Wearable tech: Is ‘smart’ clothing ready for the streets?
Wearable technology is becoming “more chic and less geek,” said Hayley Tsukayama in The Washington Post. That was the big takeaway from the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, where Google and Levi’s last week showed off a new joint project: a high-tech denim jacket. The $350 Commuter jacket, which is aimed at people who bike to work and which should be in stores this fall, is woven with touch-sensitive fibers that let wearers “take phone calls, get directions, and check the time by tapping and swiping their sleeves.” A Bluetooth- enabled cuff link transmits those gestures to the wearer’s smartphone, which delivers the requested information to the user’s headphones— allowing bicyclists to “keep their eyes on the road without having to fiddle with a screen.” What makes the coat stand out from other wearables, like the Apple Watch and Fitbit’s fitness trackers, is that it doesn’t make its tech “its main feature, but rather uses it to solve problems that everyday people have.” With the smartwatch market saturated, analysts now believe that fashionable, tech-equipped clothing will drive the wearables sector, which is expected to hit $19 billion next year.
“I’ve worn sensor-filled clothes before, and they end up being more gimmicky than practical,” said Caitlin McGarry in PC World.com. But after trying on the Commuter jacket, “I’m a believer.” For one thing, it works. You can brush your cuff to hear an ETA on your destination, swipe the opposite direction to skip a song, or double tap to play or pause your music. But it’s also a classic, stylish Levi’s coat. “In other words: It doesn’t scream, ‘Ask me about my technology!’ like a smartwatch does.” Google’s jacket fulfills the central promise of wearable tech: “to take us away from our phones and to improve our lives in subtle but powerful ways,” said Nick Statt in TheVerge.com. Apple’s Watch failed to do that: I find it takes more time to interact with the device’s tiny screen than to just pull out and use my phone. The Commuter coat does less than the Watch, but that simplicity makes it feel “like one of the first truly practical pieces of wearable tech.”
This smart jacket isn’t the future, it’s “really just a large remote” for your phone, said Scott Stein in CNET.com. And there’s nothing new about that. Burton started making ski jackets with embedded iPod controls 14 years ago. If the new coat flops, it’ll be because it shares the same flaw as nearly every other wearable— it “must be tethered to a cellular phone,” said Haniya Rae in Forbes.com. The Apple Watch never took off because consumers didn’t need a smaller version of the device already in their pocket. How many people really want a $350 jacket that lets them do exactly the same things—skip songs, get ETAs—as their smartphone’s hands-free digital voice assistant?