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A recap of the London Wearable Technology Show

I attended the London Wearable Technology Show last week. According to the event organizer, show floor traffic was up 250% and press coverage increased 60%, compared with last year’s inaugural event. Unlike other mega-events such as CES and Mobile World Congress where wearable was just a prominent track, this London event is dedicated to the wearable industry covering topics such as smart watches, fitness trackers, augmented reality, and smart garments.

Exhibitors at the show included major players/brands in the wearable technology industry, from Intel/ST Micro/Freescale/MediaTek, to Withings/Misfit/Jawbone. Speakers from LG, Samsung Mobile, Pebble, Microsoft, ARM, and Texas Instruments were also present. Notable missing brands include Motorola, Sony, Huawei, and Garmin.

Of course, this show was foreshadowed by the Apple Watch event held a day earlier. Apple finally released all details about its Watch, including prices, shipping dates, and first batch of countries to receive shipments. It was interesting to observe that the most speakers, when referencing Apple Watch, were optimistic and hopeful that Apple can accelerate the growth of industry. Least crossing their mind is the thought that Apple is likely to dominate the smart watch market not only by market shares but also by profitability. Stan Kinsey from Martian Watch summed it up well—as an industry, he said, “we’d hope that Apple will do it right … so the rising tide can raise all boats.”    

I moderated two panels at the show. The first panel was about smart watch, and speakers came from three smart watch brands and a chipset maker--MediaTek. The second panel talked about quantified-self data and its implications to the wearable industry. Representatives from Beddit, National Sleep Foundation, and Sensum, a data research and analytical firm, were on the second panel. Both were good panel discussions thanks to our preparation work prior to the event.

What are the key takeaways from this event? Here are my three:

The smart watch market is waiting for Apple to take the lead. Although there are more than fifty brands in the smart watch industry, it is fair to say that there is a notable vacuum for leadership in almost every aspects of the market—from product design and brand building, to consumer targeting and product marketing. None of the brands I spoke to at industry events or on the phone can convincingly and confidently articulate how they plan to market their products and capture consumer’s mindshare and wallet share. It is hoped that Apple can fill this void, lead the industry out of this experimentation phase, and blow open market opportunities. After reviewing the Apple event, however, I wasn’t sure whether Apple knows exactly how to accomplish all these. It is clearly a design challenge for brands including Apple; it is even harder to build convincing use cases to persuade consumers to buy. My lowered expectation for Apple was originated from a lackluster showing of Apple Watch-compatible apps during the launch event (only 40 compared with more than 2,000 at iPad launch). Maybe Apple can expand its app list quickly and add essential ones after Watch debut, or as the app number may suggest, developers simply need more time. I think the smart watch industry needs more thought leaders and visionaries other than Apple’s Tim Cook, because even Apple could fail. Therefore it is gratifying and comforting to hear insightful thoughts at the London event from Misfit’s Greg Jones, Martian Watch’s Stan Kinsey, and LG’s Justin Lee. They all have deeper thinking about the smart watch industry and their firms are making headway with respective strategies.

The enterprise market for wearables is more active than I realized. Although the consumer market for wearable will be much bigger than the enterprise market, the London show has attracted a fair number of speakers from the enterprise side. Representatives from SAP, IBM,, Vuzix, and Accenture all talked about enterprise use cases centered on better communications and improved productivity for workers through smart wearables like watch and glasses. One thing I learned at the show is that enterprise apps for wearables are much more tailored to solve a specific problem in a particular vertical, therefore employers are less price sensitive to wearables that are truly beneficial.

Augmented Reality (AR) and smart garment are still a few years out. There are more than 20 exhibitors demonstrating their products and applications that fall into the AR and smart garment areas. Although these concepts are already on the market for a few years, they are not ready for near-term, large-scale commercialization yet. AR has found some use cases in the enterprise market along with smart glasses, but smart fabric/garment technology providers still need to convince their potential customers of their technology’s performance and commercial potential. I spoke to Jess Butcher, who co-founded Blippar, an AR-enabled advertising solution/service provider. Blippar just received $45 million venture funding, but Jess emphasized that her firm’s AR technology should more accurately be called image recognition. Using the image recognition app on a smart phone, users can engage with brands by activating interactive features (games, learning experiences, watching trailers) on a pre-programed brand objects. Separately, I met Martin Ashby from SmartLife, a smart garment technology provider. Martin told me that his company has 14 patents related to smart garment, yet he still needs to battle with misconceptions and tries to persuade potential customers to come on board. For instance, Under Armor asked them to run a 60-minute continuous heart rate test on their sensors. Even though Smart Life successfully ran the test for the brand, Under Armor is still not convinced. SmartLife now produces sample clothes with its own built-in multi-sensor arrays because “the industry needs more convincing evidence that [the technology] works,” Martin told me with hope.

By the way, my best speaker award went to Deepak Prakash from Vancive Medical Technologies. In his ten-minute presentation, he clearly laid out the key aspects of the challenges and tasks that the wearable industry needs to undertake in the health industry. He perhaps sounded less optimistic, but he was telling the truth. More on that later in a separate blog.

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