When Ralph Lauren of all brands recently slipped a six-packed model into its smarter than usual SmartTech polo shirt ahead of this year's US Open, I had friends who've never previously showed any interest in smart clothing, or technology for that matter, demanding I get hold of one these miraculous new smart garments.
Yet while the impact of Ralph Lauren's breathing and heart rate tracking top was clearly exciting for my non-techie friends, I couldn't bring myself to tell them it wasn't actually new. We'd seen it a year ago, again at the US Open, being tested on some guinea pig ball boys. It all felt a bit Groundhog Day. But my friends were right, this year was different because Ralph Lauren actually put its sensor-loaded shirt on sale.
What's most interesting here is that it has taken a traditional fashion brand like Ralph Lauren to seemingly make the smart clothing breakthrough. If we'd have picked a brand to bring us long-promised smart garments it wouldn't have been the first name on our lips. Adidas, Nike, Under Armour and even Apple would have been closer to the tips of our tongues.
If you believe the analysts, it's a smart move by Ralph. Back in 2014 analysts Gartner predicted that by 2016 shipments of smart garments would hit an estimated 26 million, overtaking fitness bands by 7 million in the same years. Of course they're not just talking smart fitness clothing. That projection will take into account other 'interesting' products like that Lyle & Scott jacket you can pay for your coffee with, or the Sensoria socks that can help improve your running form with real-time coaching. And even the cycling jackets that light up for safety.
A big market...one day
Either way the prospect of a 26 million market represents a decent sized pie to want a slice of. But that's if you believe the numbers. I have my doubts that we'll see that kind of action. And here's why.
People who are deep into tech will tell you there is a lot of activity happening on the smart garment front and they'd be right but only if you go hunting in development labs and sniffing around for Kickstarter concepts. But for those of us who might want to actually buy real life product, the fact is there's very little out there on the shelves. For all the talk of a smart clothing revolution, it seems to be taking a long time for genuinely useful products to actually hit the shelves, beyond the chest-strap-in-disguise shirts that let you clip transmitters into the garment.
Adidas, for example, has a seamless sports bra that comes with sensor fibres knitted into the fabric that pair with a chest strap-style transmitter to track heart rate. While this offers a more comfortable alternative to the chest strap, it still feels like a small step forward.
Then there's the fact that the products that are making it to market are prohibitively expensive. Take the Athos smart garments. It offers a base layer-like shirt and pair of shorts that offer far deeper insights, adding muscle activity to heart rate. These types of garments can tell you how much power you're generating from that squat you just did but to get this kind of data you're looking at almost $750 dollars to track your upper and lower body. The Ralph Lauren shirt is $295.
Even for a serious athlete chasing marginal gains that's a lot of money. In a world where activity and heart rate tracking are just starting to be more widely adopted and understood, you have to ask whether consumers are even ready.
According to Meg Burich, Marketing Director for Wearable Sports at Adidas, previously at Textronics where she was pioneer in electro-textiles, there's a way to go before the innovators in this space are getting it right.
"At Adidas our style has been very commercial and accessible with our price range around $60 per garment. A lot of what you're seeing enter the market right now are sort of protoype garments that are really out of the everyday consumer price range. So I think getting it to that point where people care, at the right price point, it's easy to wear and comfortable. That's the magic combination and not a lot of that still exists on the market."
Same old problems
As a borderline crazy runner, tech early adopter and big believer in using stats and tracking improve performance, I'm champing at the bit for more data and insights. But the reality is that most people are still getting to grips with the stats they get from the running apps on their smartphones and products that simply load on more data alone aren't going to be enough.
"Consumers don't want to just see numbers and data," says Burich. "They want insights that are more meaningful, something that gives them a picture of whole health. Going beyond athletic performance to something that's more lifestyle."
This need for the 'coaching' piece of the puzzle to come of age is a valid reason for manufacturers to hold back their products. As a lot of the fitness band, tracking app and smartwatch manufacturers are finding, what your average person on the street is really hankering for is help understanding what the numbers mean for them. Telling me my average heart rate was 187BPM during my last gym session alone isn't that useful to those of us without sports science degrees. Is it good? Is it bad? What does it mean for my recovery? And what about how I should approach my next session?
It's a problem that's far from easy to solve. It's why technology isn't going to kill off the personal trainer anytime soon.
Smart garments face other hurdles too. It's fairly daunting list that includes comfort, durability, reliability and cost effective manufacturing that will make them affordable.
Do not tumble dry
"It's very tricky to integrate electronics with apparel and make it washable and comfortable." says Burich. "That's something we've been really successful at in terms of our core styles. They don't require any extra care. It takes a while to get there and it takes some real attention to do it. One of the things we're focused on is how you do this as part of a normal manufacturing process so you can get economies of scale. For small companies and start ups that's pretty difficult."
And not just the start ups that are finding it tricky. Big brands like Under Armour have struggled too.
In 2011 it was forced to scale back an ambitious project to develop a biometric shirt, ending up producing a heart rate strap that was itself eventually canned. But Chief Executive Kevin Plank is still prophesying a time when clothes themselves become our trackers of choice.
"If we believe that our future is going to be defined by these hard pieces of glass or plastic that sit in our back pockets, you're crazy," Plank recently told investors. "It is going to convert into apparel."
I for one hope that Mr Plank is right. I'm just not expecting it to happen anytime soon.
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