For most of the history of the modern world, technology has been limited to things you use rather than things you wear. Until recently, that is. Wearables, or technology that you can wear, are more popular than ever, coming in forms ranging from footwear to fashionable rings.
Wearable technology isn’t exactly new – early forms actually date back hundreds of years to a wearable abacus invented in the 17th century – but today’s options are more diverse and dynamic than ever before. And now, unlike the first generation Fitbit or even the Walkman players of the 80s and 90s, today's wearables are one thing past models were not: stylish.
Modern wearables, especially computerized options, however, are relatively new; while the first commercial pedometers hit the market in the 1930s, most innovations have occurred within the last few decades. For example, the first wearable heart rate monitors for athletes debuted in the 1980s and wearable fitness trackers hit the market in the mid-2000s. Bluetooth headsets also debuted in the early 2000s, creating a convenient, hands-free alternative to holding a phone. The Nike + iPod duo, in which fitness stats were synced with an iPod Nano, launched in 2006, while Fitbit, one of the first big names in activity tracking, came onto the scene in 2008.
Although wearables had the potential to be a flash in the pan trend, there’s a reason this concept is only gaining traction: wearables are, quite simply put, very useful. Helping you track activity and heart rate, notifying you to important phone calls, and even monitoring vital signs, wearables effectively provide necessary data in an extremely convenient form.
In the last decade, the popularity of wearables has accelerated rapidly, transitioning from simple pedometers to hearables, smart watches, and so much more. As technology improves, designers have put considerable energy into creating products that are equal parts stylish and functional, marrying useful technology with the wide world of fashion.
Key Companies in the History of Wearable Tech
As the collection of wearables in the marketplace grows, so do the brands and options available. However, this was not always the case. Several major athletics and technology brands led the way in today’s industry, paving the path for modern wearables.
As dominant brand for athletic wear, it’s only natural that Nike was one of the first players on the scene in wearables. Targeting the fitness market, Nike’s partnership with Apple launched the Nike + iPod technology in 2006 and the extremely popular FuelBand in 2012. Although waning in popularity with the competition flooding the market, Nike continues to be a major player in the wearables industry.
Apple experienced one of the most successful resurgences in the history of technology with the launch of the original iPod in 2001, bringing the brand from doomed obscurity to the front of the computing industry. After years of success with MP3 players and smart phones, Apple entered the wearables industry with the wildly popular Apple Watch in 2015. With over 12 million units sold in 2015 alone, it’s clear there’s a market for both Apple products and high tech wearables. Apple’s recent acquisition of Beats headphones poses interesting opportunities in the hearables industry as well, although nothing has come to market so far.
Founded in 2007 with the first device launch in 2008, Fitbit is one of the industry leaders in the wearable fitness market with multiple devices ranging from clip-on trackers to sophisticated heart rate monitors. With a rich history in utilitarian design, Fitbit broke the mold with its newest release, the Fitbit Alta, adding a more streamlined, attractive alternative to its inventory.
Hearables, or wearable accessories worn in the ears, are fairly new to the scene but German-based Bragi has made a name as one of the leaders in the market. Cutting the cord on headphones, Bragi’s Dash is a completely wireless earbud that fits comfortably within the ear canal to provide uninterrupted and high quality sound. Dash can be worn virtually anywhere, including in the water, leading to a revolutionary new approach to headphones that is quickly growing in popularity.
Wearable Tech Meets Fashion
As technology improves, so do the capabilities of wearables. The original fitness trackers may have been designed with utility in mind, but modern approaches are adding style into the mix. New inventions are incorporating the design elements original pieces were lacking, offering the updates necessary to transition wearables and hearables from the techie sphere to mainstream culture.
This transition has come in numerous waves. Some companies, like Fitbit, are incorporating designer cases and options, while others, like Apple, are offering customizable bands and other alternatives to customize a bland, boring design. Other companies are focusing on designing products specifically to be attractive enough for daily wear, making wearables truly wearable in practice rather just in theory.
Smart accessories and jewelry are also seeing a rise in sales, with trendy-looking statement pieces serving multiple purposes for wearers. Smart watches don’t have to feature a boxy screen; instead, modern alternatives are offering classic designs with technology incorporated into fashionable concepts. As these trends progress, the market for wearables and hearables is expanding, with hundreds of iterations flooding crowdfunding platforms around the world.
Central Players in Fashion and Technology
With the transition from function to fashion, countless brands are trying their hand at entering the wearable world. In particular, many fashion designers have thrown their contributions into the ring, marrying couture with technology. For example, Swarovski’s painfully stylish fitness tracker, Polo Ralph Lauren’s high-tech tee shirt, Fossil’s activity tracker, and Will.i.am’s collaboration with Gucci all seek to add a designer edge to wearable tech.
In addition, many existing brands are incorporating a transition to more stylish alternatives. Both Fitbit and Jawbone have put fashion first with their most recent product launches, offering slimmer wristbands that look more like bracelets than fitness accessories while still offering the same functions users love.
New players, however, may be the most significant contributors to recent trends toward fashion; rather than adapting existing models, startups have been able to enter the scene cleanly, offering up new and innovative models that have been extremely successful among the youth demographic. Ringly, for example, is a startup centered around adorable tech that can be worn on a daily basis. Boasting bracelets, necklaces, and rings that react when you receive a message or call, this startup was attractive enough to raise $5.1 million in initial funding.
Wearable Tech from Head to Toe
For every body part, there’s probably at least one major form of wearable tech sweeping the market. From innovations in headphones and earbuds to smart shoes that guide your every step, wearables and hearables have evolved significantly, creating a little something for everyone, no matter what you want to wear, and where you want to wear it.
Too stressed with all the different options in wearables out there? Muse, the headband that guides meditation and promotes instant relaxation, hit the market in 2014 to rave reviews, and it's sure to calm you down. Designed to help you focus, settle your mind, and improve cognitive function, Muse contains seven sensors in all, including two rubber ones behind the ears and five that connect with the forehead to track brain activity and promote soothing healing.
In the realm of head-oriented wearables, hearables are arguably the biggest category, leading to a wide market with countless in-ear options that do everything from play music to track activity. Early devices were utilitarian and awkward, but today’s models are stylish and sophisticated. Some options can be controlled through a phone, while others, like Dash, are motion controlled. Due to the construction of the ear, modern hearables offer many benefits to consumers as technology improves; devices that were awkward and uncomfortable are now trendy and easy to use. Comfortable to wear with amazing sound quality and performance that doesn’t interfere with day to day life, hearables offer an integrated way to listen, whether that means amplifying sound, rocking out to your favorite tunes, or improving failing hearing.
Smart glasses, most notably Google Glass, also carry potential in the marketplace, providing a hands-free high tech experience blending the power of smart phones with one’s glasses. Although the project failed, it hasn’t stopped others from trying. Over the last year, Vuzix, Sony, and Espon have all released glasses with an intelligent edge.
Necklaces are cute, classic, and easy to incorporate in most outfits, which is likely a contributing factor in the rise of smart jewelry. Some operate as an activity tracker, Like Tory Burch’s necklace Fitbit case, while others, like the Bellabeat LEAF take the concept further, tracking activity, sleep patterns, stress levels, and even menstrual cycles.
Neckalce wearables aren’t limited to women, either; the Arc Pendant is a men’s piece worn under the shirt that monitors heart rate and activity levels, provides navigational guidance, and can connect with smart devices around the home.
Who needs a regular purse when you can have a smart bag instead? Combining the fit and function of a standard high end purse or backpack with integrated smart phone technology, smart bags are the answer to tech-savvy style. Most models on the market or currently crowdfunding, like the HiSmart, are centered around Bluetooth connectivity, mobile charging, and hands-free access to key phone features. Other attempts, like Ralph Lauren’s Ricky, have proved to be less successful, showing gaps in the market that a stylish bag that doesn’t sacrifice performance can fill.
Arms and Hands
From smart bands that hold your cell phone during physical activity to bracelets and fashionable rings that tell you when someone calls, there are countless options for smart wearables for your arms, wrists and hands.
The wearable tech industry, especially for fitness performance, started with the wrist, offering pedometers and activity trackers from companies like Fitbit and Jawbone, but today’s industry is a little different. For example, the MEMI is a sleek, stylish silver bracelet that vibrates discreetly, alerting you to selected callers and calendar updates. Cuff, on the other hand, is a notification device in case of emergency. Synced to your smart phone, all it takes is a tap in the right spot to notify contacts of your choosing that trouble is on the horizon. Even Fitbit has joined the fray, with cuffs for the Fitbit Flex insert specially created by designer Tory Burch.
Fashionable wearables aren’t limited to the wrist, of course; Ringly, a connected smart ring alerts you to phone calls, texts, emails, alerts, and more though vibrations and light. Smarty Ring has a geekier look than Ringly, but performs many of the same functions, even going so far as to alert you if your phone is lost.
Gone are the days of using a belt simply to hold up your pants. Smart belts have hit the market in several different models, although several compelling prototypes are still in production. Take Samsung’s Welt, for example: designed to track the waistline while promoting food consumption and activity, the Welt is equal parts stylish and promising. Belty, a model currently building a waiting list, is intended to increase energy levels and improve wellness without sacrificing fashion; customizable straps allow the wearer to stay in style as the trends change.
Smart shoes have been a long time in the making, with the earliest model produced in 1961 with the goal of helping the wearer cheat at the roulette wheel. Today’s models are less about gambling, however, and more about fashionable innovations. For example, Lechal’s smart shoes guide walkers in the right direction, eliminating the need to stare at a map; a buzzing left shoe means the wearer should turn left, while a buzzing right shoe indicates a right turn. Originally invented to facilitate navigation for the blind, Lechal’s unique inventory is now available for wearers from all walks of life. Digitsole is also working on a smart shoe with a futuristic design, boasting connected, interactive, heated, and shock absorbent footwear that will transform the way you move.
Whether you’ve already delved into the world of wearables or are just getting started in the wide marketplace of fashionable technology, one thing is for certain: wearables and hearables are just starting out. Over the next few years, we’ll surely see innovations in smart technology like never before, bringing currently pricey niche pieces into the affordable mainstream market.