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On the heels of this year’s CES, one of the trends that I believe will find its way into many people’s wardrobes this year is the “wearable” trend. Wearables have been discussed, debated, dissected, and analyzed in the tech press at length. I’m not just talking about smart watches like Galaxy Gear, however, or health-monitoring bands like JawboneUp and Fitbit. The trend I foresee has the potential to be much larger than that. I’m talking about wearables embedded in that one thing that all of us carry on our person every single solitary day: clothes.

According to McKinsey & Company’s Ten IT-enabled business trends for the decade ahead, the number of sensor-embedded devices is set to explode over the next decade, potentially linking more than 50 billion physical entities. Intel predicts that people will eventually wear between 3 and 8 items embedded with sensors. Sales of wearable gear that can connect to the Internet or work with apps made for mobile phones or tablets will grow from $8.6 billion last year to almost $30 billion by 2018, according to analyst Shane Walker at IHS Global Insights (IHS).

Today there are dozens of companies jumping on the wearable trend. Over the course of the next 12 months, we can expect to see dozens more, and even greater mainstream adoption of wearable technology. In fact, the industry is getting crowded, as anyone who went to CES can attest. Just a few examples of the wearables unveiled there include a baby onesie with a monitor to track movement and breathing patterns, smart watches that measure and log details about every step you take, and jewelry that monitors your skin’s ultraviolet exposure and sends it to a smartphone app.

Even before CES, Nike and Fitbit have brought sensor technology to consumers through wristbands and shoe inserts that capture, track and share exercise data. Of course, Google Glass leverages this trend as well, although it remains to be seen if Glass will truly catch on or if it will just be a precursor to something much better on down the line, as Robert Scoble believes.

Is there room for startups and new contenders in an area that is drawing attention from the likes of Google, Apple, and Nike? I believe that there is. Look no further than a company like Valencell, which develops wearable biometric monitoring technology and licenses it to industry partners, for an example of a company that has seen early success in the wearables market because its technology is seamlessly integrated into consumer products that are already being used.

Keys to Bringing a Viable Wearable Product to Market

New product opportunities like wearable technologies are exciting for the start-up community to pursue because the possibilities seem endless.

When developing a wearable product, or any product really, it’s imperative to strike a balance between:

  • Taking risks. Risks need to be taken, but taken strategically. Taking experiments, risks, and thinking “big” is important, but it’s critical to balance realistic ideas with industry needs. The product development lifecycle needs to be iterative, agile and realistic.
  • Addressing a need. If your product does not work with existing lifestyle or business behaviors, it will likely have the shelf-life in the marketplace of the Snuggie.
  • Seamlessly integrate into everyday life. Ease of usability is vital for any wearable technology. Products must readily transmit data without requiring much or any interaction from the user. Likewise, users should also be able to access and absorb the data that is being collected and the takeaways that data leads to at the drop of a hat.
  • Ensuring trust and reliability. When it comes to productizing the trend, be sure the product offers a real value. If consumers and businesses don’t see a value in disclosing what could be highly sensitive personal data, then associated privacy concerns will outweigh the value in the investment.

Businesses and consumers have been inundated with an exhausting number of “trends to watch in 2014” – from colors to food to gadgets. 2014 will mark the year that wearable technology breaks through to the mainstream in key relevant consumer and vertical markets.

[Image courtesy University of Salford]