Unifying Wearables with Fashion

Apple watch. Courtesy Pixabay.

Apple watch. Courtesy Pixabay.

Wearable technology's fashion woes

Is Apple's market leading smartwatch shown in the picture fashionable? Judged by IDC's recent numbers, which show a precipitous 55% decline in the Apple Watch's 2016 Q2 unit sales numbers relative to the same period in 2015, the answer must be no. What are the underlying causes for the decline? It seems likely that some potential buyers have been waiting for the recently announced Apple Watch 2 which has GPS, a brighter display and is waterproof. These enhancements will of course be welcomed by fitness enthusiasts and swimmers and this will probably ensure that sales numbers improve later this year as Apple attempts to capture Fitbit's market. But numbers from Slice Intelligence released last week reveal that the Apple's smartwatch has largely failed to attract female buyers, showing that only 20% of Apple Watch 1 customers are women. This is surely one of the main reasons that it has failed to meet expectations. Why aren't more women buying the Apple Watch?  

Apple watch and iPhone with displays off. Courtesy Pixabay

Apple watch and iPhone with displays off. Courtesy Pixabay

Why women don't buy it

A flick through some images on Slidecaster showing how a variety of fashion insiders have attempted to look stylish with an Apple Watch shows how hard it is. When the display is on it looks bright and unnatural alongside fabrics and skin tones. When the display is off which in practice will be most of the time, the blackness sticks out, as can be seen in the image above. As the author says, "the Apple Watch looks a hell of a lot like the bulky digital timepieces that were popular in the '80s". Huffington Post's fashion editor said "it presented challenges when I decided what to wear each morning". Looked at in isolation the Apple Watch is neat and well made, but it is difficult to make it look stylish when combined with most clothing and other jewellery. The Apple Watch's display technology which is common to many smartwatches is therefore the root cause of its fashion failure.  

Reflecting on emissive displays

Emissive displays such as those used in the Apple Watch and most other smartwatches covert electrical energy into light which is emitted by the display. Unfortunately the human eye and the astonishingly complex visual cortex in the brain has evolved to analyse reflected light from our surroundings which are lit with light from the Sun. Emissive displays will therefore always stick out and appear unnatural to the human eye. Even adjusting the display brightness and contrast settings won't make an emissive display blend in naturally with its surroundings. Fortunately there are alternatives. Ringly and Jawbone avoid displays altogether and Montblanc has developed the E-Strap which places smartwatch functionality and an emissive display in the watch strap allowing a conventional analogue watch to be retained. What about reflective displays?   

Can reflective displays make wearables more fashionable?

Smartwatch makers Sony and Pebble have both used reflective LCD displays from Japan display. Because these displays don't require a backlight, they have significantly lower power consumption than similarly sized emissive displays and as a result they run for days before needing a charge. Like most reflective technologies they have good brightness and contrast outdoors in sunlight and have a pleasing natural look. Unfortunately, they don't have particularly good brightness when indoors which is where most of us spend much of our lives and the colours are poorly saturated. This suggests that new approaches are needed. One of the most exciting is being pursued by Folium Optics who have already demonstrated bright reflective LCD displays fabricated on plastic substrates for use in a range of applications. Interestingly one of these is for military camouflage and in a demonstration video here it can be seen how natural the colours look. This technology has the potential to allow a wearable's display to compliment the user's outfit no matter what they are wearing and ultimately for consumer wearables to be unified with the world of fashion. 

Mark Catchpole         

All rights reserved. Mark is a wearable technology consultant with Wearable Consultants based in Cambridge, UK. Please get in touch via mark@wearableconsultants.com