There might be a lot of companies out there coming up with some great wearable tech ideas, but the problem is, it's not always so easy to make them a reality.
One of the barriers to getting those concepts made is that transforming them into actual products often involves developing your own hardware, a part of the process that takes time – and often a lot of money. Also, not everyone is an expert at making hardware.
That's where the likes of Suunto, Sensoria and Lumo Bodytech are hoping to make a difference. The trio have all recently made the decision to open up the tools and tech they've already created for their own devices to interested startups, big brands and institutions. They're hoping to speed up the process of building innovative wearables and getting them into the hands of people who need them the most.
Opening up APIs and sensor technology isn't the kind of decision you make overnight. At least that wasn't the case for Suunto and Sensoria. This has always been part of a greater vision to help get the tech inside more products and inspire others to use that tech in ways that they'd never thought of.
"We've been working on this for a long time," says Davide Vigano, co-founder at Sensoria. The US-based startup is best known for its smart fitness socks for runners, and now also dabbles in smart clothing. "The vision of the company is that each garment can become an IoT enabled computer. The sock, t-shirt that we developed are examples of that. Why not embed the sensors where they make sense and they can provide reliable and effective information?
"Since we are already wearing those garments, it shouldn't be too difficult to create this kind of wearable technology to provide contextual information for an athlete and what they are about to do. We know that each sport and fitness activity will require deep actionable information. People are tired of having shallow data."
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Finnish sports tech company Suunto has been around much longer than Sensoria, and this more open approach goes back to the arrival of its Movescount online platform. That's where Suunto GPS watch owners can dump their GPS and other tracking data. It also began opening its APIs for other companies to connect or import data to use for their own analytics. Then it allowed others to develop applications for its Suunto Ambit watches. These apps weren't as comprehensive as Android Wear apps but did allow users to add simple features for the multisport watches.
"Over the years we have been noticing that people who know Suunto or have a product from us are typically committed and loyal to the brand," says Terho Lahtinen, Suunto's senior manager of future concepts. "Many of them are highly educated and capable of hacking and tinkering to develop their own things or want to do that. There's been some people privately hacking some of the products.
"All of these findings and observations have led us to the situation that we think it makes a lot of sense to open our APIs and invite individual people and partner companies to connect their services with ours. Particularly with Movesense."
Breaking down the tech
Whether we're talking about Suunto, Sensoria or Lumo, there's one key ingredient that brings all of these wearable makers together under one roof, and that's motion – specifically motion sensors. There's a whole lot of things that move and can be tracked and these companies are fully aware of that.
Suunto's Movesense platform is made up of developer tools, APIs and a sensor that houses the kind of motion sensing tech we'd associate with a Fitbit or even an Apple Watch. We're talking accelerometers, gyrometers and magnetometers. That's packaged together with processors, storage and Bluetooth connectivity providing the tools to offer motion sensing for a host of different activities, letting users analyse data and get those meaningful insights. This sensor is small enough that it's easy enough to attach to different parts of the body depending on the motion you want to track.
It's a similar story with Sensoria and its development kit that incorporates its new Core technology. It also relies on a similar setup that can connect to non-traditional sensors, like the textile pressure sensors it uses in both generations of its smart sock to deliver a raft of useful data for runners. "This piece of microelectronics will become smaller and smaller and will eventually disappear to the human eye," Vigano says. "The sensors can now be positioned in the best place. For instance, if you are measuring heart rate, you are moving around a lot. The wrist might not be the ideal place to collect that kind of data. If you want to measure cadence and impact forces, the foot and the ankle are better placed than the wrist."
The open movement
So what wearables are getting made or being worked on? Apparently quite a lot. According to Lahtinen, there are already 150-200 companies working on projects that use Suunto's Movesense developer kit. Unsurprisingly many of those examples are firmly rooted in sports and fitness, but he is seeing the tech being used in other industries, believing it was clear from the very beginning that the tech would go beyond sports tracking.
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"We have been positioning this as a sport sensor and a third of the projects are related to sports," he explains. "But there are many health and wellness projects related to things like disability and rehabilitation or general fitness tracking and sleep tracking. Some of the partners are institutional players in the health sector who might have their own algorithms but they don't have the hardware. There are a number of different concepts for tracking animals for pets and commercial uses, industrial uses like tracking goods and transports. It's a real surprise for us to see the big range and the different companies that are using our technology."
One university is using the Movesense tools to develop a rehabilitation program for patients with knee operations, modelling different workouts and then prescribing those to their patients. They'll be able to monitor the progress of the recovery with motion patterns, angles, the extension of the knee and more.
Sensoria also sees sports and fitness as the main drivers for acceptance of its tech. It's worked with PGA tour player Bryson DeChambeau to embed sensors into the grips of golf clubs and has seen interest from sports like soccer and skiing. But it's branching into areas outside of the sporting realms as well.
"We don't have a healthcare dedicated group," Vigano told us. "There are companies out there that are leveraging Sensoria core tech in healthcare. There's actually a small startup in Maine called UpBed that's leveraging Sensoria Core for Alzheimer's patients. We have companies that are coming to us and saying hey, we have a humidity or hydration sensor that we can embed into clothing, are you interested in that? That's really exciting for us."
The most notable example is its partnership with Vivobarefoot, makers of barefoot running shoes. The two are joining forces to build a shoe with four pressure sensors connected to the Sensoria Core technology that can snap into a sock or a Vivo shoe. It'll be able to detect foot strike, cadence and even toe engagement, which is important for a natural running form.
"We don't know a lot about building footwear, but we thought it would be nice to team up with someone that does," he explained. "So Clarks reached out to us first and the owner of the Vivobrand are family members of Clarks. Clarks have been building great shoes for years. Vivo has a mission to help people run in a more natural way. The challenge is that most people who want to make that transition get injured because they don't know how to make that transition. That's where we can really help, contextualising the data to make it more meaningful in real time."
The idea of letting another company or startup use their technology sounds like a win/win scenario for the likes of Suunto, Sensoria and Lumo. We were curious though as to whether there were any potential downsides or concerns in letting pretty much anyone get their hands on the tech they've worked so hard to build and develop.
"At the beginning we did have some concerns of course," Vigano told us. "But we are being constantly surprised by people as we opened up the platform. It's amazing to see people leverage the technology in ways we never thought it would be used. We think of ourselves of a Gortex in the industry where we can show these companies how it's done and we're very open to working with other companies. The upsides definitely outweigh the downsides by a lot."
It's something that Suunto's Terho Lahtinen agrees with, but he also acknowledges that there were some doubters at the sports tech company. "There have been some internal discussions about the fact that we are now giving away our IP or giving away our secrets," he says. "Those people are not necessarily that familiar with the topic and have not been thinking of benefits of opening innovation.
"We are of course part of the Amer Sports group where we have many sister brands and some other big brands. So there have been conversations about a scenario where a competitor of one of these sister brands wanted to build some interesting measurement concept to be part of its range.
"But I think we are going to able to turn it to our own benefit to get a wider network of companies working with our tech, and as a result build a much bigger ecosystem. Open platforms will become more important in the future than we think, because there are so many different needs for measurement. The overall benefit of measuring something and being able to measure something is more important than it has ever been."