Do these pants come in Bluetooth?July 30, 2012: 7:22 AM ET
After decades of being "just around the corner," wearable electronics may finally be ready for prime time.
By John Patrick Pullen, contributor
FORTUNE -- Forget lazy Sundays. I recently kicked off the week walking to the market, washing and detailing my car, going for a long run, and taking out my dog -- four times. By the end of the day, which pinned me to the couch around 8 p.m., I was surprisingly exhausted. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so shocked -- according to my Nike+ Fuelband, I had logged more miles, taken more steps, and burned more calories that day than any in the previous 30. These days, apparently, I even need computers to tell me I should be tired.
I'm not alone. Wearable electronics are an emerging category that's poised to stretch well beyond the hands-free headsets that 13% of cellphone users currently stuff in their ears. From RFID-equipped sneakers to accelerometer-enabled bracelets, clothing has quickly become technology's next frontier. Google's (GOOG) Project Glass -- microprocessor powered specs -- has done a lot to popularize a trend that has been growing for years. But like many other cutting edge trends -- tablet computers or 3D televisions -- wearable electronics have had as many flops as hits. From the supply chain to the storefront, there seems to still be plenty of potential barriers.
Despite a long lead-in, the category is so new that it is as of yet unclear how much it is really worth. "At this point, wearables are a supply side driven trend, inspired by consumer needs and behavior," says Sarah Rotman Epps a senior analyst with Forrester Research. Advances like longer-lasting batteries, smaller accelerometers, and cheaper radio components have component manufacturers like ARM (ARMH), Qualcom (QCOM), and Intel (INTC) driving the push to stitch circuitry into clothing and apparel. And, until recently, the shove was hardly subtle. Chunky GPS-enabled wristwatches and wiry running computers experienced only marginal success.
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But in the last two years, more refined designs have slimmed down these devices -- and created production issues. For example, Jawbone, which is a leader in mobile phone headsets, pivoted their company's strategy to enter the wearables market, and stumbled out of the gate. In late 2011, the company released the Up Band, a bracelet designed to monitor activity as varied as sleeping, eating, and exercising, while interacting with an app for Apple (AAPL) iOS devices like the iPhone. But according to a December 2011 letter to customers from CEO Hosain Rahman, a problem with power capacitors affected some units' ability to hold a charge or sync data. Jawbone offered customers a no-questions-asked refund, and is continuing to develop the product.
Adidas products have been collecting data for decades, starting with the Micropacer in 1984. This shoe had a sensor under the big toe that detected when the foot hit the ground, displaying a runner's speed and distance on an LCD stitched into the tongue. Twenty years later, the company released the Adidas One, a sneaker with a sensor that adjusted the sole's firmness, and in March 2008, it launched the MiCoach line, which weighs heavily in the company's future plans. A suite of training-based products that stretch from smartphone apps to soccer cleats, MiCoach began as a 3 people team within the company. Today an entire business unit is dedicated to products that fuse technology and apparel. "Just that commitment from a head count and business unit standpoint, you can understand how seriously we're taking it," says Christian DiBenedetto, the team's senior innovation director.
According to DiBenedetto, when Adidas brings a piece of wearable electronics to market, the most important test isn't athletes' trial runs -- it's sending the item through a washer and a dryer. These products must endure higher temperatures and more exposure to water than standard electronics, making them significantly harder to produce. Similar to Jawbone's problems with Up, Adidas encountered a problem with its MiCoach Zone wristband in late 2010. A batch of its heart-rate monitoring bracelets' batteries drained prematurely. Eventually, Adidas abandoned this particular wearable. "When you bring a new product to market through channels like footwear and apparel, there can be challenges in integrating [other] products with retailers," says DiBenedetto.
DiBenedetto's team has pressed onward. At July 25's Major League Soccer All-Star Game in Philadelphia, Adidas released its newest offering, MiCoach Elite System, a setup that gives coaches and trainers real-time access to on-field data such as player position, speed, distance traveled, intensity of play, acceleration, and GPS mapping of location on the field. The information is gleaned from a data cell that sits in a pocket, between the shoulder blades, of the player's jersey. Electrodes and sensors are woven into the shirt's fabric, wirelessly transmitting more than 200 pieces of data per second from each player to a central computer, where they are then beamed down to iPads.
The product's iPad integration might make all the difference. According to a report penned by Epps at Forrester, in order for wearable electronics to go mainstream, they'll need backing from one or more of the big five tech leaders: Apple, Google, Microsoft (MSFT), Amazon (AMZN), or Facebook (FB). Each of these players has different strengths, and in the case of Apple, a polished marketing channel and brand can have a halo effect encouraging widespread adoption.
This was certainly the case with Nike (NKE), which six years ago debuted its Nike+ platform in conjunction with Apple at the launch of the iPod Nano. According to Ricky Engelberg, experience director for Nike's digital group, the company's mission is to help athletes do more, not necessarily to pursue wearable electronics or sell more sneakers (though those are probably lucrative side effects). Historically, that took the form of creating better shoes or lighter running shorts, but now, as technology shrinks and becomes more and useful digitally enabled products and services are powering their game plan.
What began as a running-oriented program for Nike has now expanded into other areas of training. For example, Nike+ Basketball uses pressure-sensitive shoes to measure vertical leap, quickness, and playing time on the hardwood. Nike+ Training uses similarly amped sneakers to pit gym rats against each other in agility and endurance drills. And then there's the Fuelband, which everyone from average Joe's to Lebron James can use to monitor their daily movement.
"Products like the Nike+ Fuelband, this idea of having a scoreboard on your wrist that tells you how active you've been each day, appeals to more than just athletes," Engleberg says. "Any person with a body can be motivated to go and do more." Maybe so. But on Sundays, I might shed it in favor of something a little more low-tech, like a Slanket. You know, something that motivates me to do less.