the shift at Palm from the original gray plastic case to the Palm V, the sleek shiny metal object that was much more of a fashion accessory. That seems like ages ago now, but what has proven true is that cell phones are the 'cars' of the new generation. They define your individuality and your freedom,” Trae Vassallo, general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, told BoF. “We expect that platforms like Glass will have to appeal as fashion items.”
Fashion isn’t something that most technology companies do particularly well, however. “I'm desperate for some fashion sensibility to enter tech. Over the last 20 years, I've looked at a lot of ugly stuff," said Wennmachers. "For the next wave of true merging of fashion and tech, we need more companies that have a culture that celebrates both, the technical and the design talent. You're already seeing this at companies like Jawbone, but we have a long way to go.”
Fashion and luxury brands, on the other hand, have a deep understanding of how to create desirable personal accessories that carry and convey stylistic and social value. But with the exception of eyewear start-up Warby Parker, which is reportedly in talks with Google to help the tech giant design more fashionable frames for its smart glasses, these brands have been noticably absent from the wearables revolution.
It’s worth remembering, however, that real estate on the human body is limited. People only have two wrists and one face. And personal accessories are where fashion and luxury brands make a sizable chunk of their revenues. As young technology companies slowly but surely start to develop wearables with more evolved aesthetics, will consumers still have room for bracelets, watches and sunglasses that may look good, but lack appealing functionality?
Indeed, if they don’t want to risk ceding highly lucrative and limited space on the emerging battleground of the human body, it’s time for fashion brands to take wearables seriously.