Could Smart Clothing Be The Next Wearable Technology Apple Innovates Within The Lucrative Wearables Space?

COMMENTARY: 08.29.21 – Let’s face it… one can only reinvent the phone so many times before a company must ponder “wear” (pun intended) to go next, innovation-wise.

The smartphone — a product category which continues to be “a cash cow” (so to speak) for Apple, Inc. — has been a smash hit with consumers ever since the iPhone made its debut back in 2007, going from selling a measly 1.39 million units in its first year to a mind boggling 216.76 million units sold worldwide a decade later. Despite sales of smartphones taking a hit globally in 2020, iPhones, a device that will be turning 15 (what, it’s really that old?) next year, still bring in a significant amount of revenue annually, helping to transform the Cupertino, California-based company into the world’s “most valuable brand” worth billions of dollars ($263.4 billion to be exact).

Smart T-Shirt
The conductive strips found on smart clothing allows the devices of the wearer to transmit data with a signal that is 1,000 times stronger than allowed by more conventional technological standards. (Photo: Jonathan Loh / Business Insider)

Unfortunately, as with the demise of the digital music player (e.g., the iPod) before it, there will come a time when the smartphone ceases to be at the “core” (pun intended) of Apple’s existence and it leads one to contemplate: what new technology will Apple innovate next when the era of smartphones ends?

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The Future Is ‘Already Here’

Of course, no one but the company itself knows what new innovations are in development behind closed doors down at Apple’s Cupertino, California headquarters, however, there are a limitless amount of predictions from pundits on how Apple can “think different” (as it were) in order to innovate.

Take, for instance, a feature piece published this month written by Macworld contributor, Dan Moren, for his “Stay Foolish” column in the magazine. In the op ed of sorts, Moren prognosticated what new products (note the plural form of the word) will eventually replace the iPhone (spoiler alert: it’s not one product).

“Every big tech company in the world has got to be looking down the road to figure out where our digital future is headed, and Apple’s no exception: the clever folks in Cupertino have clearly already been thinking about this, and you might be surprised to realize that a few of the contenders are already here,” wrote Moren.

Given the fact that the Wearables space has been a huge growth category for Apple, Moren posited that it’s not hard to envision a future where a smartwatch serves as the same kind of, in his own words, “nerve center” as your smartphone. According to the Macworld contributor, ever since it originally debuted back in 2014, the Apple Watch has become increasingly capable with the ability to check emails, send text messages, and even make or receive phone calls right on the device (assuming one has an appropriately equipped model). Additionally, if a user is wearing AirPods, the company’s other hit wearable, they can have Siri (Apple’s voice activated virtual assistant) read a text aloud or have it identify a caller when a call is received.

With that said, Moren went on to say that the computing platform of tomorrow will probably still need some form of visual medium, duly noting that reading an email or viewing a webpage on an Apple Watch just isn’t going to cut it, adding that no one is about to ask Siri to read out loud an entire Wikipedia entry either. Per the Macworld contributor, those are just a few of the scenarios where having some type of screen makes a lot more sense, for instance, a smartwatch paired with smart glasses which serve as the display.

“Are you getting it? The truth is the smartphone’s replacement isn’t one device, but rather some combination of technologies. Some of these devices will function on their own, but the future of the smartphone is distributed amongst multiple devices, each bringing its own strengths, pieces that form a greater whole.”

Smart Glasses Or… Smart Clothing?

As I originally wrote right here in my column back in January of this year, like the outer walls of Apple’s Cupertino, California headquarters that are lined as high as the eye can see with panels of the transparent material, the company’s latest invention might just all be focused on… glass. Furthermore, I went on to say that Apple isn’t exactly known to be (wait for it) transparent when it comes to details about its future product releases, especially with the shroud of secrecy that surrounds those very products, however, it’s no secret that the company has been quietly working behind the scenes down in Apple Park on a new device (the latest addition to the company’s line of wearables): its own pair of smart glasses (a.k.a., “Apple Glass“) with the underlying technology behind the innovation either virtual reality (VR) and/or augmented reality (AR).

While the next big innovation being developed by the “geniuses” (pun intended) at Apple Park is highly expected to be a pair of Apple-branded smart glasses, what if it’s not exactly what we’re all expecting but, rather, a new class of wearable technology altogether?

With the rapid advancements in recent years of wearables, coupled with the increasing amounts of sophisticated data they transmit, Business Insider reported in a story published this month (coincidentally, just hours before the aforementioned feature piece in Macworld) that the need for a way to connect these gadgets seamlessly and efficiently has become more important, especially for those who use more than one gadget at once. Citing an article originally featured in the publication, Nature Electronics, the media outlet revealed in its report that researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have taken wearable technology to a whole new level with a smart clothing that can conduct radio waves, like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, on the outer surface of the fabric. According to the research team from the Institute for Health Innovation & Technology at NUS, the specially patterned textile that they’ve innovated can turn the wearer into a, in their own words, “pseudo-human circuit board” which can effectively enhance connectivity between one’s connected devices.

Described by the researchers at NUS as a, “meta-material” made from stainless steel fibers, the conductive strips are said to create a localized wireless network that allows a device to transmit data with a signal that is 1,000 times stronger than that of more conventional technological standards. Additionally, it was indicated that the smart clothing was specifically engineered to confine signals closer to sensors on the body, resulting in a boost in connection strength and a reduction in power usage by any wearables in close proximity to the wearer.

As for whether there are any harmful effects that could potentially result from wearing the smart clothing — in particular, ones which could pose a risk to the health of the wearer (e.g., radio waves emitted by the transmission of data) — Business Insider reported that the head of the research team from the Institute for Health Innovation & Technology at NUS was quoted as saying: “The risks are very minimal and are less significant than holding a smartphone near one’s body for a prolonged period of time.”

In a report from Bloomberg also published in January of this year (which I cited in the aforementioned story I wrote regarding “Apple Glass”) with the exclusive details on Apple’s plans for a virtual headset, the media outlet referenced the fact that smart glasses must be fitted with small, powerful, and efficient electronics that yield long battery life to support a strong internet connection (e.g., Wi-Fi connectivity) in order to overlay notifications and other types of information (like mapping directions) while the device is in use. A wearable technology that strengthens an internet connection and extends battery life, such as the smart clothing created by the researchers at NUS, just may be the innovation that Apple needs to continue to command and further conquer the wearables space.

Connecting the Dots

In a search for data on the wearables space in order to connect the dots, if you will, as I was looking for a reliable source for information,I (purely by coincidence) came across a story published in May of this year written by Ars Technica senior reviews editor, Samuel Axon, whose sentiments regarding Apple and wearable technology were, interestingly enough, the exact same ones echoed by Moren in his column for Macworld (to be fair, Moren’s feature piece and the report from Business Insider were what inspired me to write this entire commentary in the first place, so… touché!).

“More people are buying wearables than ever before and Apple is in the lead,” wrote Axon. “But the fastest-growing categories are ones Apple hasn’t even touched yet.”

Citing a report from research firm, IDC, Axon reported that Apple leads the market by a significant margin, a statistic which has been largely attributed to sales of the Apple Watch. However, based on the data, the fastest growth has come not from smartwatches but a subcategory of other wearables such as wearable patches, digitally connected rings, and audio glasses. According to the Ars Technica senior reviews editor, for the past several years, fitness trackers, like the Fitbit from Google, have made up one of the fastest growing categories of consumer electronics, though despite this fact, the devices still lag far behind smartphones in terms of total units moved each quarter or year.

“The result may be a personal computing landscape where users depend on a variety of specialized devices for specific circumstances rather than purely relying on a cell phone, tablet, or laptop as the one-stop hub,” wrote Axon. “That said, if the way devices from Apple, Samsung, and Google work is any indication, many wearables are likely to treat the smartphone as a mobile nerve center for a plethora of connected devices.”

Hmm… the smartphone serving as a, “nerve center” for connected devices like wearables (where, or should I say, wear, have we heard that one before?).

For a bit of reference, the data from IDC, per Axon’s report, showed that Apple had a market share of 28.8% in Q1 2021 while its rival, Samsung, in comparison, sat in a distant second coming in at 11.3%. According to the Ars Technica senior reviews editor, those companies have repeatedly told investors in their quarterly earnings calls that wearables are among the fastest-growing sources of revenue and the category will be a major focus moving forward. Additionally, Axon reported that, currently, the wearables space is mostly dominated by fitness trackers but, as the data shows, there are some signs that additional wearable types may break through (maybe… smart clothing?) and analysts expect growth to continue for these in the future.

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