Feature Story

Wearable technology is more than just a fashion statement

by Jason Deign

New trends in wearable technology

Wearables are no longer a novelty, but increasingly a must-have accessory for everyone from sports fanatics to fashionistas.

Bobbies are known for protecting the streets of London and their classic uniforms are about to get an upgrade. Thanks to a deal with BT, the officers will soon wear some of the hottest tech on the market: body cams that can record vital scenes in as the police go about fighting crime.

While police forces across the United States widely use body cameras, the Metropolitan Police rollout is due to be among biggest in the world, with 22,000 cameras expected to be issued to officers.

See also: The best wearables promoting women's health

It is just one instance of how the use of wearable tech is growing around the world, and not just among agents of the law. In 2015, approximately 6.1 million people sported wearable tech in the U.K. alone, says research from Apadmi, a mobile technology group.

Today the range of tech items that can be worn or fitted to our bodies is immense, from skin bio patches and wristbands, to smart rings and sports watches.

Last July, the research firm Gartner said at least seven types of wearables, such as sports watches, patient ID tags, personal trackers, smartwatches, wearable translators, and impact monitors, would likely hit the mainstream within two to five years, and many have already become a common accessory.

"Wearable electronics are a diverse group of endpoint devices that are the human connection to the Internet of Things," says Gartner.

The chances that you'll be wearing one yourself grows with each passing day. Global shipments of wearables are due to increase at a 24.8 percent compound annual growth rate over the next five years, reaching 162.9 million units in 2020, says digital media strategist Inma Martinez.

The trend for wearables is picking up speed as clothing and device makers seek to offer new products for health and planet-conscious buyers.

See also: Smart, wearable technology for seniors

The growing demand for Fitbits and other health-linked wearables is closely allied to the push for products such as those offered by Smartfiber, which makes fibers that can help protect the skin that come in contact with wearables.

At the same time, companies like Plastic Logic are developing flexible electronic displays, or ‘e-paper', that can easily be integrated into wearables, ranging from bracelets to conference badges.

"The e-paper display market is expected to continue to grow and mature, and with the wearables market booming, there's a lucrative opportunity for companies exploring new ways to be innovative by combining these markets," says Plastic Logic CEO Tim Burne.

Increased funding is helping the cause. April, for instance, saw the launch of a €2.4 million (US$2.6 million) contest for wearable tech concepts from around Europe.

"The program is seeking applications from teams of art, design, technology, or engineering practitioners and businesses to co-develop compelling, ethical, innovative, and sustainable solutions for wearable technology and e-textiles," said organizer WEAR Sustain in a press note.

For now, says Martinez, the biggest growth area for wearables is healthcare.

"What started with quantifiable apps and exercise trackers to improve performance is now shifting towards qualifiable apps via wearables that monitor our stress levels, for example, or how long we are exposed to lights which reduce our ability to fall asleep naturally," she says.

These products are moving forward at a pace that will soon allow them to detect things we might not be sure of ourselves.

"Eventually we will ask ourselves not ‘Am I tired?', because tiredness is a physical sensation easy to detect, but ‘Am I depressed?' or ‘Am I mentally exhausted?', which truly has a much more detrimental effect on our health than physical dysfunctions," Martinez says.

At this level, though, the main focus of wearables will still be to gather data in a down-to-earth way. But even now there is also a growing trend towards turning wearables into fashion statements. Doppel, for instance, makes a wrist band that captures and checks stress levels.

It allows the user to re-program their heartbeats but it's also a "beautiful looking" device, Martinez says. "Many HR departments at banks are interested in promoting the device with their high-flying executives, who endure excessive travel and the pressures of work," she notes.

You don't have to be in the boardroom to boast a wearable, though. The $269 Apple Watch has so many fans that Apple is said to have been forced to boost manufacturing capacity for the product.

Closing the link to mainstream fashion, Apple has also launched a version of the watch along with Nike. At this rate, it will not be long before what we wear doesn't just look smart, but is smart. 



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