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Fashion and technology share the stage at CES

By Brian S Hall / January 17, 2014

Fashion and technology share the stage at CES

A funny thing happened in the course of the wearables revolution — fashion trumped technology, and Silicon Valley may never be the same. At this year’s CES, the world’s largest consumer electronics trade show, wearable devices were everywhere and designed for nearly every part of your body. The big surprise, however, was the emphasis on fashion. The message was clear; if wearable devices are to succeed with consumers, they need to be as functional with their wardrobes as they are with their smartphones.

In many cases, style easily trumps both usefulness and usability in the user’s mind. This marriage of fashion and technology, could ultimately prove radically disruptive to tech’s most successful companies. Case in point, Google Glass. Although everyone is intrigued by the computing power of this state-of-the-art wearable, very few individuals are actually excited to add it to their wardrobe.

Fortunately, Google was wise enough to hire Warby Parker to help them create a more fashion-forward version of Glass for the general market. Although we don’t know what they’ve come up with just yet, it’s safe to bet they’ve improved upon the first iteration. If tech companies hope to break into the fashion industry, they may want to invest in a sartorial mentor first.

Techies versus fashionistas

CES vendors offered hopeful consumers massive 4K TVs, personal robots, flexible screens, extremely low-priced Android tablets and of course, wearables. Whether you place them on your head or strap them to your feet, these devices are loaded with sensors designed to log your movements, monitor your heart rate, track your children, reveal how well you slept, urge you to push away from your desk and perform countless other tasks.

The rise of affordable sensors, Bluetooth connectivity, cloud services and the fact that nearly everyone carries a smartphone that can synch, analyze and archive the data from wearable devices, are all driving this new market. Yet, for all the amazing things these technologies can do, some are still not attractive or practical enough to be placed on our person all day, every day. Combining fashion and technology is critical, and there’s no guarantee that the best tech wins.

Consider the sleek new Pebble Steel, one of a slew of new devices that garnered significant coverage with the tech press. As Pebble founder and CEO Eric Migicovsky told Mashable, “This is a watch for people who love the idea of having notifications on their wrist, but need something that doesn’t look like a sports watch.”

Pebble Steel

Now consider the response from Mashable writer Christina Warren:

“As a woman, I found that the leather strap [of the Pebble Steel] looked great on my wrist. The face might still be too big for a cocktail dress, but the strap and design of the housing looked slick and chic.”

The focus on style was echoed at PopSugar:

“Our concerns are focused more on the Pebble’s style, not its specs. While the Steel is certainly an improvement over the colored, plastic hardware of the original, it doesn’t seem like it was designed with women in mind.”

Be careful. This is not a sentiment echoed just by women — who presumably comprise more than 50% of the wearables market. When discussing their newest lineup of wearables at CES, Samsung Design head Dennis Miloseski wisely stated, “when I have something on my body, it is a part of me. It is a part of my wardrobe.”

The merger of fashion and technology

While much of the press covering CES focused on the new, the cool, the small and the big, they often overlooked the fashionable, which is quickly becoming an attribute we’ll use to define technology and computing. “Personal computers” may be personal, but they are ultimately a computing device, fully separate from ourselves. Wearables, however, are even more personal, and require an even greater focus on style and sophistication.

Can Silicon Valley’s best programmers decode fashion? Maybe not, but they are actively seeking out those who can. Intel announced a partnership with Barneys New York for a yet-to-be-launched smart bracelet. Fitbit, which makes consumer-focused wearables for health and fitness, has signed fashion icon Tory Burch to their team. Together, they will offer a collection of luxury pendants, bracelets and other wearables expected to go on sale later this year.

Successfully melding fashion and technology inside what is still essentially a computer will no doubt demand a delicate balance of skill, programming and cultural awareness. Tech companies focused on earning their money through volume rather than margins, a common practice in the fashion world, may need to reconfigure their corporate values and even allow their brand to become subsumed by companies with a true penchant for style.

Wearables are so hot right now

The merger of fashion and technology and the limitless potential of wearables is destined to spur a range of clothing and devices that will undoubtedly confuse as much as they delight. There’s fashion, and then there’s merely this season’s throwaway trend. Tech companies need to be aware that it’s quite possible for great technologies to become lost inside an item that is shunned by the public or quickly rejected by a fickle group of tastemakers.

At CES, vendors offered up smart bras and smart socks. We learned of a jacket that uses built-in GPS to navigate the wearer to his destination, rather than having to glance down at the map on his smartphone. Intel showed off a baby onesie that monitors the child’s temperature and breathing and can send that data to “smart” coffee mugs that change colors when the baby needs attention.

AEON Attire is selling “stylish” leather gloves that incorporate nanotechnology that allows wearers to continue operating their smartphone and receive compliments on their outfit in cold weather. This technology may already be found at Target and Walmart for under $20, but it’s AEON’s look and style that justifies their $65 price tag.

Gloves for your smartphone

Wearables we will actually wear

Some of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies absolutely need us to wear their gear. After all, their revenues come from the recording, archiving, synthesis and sale of our most personal data. When examining the “tech and fashion convergence,” GigaOm smartly noted that “capturing data directly at the source through their own device or developing a privileged relationship with wearable brands can be a strategic point of control for platforms.” The counter of this, however, is that companies that profit so mightily from personal data — Google, Facebook, Yahoo, etc. — are not necessarily the ones that can make wearables we will actually wear.

Let your hair guide the way

The reason that Sony was met with so much snark over its SmartWig patent is almost entirely due to how it looks, not how it works or what it can do. The wig is essentially a toupee with various electronics melded inside that help the wearer navigate in the darkness, monitor vital signs and even control external devices, such as a projector. Even if it worked perfectly and was affordable, would anyone ever wear it?

As wearables become our most personal computers, function is beginning to give way to fashion. No one is more aware of this than Apple, who has poached executives from Nike, Burberry and Yves Saint Laurent. The wearable devices industry is set to explode, and with all the various technologies aligning in perfect order, the makers of these devices are forced to pivot and stare down a path quite unfamiliar to most of them — the runway.

Check out our dedicated section for more on advancements in Wearables.