Too cool for wearable tech: Why Britain is behind the smartwatch times

Wareable investigates why one side of the Atlantic isn't jumping on the bandwagon
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There's no two ways about it: Brits aren't fussed about wearables.

When British Gas conducted a study on its Hive connected thermostat, it discovered that, while more than half of Britons thought smart home technology was worth having, just a quarter felt the same way about wearables.

Contrast that with the attitudes in America polled two years earlier where 40% of those asked across the Pond thought positively about smartwatches, fitness trackers and the like, it seems the UK is lagging behind.

But what is it about wearables that don't seem to excite and is there anything the manufacturers and designers can do to change their minds?

The fact that the UK is so keen on smart homes mean that it can't be down to the tech itself. People are just as happy to queue for iPhones as any other nation – and the UK market is key for tech companies. So, it stands to logic that the wearability must be at fault – and this idea is supported by a 2015 report from mobile tech specialists Adapmi.

Too cool for wearable tech: Why Britain is behind the smartwatch times

When they got a group of participants together, over 30% of the room raised their hands to say that wearable tech made people look 'ridiculous' and only 10% admitted they'd 'feel cool' wearing it. That compares to 43% of Americans who thought wearables 'could be stylish' - and it's worth remembering that this particular US study was conducted back in 2013, long before smartwatches came of age.

The obvious conclusion is that it's a case of British reserve.

Wearables are too corporate

Matthew Drinkwater, Head of Fashion Innovation Technology at the London College of Fashion, said that there's huge cultural differences driving those trends, and that there's a long way to go until wearables become Brit friendly.

"What you see in London is a vibrancy and an energy which is very different to New York or Paris where there is a much more conservative attitude towards the way that you dress," he told Wareable.

"A lot of the wearable products at the moment are very corporate looking and fit in nicely with that kind of mindset. But what would work better in London is a much more aspirational product."

"London has always been perceived as a very creative city, way above commerciality. London has been one of the drivers of street style; it's a very multicultural city with a huge ability for people to wear what they want and not worry about how they look."

Too cool for wearable tech: Why Britain is behind the smartwatch times

"What you're seeing with a lot of products in wearable tech, from a London perspective, is not matching that; particularly a lot of the health and fitness products. They're really functional but there's a big aesthetic area that needs to be looked at."

So, the industry isn't up to scratch as far as the discerning Brits are concerned.

It's no good the tech simply being wearable. If it's not must-wear, then we don't want to know. Those looking to pitch wearables at a UK market might instead wish to take Drinkwater's advice.

"What's going to be really important is personalisation in these products. There's not been too many wearables to date which have enabled consumers to give their own impression and their own ability to influence that product design. A little bit more about you is what's going to be key."

Choice cuts

It's a concept that Apple's certainly not been blind to with its 30-strong collection of devices in the Apple Watch range including choices in strap, colour and case. It's trying to avoid its customers feeling like smartwatch clones. That's a decent start but there are more customisable wearables on the way that could be just what it takes to kick the UK market off.

Blocks is an entirely modular wearable system that captures that sense of personalisation. Set to launch on Kickstarter this month and ship later this year, there's already over 20 units from which customers can choose to build their very own version of the perfect device. Kovert is another British start-up with the same local concerns in mind. Its modular Altruis jewellery invites women to choose how, where and in what colour to adorn themselves with their mobile-connected accessory.

Therefore, it's something of an irony that it's the city's very own leading-edge standards that might keep them from flourishing. While their products are innovative, according to Drinkwater, they struggle with maintaining a business, because what they're pushing out is less commercial and less viable on a global scale.

This is the big decision for wearable tech companies - take the smartphone route and hope that people around the world are willing to wear the same devices or make personal, customisable, specific and targeted tech that solves real problems and expresses individual identity.

The most promising compromise so far is making the tech mass market and collaborating with designers to offer as much choice as possible when it comes to aesthetics. Martian's doing it with Guess Connect. The Horological Smartwatch Open Platform is doing it with Swiss watchmakers. Intel's doing it with Curie and Opening Ceremony's MICA.

Opinions towards wearable tech in the UK will only shift when Brits have enough choice to replicate their chosen style in smart clothing and wearables. The industry is already making the leap so the next time those surveys are conducted, the results could be very different.

Design has been a big challenge in wearables, but check out our round-up of the best designer wearables, and let us know which wearable tech you'd feel cool wearing.

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I'm a technology and sports journalist and writer with over 15 years experience. Most recently my role centres around monetising editorial in a content lead role at Future Publishing, writing for What Hi-Fi, TechRadar.

I'm also a published author and a presenter for both national radio and for video too. I've appeared on TV news channels, online videos, podcasts and I've worked for BBC Radio 2, Radio 4 and had a regular slot on BBC Asian Network as the resident gadget expert.

In a previous life, I was a professional actor. I also lectured at Harlow College on digital publishing for two years. Loves include skiing, cats, canoeing, singing and football.

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