We spent most of last week on the road, a bunch of it at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City. We wanted to scope out what the activewear industry was doing or thinking about wearable tech. The answer turned out to be: not much. In fact, we’d be surprised if there will much activity of scale with wearables in that segment for 3 to 5 years.
You probably don’t know about OR. It fills the Salt Lake City Convention Center to overflowing twice a year: once for winter gear, once for summer. If you hang out in REI, Dick’s, or your local ski and backpacking shop, you’d recognize most of the companies exhibiting, although there are also component companies and fabric mills represented. It’s not glitzy; people are there to buy and sell, and they’re very intense about it. As a market show, vendors are showing and selling their lines for next winter: 2014-15.
What wearable tech there is in this market resides in the backcountry segment. Avalanche gear is pretty well tech-ed out: rescue beacon radios and avalanche airbags that promise to help float you to the top of a sliding snow pile. Globalstar and a couple of other companies were showing pocket satphones, selling for about what a mid-range smartphone might cost, with service plans to match.
Fitness trackers? A couple. A lot of GoPro clamps; there’s an ecosystem growing around GoPro. Google was listed as a sponsor, but had a very low-key presence. Teched-out clothing? Nothing, and not much on the horizon. And that horizon is not close. Here’s why:
Let’s say an outdoor clothing company wants to build some kind wearable technology into a piece of ski gear. The electronic layer of the product has to be flexible, rugged, water-resistant (at least), and maintainable No one’s going to pay $600 for a piece of technical clothing (as the industry calls goods with advanced fabrics) that won’t last a season. So you need to go to a mill that can make the fabric to put into the gear.
The lead time to get a finished fabric from a new fiber is about two years. Right now, as far as we’ve been able to tell, no one has anything kind of suitable fabric — a network of circuitry built in, with ways and places to attach electronics — in the works. If someone came up with a way to do that in the next year, it would still take two years to bring it to market.
So that’s three years. Add a year to get the fabric into a product. Add another to take the product to OR and sell it for the year after that. That’s six years. All of a sudden, 5 to 7 years is looking pretty fast.
Even if someone smart figures out a way to bypass a fabric mill and do something interesting — say, by running circuitry through a thermally insulated lining, which is a pretty tricky construction technique — it won’t be for next year, because next season’s market just happened. The soonest would be for the winter of 2016, two years away.
We had a lot of conversations with a lot of people in the winter activewear market. They’re not thinking about this.
In the tech business, we get spoiled. We’re so used to living in the future that we think this stuff happens at the speed of thought. It’s not true. The tech takes years to develop, and the applications based on the tech take years to develop after that. An Adafruit-based project is one thing. A Kickstarter is another. A big-market piece of goods is something else much more ambitious. It’ll be many years before we see wearable tech in winter outdoor wares.