Google and Levi's showed off this week a new joint project: a $350 smart jean jacket. While this jacket literally puts tech on your sleeve, it does it in a subtle way that doesn't require putting another screen on your body. In doing so, it offers a glimpse of what smart fabrics can do and of the evolution of the wearables market - one in which consumers won't have to wear a clunky accessory that screams high tech.
The Levi's Smart Commuter Jacket, which was introduced over the weekend at SXSW in Austin, is aimed at those who bike to work. It has technology woven into its fibres, and allows users to take phone calls, get directions and check the time, by tapping and swiping their sleeves. That delivers information to them through their headphones so that they can keep their eyes on the road without having to fiddle with a screen. The jacket should hit stores this fall.
Its smart fibres are washable; they're powered by a sort of smart cufflink that you'll have to remove when you wash the jacket. The cufflink has a two-day battery life.
While the idea of a smart jean jacket may not appeal to everyone (especially on a hot summer day), the existence of such a jacket is telling about where the market may be going.
"I think that the commuter jacket from Levi's is really perfect because it's focused on a single consumer audience. It has the cyclist in mind and is targeting what their needs are," said Sidney Morgan-Petro, retail editor at trend forecasting firm WGSN.
She said that what makes the Commuter jacket different from other wearables - and even other smart clothing-- is that it's not necessarily marketing the tech as its main feature, but rather using it to solve problems that everyday people have. Many smartwatches and even other smart clothing can feel like solutions in search of a problem to solve. The Commuter jacket, she said, stands out as a type of wearable for a more everyday consumer who may not be that interested in the tech, but likes the practical features that come with a stylish jacket.
Wearables are expected to be a $19 billion industry by 2018, according to Juniper Research. Products including Fitbit fitness trackers, Android Wear watches and the Apple Watch have helped fuel a rise in mainstream awareness of wearables for the past several years, even leading Fitbit to go public in 2015. But the market for wearables has taken a bit of a tumble in the past few quarters. Fitbit in January announced it had missed earnings expectations and starting cutting jobs because sales were lower than expected.
It's hard to say exactly what has caused the cool-down in wearables, but one possibility is that the market for uber-techy wearables that try to put a smartwatch on your wrist is pretty saturated. Analysts have pointed to a shift in the market away from the super-functional smartwatch toward gadgets that are a little more focused and better looking to boot.
"Where smartwatches were once expected to take the lead, basic wearables now reign supreme," Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst for the analysis firm International Data Corp., said in a December report. "From a design perspective, many devices are focusing on fashion first while allowing the technology to blend in with the background."
The partnership between Google and Levi's speaks to that growing effort between the technology and fashion industries. Several designers have already partnered with the likes of Fitbit and Apple to make their wearables more chic and less geek. Companies including Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and Under Armour have released smart activewear; seeing a brand as old and mainstream as Levi's get in on the act illustrates just how pervasive the idea has become.
"The retail opportunity is huge," Morgan-Petro said. "We're basically seeing clothes as the future of wearables."
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