Every week, The Interline analyses one or more vital talking points from across the landscape of fashion technology news. This analysis is also delivered to Interline Insiders by email.
As the convergence of digital and physical continues, wearable technology could be due for a resurgence.
Following on from last week’s announcement that Facebook would be reorienting itself to become a Metaverse company, the social media giant has brought an additional layer to its vision for a near-term future where the digital and physical worlds cross over – but in the opposite direction to what you might expect.
In an earnings call this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company’s next physical product launch (Facebook’s tangible products to date include the Oculus range of virtual reality headsets, and the Portal series of video calling devices) will be a pair of “smart” glasses, developed in partnership with EssilorLuxottica’s Ray-Ban brand.
For anyone familiar with the history of wearable technology, this news will be something of a jolt. Outside the incredibly well-performing (and largely monopolised) smartwatch category, and, if we stretch the definition a little, the equally well-performing (and equally monopolised) wireless earbuds category, wearables have fallen out of favour – or at least out of the headlines – over the last few years.
Asked to name an example of wearable technology, most people will point to the Apple Watch, and that would be no surprise: those products are now synonymous with the idea of a smartwatch, Apple now has 40% market share, shipping close to 40 million units in 2020, and the Apple Watch has become a bona fide accessory, even outside its high-profile brand collaborations.
But behind that success story has been a litany of pilots and initiatives that pulled in initial attention and then quietly faded away. Following the infamous introduction of Google Glass in 2013 (still sold today, but positioned as an enterprise augmented reality device against Microsoft Hololens), the question dogging the wearables segment is how to make technology that people actually want to wear. Glass, at least from a consumer perspective, will go down in history for two reasons: getting the balance of form and function wrong, and misinterpreting (or being premature to, depending on your perspective) what functions people actually want from technology they wear.
In the interim between then and now, we have seen wearable fashion projects like Project Jacquard – a collaboration between Google and Levi’s that pared the “smart” element way back – percolate to the surface, but largely speaking both the technology industry and the fashion industry have been quiet on the future of wearables for quite a while.
That makes this week’s news doubly interesting.
First, Facebook’s announcement forms part of its wider strategy to become a controlling player in the Metaverse – a project that the company is now predicted to be allocating up to $5 billion USD and 700+ new job roles across virtual and augmented reality to. Unlike Glass, which, despite being a collaboration with Luxottica in its own right, always felt like an offshoot and an experiment for both fashion brand and tech partner alike, Facebook is clearly building its next wearable device as a way of building a gateway into a world that it has sufficient confidence in to reshape its business around.
Second, while the conversation around the Metaverse has focused heavily on the digital, the prospect of one of the world’s largest companies creating a new class of device designed to provide access to the Metaverse in a desirable, wearable form
Make no bones about it, though: the digital asset portion of the Metaverse is where the money is currently being made. This week saw the announcement of the first “digital asset and blockchain” focused venture capital fund to receive investment from the European Investment Fund. Speaking to Techcrunch, one of the managers of the fund had the following to say:
“It is now well acknowledged that there is a need for a web that is user-owned and, consequently, more human-centric. There are astonishing people crafting this digital fabric for the benefit of all. We are excited to support those people with our latest fund.”
Facebook has, as recently as last week, aired very similar views. And while this upcoming hardware is not being described as the kind of fully-fledged AR device that would, in theory, allow the wearer to tap into the experiential, user-created layer on top of the physical world, that is undoubtedly what the company is building towards. Which is a realisation that could herald a resurgence of wearables in the true sense: technology that fulfils a function, but that has a strong aesthetic component. Of course the Metaverse matters, but we could soon find that what matters equally is the device you use to access the Metaverse – how it looks, how it performs, who it’s designed by.
More broadly, this also adds urgency to the discussion around big technology’s role in acting as the gatekeeper for fashion and lifestyle brands. As part of the same earnings call where Facebook announced its upcoming hardware, it was evident that the company is performing better than ever – with ongoing growth across its advertising business. Despite widespread skepticism about Facebook’s proclaimed role as a connector of people, people clearly make extensive use of Facebook’s software and services. Accompanied by a documented “brain drain” from fashion magazine editorship to tech company leadership, this promises (or threatens, depending on your perspective) to transfer ownership of the next wave of digital-only fashion to the hands of technology companies and individual creators, rather than the people who would traditionally have held the reins.
But here and now, at least, while the digital side of the Metaverse has (rightly) dominated the conversation recently, at a time when the industry is hungry for digital stand-ins for physical experiences, this week’s news suggests that the physical entrypoints for the future of digital experiences could spark a resurgence of the wearables category.
And the best from The Interline this week:
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