Don't get too excited about smart clothing's supposed tipping point

IDC has forecasted big smart clothing growth, but it seems a distant prospect
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Last week came some welcome news: far from a fad, the wearable tech market is set to double by 2021. In this mix were some fairly obvious predictions – smartwatches will continue to grow, slowly and steadily. Fitness trackers will stutter. Smart 'hearables' will grow, but remain rather niche.

But there was a stat that rather caught my attention: that smart clothing would soar 76% per year between now and 2021, to ship in excess of 20 million devices by 2021.

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That's quite some stat. Now, four years is a long time in technology, and 21 million units is a fairly modest total. It's about 30% of the size of the current watch market, which includes smartwatches, GPS devices and hybrids. But given that the smart clothing market is essentially nothing right now, it got me thinking. Where is this growth going to come from?

Let's have a look at the current crop.

A quick run down of our pick of the best smart clothing reveals some promising tech, but a big slant to pro-sports. There's the Polar Team Pro Shirt (pro, not out yet), Nadi X connect yoga pants (not out yet), AIO sleeve (niche sports) and Project Jaquard (not out). The ones that have hit the market are Sensoria socks (niche) and smart bras, which tick the most boxes for wearability and usefulness for women who struggle with chest straps.

Don't get too excited about smart clothing's supposed tipping point

These devices have successfully overcome difficult problems, from comfort and size to washability. But there are still issues with the smart element that are preventing scale.

The first is cost: Athos' muscle detecting compression gear is $400. Those haptic yoga pants are $299. Would you pay that? I wouldn't. Cost and availability show that smart clothing isn't even off the ground, so who are these brands that are set to turn smart clothing into a actual, thriving market in just four years?

Well, I'm going to put it out there – none of the current crop. While there are brands that should enjoy some success, for this segment to really take off – to grow 79% every year between now and 2021 – it's going to need a AAA brand.

Usually we look to Apple and Google in these situations, but there's not a hope that a smart garment is going to come out of Cupertino in the next four years. Instead, we should look to existing apparel brands, which have been unnaturally quiet about wearable tech.

Under Armour's smart shoes are a clear sign that it's interested in the smart clothing medium. Yet at present, the shoes seem to replace a running watch or phone (poorly) rather than add anything new – a mistake in our eyes. But as an apparel and purveyor of sports tech via the Under Armour HealthBox and Under Armour Record app ecosystem, something could be in the works.

Don't get too excited about smart clothing's supposed tipping point

Likewise, Adidas. The company has dabbled in sports wearables and subsequently pulled out –although Stacey Burr, head of the digital sports division, told Wareable that the company wasn't done for good. But more pertinently, Burr arrived at Adidas after the company bought Textronics, her smart textiles company. While she may be having trouble convincing the Adidas board that smart apparel is the way forward, they have the right woman for the job when they decide to jump in.

So without the inclusion of a major brand, can smart clothing reach 21 million shipments a year by 2021? For my money, no it can't. I don't have much faith that the segment is mature enough to experience meaningful growth in 2017 or even 2018. But time will tell. I hope I can be proved wrong.

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James Stables


James is the co-founder of Wareable, and he has been a technology journalist for 15 years.

He started his career at Future Publishing, James became the features editor of T3 Magazine and and was a regular contributor to TechRadar – before leaving Future Publishing to found Wareable in 2014.

James has been at the helm of Wareable since 2014 and has become one of the leading experts in wearable technologies globally. He has reviewed, tested, and covered pretty much every wearable on the market, and is passionate about the evolving industry, and wearables helping people achieve healthier and happier lives.

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