There's been a lot of talk about wearable devices as the future of technology, but from a design standpoint, thick black wristbands and large-face watches aren't necessarily something everyone would like to wear.
Now a spate of high-end retailers are launching sports trackers and device accessories with an eye for fashion first.
This week Ralph Lauren unveiled a tech-embedded sports shirt, a month after designer Tory Burch started a jewelry line that houses the Fitbit fitness tracker. In June Diane von Furstenberg unveiled fancy Google Glass spectacles, and Intel is reportedly launching a "smart bracelet" at Barneys.
As companies like Google and Apple work on developing the tech platforms, this summer has marked a a push from big-name designers to make wearables, well, wearable.
"There's a lot of amazing tech out there, but many of these products are made by male designers who don’t have a sense of style or design," Ramon Llamas, research manager at tech research firm IDC, told NBC News. "They're black wristbands or clips that look fine, but they're certainly not fashionable."
"How do we get these devices to be something that people want to pick up every day and wear?" he said. "That, my friend, is the $64,000 question."
Ralph Lauren is hoping Polo Tech is the beginning of the answer. The company unveiled the garment this week, revealing a shirt equipped with sensors woven into the fabric that track "the ABCs of biometrics: activity, breathing and cardiac readings."
Polo Tech made its debut at the U.S. Open, with ball boys donning the techy shirt, and the company showed it off to reporters on Monday. Polo Tech does looks simply like a regular form-fitting sports garment (albeit one that urges the user to "push harder" or "breathe deeper" as they exercise), equipped with a small "black box" that sends data to a smartphone app. The shirt will be available to the public in spring 2015, Ralph Lauren said, though the company didn't disclose pricing.
"We just wanted you to be able to put on a shirt and go," David Lauren, the company's senior vice president of advertising, said in an interview at Ralph Lauren's New York offices this week. Lauren is "really surprised" other big-name retailers haven't launched similar garments, he said. "I kept reading the newspaper, waiting for someone else to get out ahead of us."
But now that big names like Ralph Lauren have waded into wearables, industry experts expect others will follow.
"For [wearables] to reach mass adoption, it’s an exercise in cultural engineering," said J.P Gownder, a principal analyst at tech research firm Forrester who covers the wearables market. "People need to want to wear it on their own merits -- otherwise it’s limited to geeks and 'quantified selfers.'"
That's about where wearables stand now. Forrester conducted a survey on the subject earlier this year, and Gownder shared some of the yet-to-be-released data with NBC News. Only 10 percent of the more than 4,500 Americans who Forrester polled said they "track daily activity" with devices like the Fitbit, Jawbone Up, Nike Plus and others.
When asked which types of wearables would interest them, most respondents stuck with those familiar form factors: 42 percent said they would like a device worn on the wrist. Only 19 percent expressed interest in a garment. But that doesn't necessarily mean Ralph Lauren should be concerned, Gownder said.
"It's sort of a chicken-and-egg problem," Gownder said. "If someone doesn't know wearable-embedded clothing exists, or what it looks like, they aren't going to covet it."
That leaves a huge opportunity for retailers like Ralph Lauren, said Llamas, the IDC analyst.
"I think this is low-hanging fruit for them, because people want wearables that look good -- and we really don't have much of that yet," Llamas said. "There are a number of customers out there who will say, 'Yes, I'll pay a little bit more for something that looks high-end.'"
Llamas' employer, IDC, predicted earlier this year that 19 million wearable devices will be shipped worldwide in 2014, and that number is expected to jump to 113 million by 2018. To hit that estimate, wearables will have to expand far past its current niche market, and even beyond fitness tracking.
"It's not surprising that companies like Nike and Adidas would get into it for 'vertical' uses like sports. The tougher part is the horizontal, that move into everyday life," Llamas said.
That part depends on developers creating new sorts of devices and applications -- and they'll be more inclined to jump in when and if wearables expand to a slightly larger market.
"There's a little bit of a stigma, a feeling of oddness for some people, to put tech on the body," said Gownder, the Forrester analyst. "If more people wear them, and they aren't simply black straps around the wrist, it starts to break down social barriers."
If that momentum builds, attracting more and more developers, Llamas said he expects wearables to evolve quickly.
"At this point, they do a really good job at telling you what just happened: you ran X minutes," Llamas said. "Can you imagine a device that says: 'Hey, you're going to get a cold in three or four days'? That might not be so far off."
First published August 27 2014, 9:29 AM