Smart garments and wearable technology set for growthLong touted as "the next big thing", wearable technology has until now been held back by concerns ranging from cost to style, comfort and privacy issues - and of course the limitations of the devices themselves. But the sector may finally be reaching the tipping point that moves it into the mainstream.
Apple's decision last year to hire two top executives from the luxury goods sector - Burberry's CEO Angela Ahrendts and Yves Saint Laurent's CEO Paul Deneve - was one of the clearest signs yet of the blurring lines between fashion and technology.
And analysts at Cowen Research say they believe the introduction of the much-hyped Apple Watch will be the catalyst for "dramatic growth," with the wearable technology sector potentially worth US$170bn globally by 2020.
Within this, they calculate that the fitness wearables market will be worth $17bn globally and $3.38bn in the US - with smart garments and shoes rising to reach $1bn in the US by 2020.
Global market research specialist The NPD Group has also honed in on the rapidly growing market, with the launch this week of a Wearables Advisory Service to give retailers, manufacturers, and developers a better understanding of the market and the core consumers.
On-body digital devices
Holding the potential to change the way people work, communicate, respond to emergencies, manage their health and entertain themselves, the wearables market consists of on-body digital devices that can communicate wirelessly with other devices.
In its wide-ranging review of 'Wearable Technology: A Multi-Disciplinary Analysis,' Cowen identifies five different market segments, covering consumer fitness, lifestyle/entertainment, health care, enterprise, and components.
The consumer fitness side, which currently consists mainly of smart garments and wristbands/chest straps, is expected to grow globally from $1.5bn in 2014 to nearly $17bn in 2020.
The lifestyle/entertainment category - already the largest segment of the market - is seen accounting for over $67bn in revenues in 2020, giving it a 40% share of the total market. This includes smartwatches and entertainment wristbands, smart glasses, and smart jewellery.
Significant developments are also anticipated in healthcare wearables that can monitor and treat cardiac conditions and diabetes, a market worth less than $1bn today but anticipated to grow to nearly $12bn globally by 2020.
But the fastest-growing segment is the enterprise market, which allows medical professionals, manufacturers, engineers, law enforcement and military professionals, and retail workers to remotely view and receive real-time data. Currently generating global revenues of less than $100m, this is expected to surge to nearly $15bn by 2020.
When it comes to the way in which wearables are worn, the market for consumer fitness is likely to see smart garments taking the lead from fitness tracking wristbands as they are already an integral part of the daily dressing routine.
"We foresee higher CAGRs for smart garments, high-end athletic clothing with embedded biosensors," the Cowen analysts say.
They calculate that growth in smart garments will be gradual as the technology develops, and will surge by 220% to reach $1bn in the US by 2020 - with an estimated penetration rate of 1% and cost of $90, and an average of four garments per user.
Smart garments include shirts with bio-sensing circuitry woven into the fibres, which can potentially monitor vital signs more accurately than wristbands due to the larger body surface area they cover, as well as athletic shoes with embedded motion-sensing chips.
Several research labs around the US have already made strides in this direction, including researchers at the University of Central Florida, who have created a method for storing energy in copper wires by wrapping the wires inside a "supercapacitator," an invention that could serve as a miniature power source for a smart shirt; a lab at Rice University that made a battery based on nickel, rather than lithium, that's flexible and as thin as two sheets of paper; Imprint Energy, which created a super thin flexible battery based on zinc; a North Carolina State University team that designed an ultra-thin, flexible sensor out of silver nanowires; and Perpetua Power in Oregon, whose TEGWear chip can convert body heat into electrical power - perhaps the ultimate goal for a wearable powering method.
Other developments in smart garments include compression shirts from OMsignal and Carre Technologies with biosensors woven directly into the fabric that monitor the wearer's heart rate, breathing and exertion levels, and sync the data in real time to a smartphone app. The shirts can also withstand over 50 washing cycles. Canadian-based OMsignal was also behind the Polo Tech a compression shirt recently debuted by Ralph Lauren Corp.
Sensoria, a Washington-based startup launched by several Microsoft veterans, has designed the Sensoria line of shirts, sports bras, and socks that track biometric data.
Looking to the future, Cowen analysts suggest wearables growth is likely to be spurred by developments such as extended battery life and flexibility, stronger data capture ability during body motion in sports like swimming and cycling, and the provision of more relevant data.
Improvements in flexible circuitry and thin, flexible batteries would be a huge catalyst for the spread of smart clothing, they say, noting that: "No-one has yet been able to create a battery flexible or stretchable enough to sew into clothing.
"Once smart garment producers solve these problems, their clothing could take the place of today's fitness tracker form factors in many applications. Smart shirts are more natural to wear than a wristband or chest strap, are able to track more biometrics due to the larger area of skin they cover, sport styles more familiar to consumers than wristbands, and are better equipped to earn the "cool" credentials of brands like Under Armour or Nike."
On top of technology, separate research backs the view that uptake is also likely to be driven by design. Surveying Canadian consumers for its 'Wearable Technology Trends Study' earlier this year, The NPD Group found cost, style, and comfort were among their top concerns ahead of function.