I’ve never been what you might call a “fashion plate.” When I work from home, my go-to wardrobe is essentially graduate-student redux. When I dress up to go out for work, a carefully layered scarf counts as sophisticated. In recent years, however, I’ve made a conscious effort to be more fashionable. Little did I realize just how much technology—and in particular the rise of “smart wearables”—has transformed what we mean by clothing and accessories for an ageing population.
For the uninitiated, “Smart Wearables” are electronic devices incorporated into items that can be comfortably worn on a body. Some, like Smart watches, function as extensions of your smart phone, enabling you to send and receive messages, conduct phone calls, or even make online payments. Others, like the seemingly omnipresent Fitbit track things like heart rate, steps taken, or sleep patterns on a real-time basis. I’m a big fan of so-called “Smart glasses,” which allow you stream to your Spotify playlist or film videos, all while looking super-trendy. With the rise of smart wearables, fashion, convenience and utility are now all merging into one blended design.
But wearable tech isn’t only about accessories. Smart textiles are garments with microelectronics, biotechnology, AI or sensors woven into the fabric. What’s amazing about this clothing is that it is stretchable, breathable, and even washable, and yet the “tech part” is invisible to the eye. Much like the devices mentioned above, smart clothing can gather, track, and transmit the wearer’s biometric and physical data, such as body temperature, respiration and heart rate.
To put it bluntly, this sh$% is really cool. Some of my favourites in this category include a pair of yoga pants that can sense when your pose needs refining, or a jacket that screens phone calls, controls music volume, and notifies you when your rideshare is nearby. As a late-in-life swimmer with very fair skin, I can’t tell you how delighted I was to discover the swim costume with an integrated, waterproof UV sensor that reminds you when to apply more sunscreen.
The global wearable technology market was valued at USD 61.30 billion in 2022 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.6% from 2023 to 2030. But what intrigues me most about the rise of wearable tech is who’s consuming it. According to Insider Intelligence, nearly a third of smart wearable users will be over 55 by 2026. In 2019, that cohort comprised just 15.9%. In a world with a rapidly ageing population, the biggest opportunity for attracting new and more engaged users of wearable tech lies with older consumers.
Which brings us to other applications of smart wearables, beyond just wellness and lifestyle. Given their popularity with an older demographic, the real payoff would seem to be in healthcare. Wearable devices can help older people tackle everyday challenges from balance to medication management as they age in place.
Many of us are familiar with those medical alert necklaces and bracelets older people often wear in the event of a health emergency. But did you know about the “smart garment sock” that uses AI to provide an accurate picture of muscle health? Or the shoe insert that can track people with dementia and Alzheimer’s when they wander off? I was particularly taken with research out of King’s College London and the University of Chester looking at how to use clothing and upholstery to monitor and combat loneliness in the elderly.
There’s more wearable technology coming on board all the time. One trend in healthcare in so-called haptic technology, or 3D touch, which creates the sensation of touch through pressure, vibration, sound and motion graphics. Haptic gloves, for example, could help enable hyper-realistic training for the medical community when learning how to study the body.
The growing reality of the climate crisis has also prompted designers to think about how to use smart clothing for energy harvesting. Energy harvesting is about converting body heat, movement or solar energy into power. Scientists have designed a “smart” shirt that generates electricity via both sweat and movement without needing a constant power source.
Before we get too excited about the rise of smart wearables, a few caveats are in order. First, wearable technology has not yet embraced by minority and low-income groups, where price and education remain barriers to access. Second, more over-65’s are needed in both the study and design of smart wearables. Otherwise, the psychological and social needs of older users may limit usage.
I, for one, feel energised (no pun intended) by the rise of smart wearables. One of these days, I may need to trade in my ratty old tracksuit bottoms for a pair of those funky yoga pants before attempting my next Vinyasa. Namaste.