Ralph Lauren's "smart polo shirt" shows the problem with wearable tech
The wearables market is experiencing a crisis. As numerous studies have shown, many people are unimpressed with the wearable devices available today, despite increasing interest from tech companies and venture capitalists. Young people aren't interested in the products; old people aren't using them. Samsung can't even convince people to keep free smartwatches.
Yet companies continue their search for niche markets for wearables. Whistle made an activity tracker for dogs. Xiaomi announced a Fitbit knock-off that costs $13. And now Ralph Lauren created a polo that measures its wearer's heart rate, breathing stats, and stress levels, and convinced tennis players to wear the garment-turned-device today in the US Open.
These companies are demonstrating a core aspect of the wearables market: it's better to make products that fit their owners -- pun intended -- than to make owners fit the product. People care about their pets, shoppers like cheap toys, and athletes obsess over their bodies. It doesn't take much to get those consumers excited about something relevant to their interests.
Other companies approach the wearables problem from the other direction. Fitbit asks people if they want to monitor their health and pitches a product that does just that. Samsung asks smartphone owners if they want easier access to notifications or apps and offers a free smartwatch just in case. They're trying to create consumer interest where it doesn't exist.
James Robinson described this problem in March, and his conclusion continues to ring true:
Either way, the next hurdle for wearable technology to clear now the money is flowing the right way is create something past an activity tracker that proves itself indispensable, that makes sense in a deeply organic way and can show off wearables to be more than very clever technology that no one actually needs.It's funny that the companies attempting to do that -- Whistle, Xiaomi, and Ralph Lauren -- are doing so with products that are so easy to dismiss. A fitness tracker for dogs? A bracelet for thrifty consumers? A "smart" shirt for tennis players? All of these products seem ludicrous to anyone who isn't already worried about pet health, cheap tech, or obsessive fitness tracking.
It just so happens that they're also more interesting than another me-too fitness tracker or barely functioning smartwatch that one of the world's largest tech companies can't even give away.