What makes wearables wearable?

“Acceptance is a big issue with wearables,” says Ichiro Amimori as he zips himself into a black compression top trimmed with a network of Tron-style silver lines, “but then again, in the 13th Century, people in Japan didn’t wear eyeglasses.”

Amimori is the co-founder and CEO of Xenoma – a Tokyo-based firm specialising in wearable motion tracking tech. 

He’s modelling the company’s e-skin Shirt – a camera-free wearable that tracks its wearer’s movements via 15 sensors, which are connected via flexible circuits to a small hub device attached to the chest.  

He’s speaking at CES Asia – a Chinese counterpart to the Las Vegas event that showcases the biggest, most exciting, and sometimes weirdest new gadgets – and his comment about acceptance raises a very good point. 

Can something really be called ‘wearable’ if you don’t actually want to wear it? What makes a wearable wearable?

Not on my watch

Unlike our own Running Man of Tech Gareth Beavis, I rarely use a sports watch while training. 

In fact, I only take my phone so I can enjoy Google Play’s Unstoppable Rock radio station and have a lifeline in case I’m so distracted by my one-woman Bryan Adams/Whitesnake/Motorhead gig that I take a wrong turn.

For me, a watch is just an annoying extra. Yes, the data might be useful, but not enough to justify fiddling with its awkward USB clip every day, and I’ve never bothered with its chest strap-mounted heart rate monitor. 

A wicking sports top, on the other hand, is essential unless you want to sweat like a pig and smell accordingly. And if that top happens to have motion sensors embedded, then getting stats on speed, elevation, heart rate and distance is no extra work at all.

The retro-futuristic style looks a little odd in a conference hall, but running gear isn’t known for its subtlety, and the black and silver would be nicely understated compared to much of my kit. For me, it’s much more wearable than a Garmin.

Garmin's stand at CES Asia boasted a huge range of sports wearables for humans, as well as various options for dogs. Since your dog needs a collar anyway, I'd argue that the canine versions are more 'wearable'

Listen to your heart 

Steven LeBoeuf, president of biometrics developer Valencell, understands the dislike of wrist-based devices for workouts. 

“Earbuds are better,” he says. “If you forget your earbuds for the gym, you’re going to go back for them.” I am indeed, and the thought opens up a world of possibilities – not only could you track your heart rate during your run, you could also plot it against each song in your playlists. Does Steppenwolf get your motor running, or does Freddie rock you?

Google Play Music is blocked in China, so this particular line of thought might arise from dad-rock withdrawal, but I think it’s what LeBoeuf would call “a compelling user experience”. 

He suggests a couple of examples that could use biometrics in place of a game controller – one where you must control your breathing in order to use the Force to move an object, Star Wars style, and another where you consciously go the other way and turn into the Hulk. Combining the two would be an intellectual property nightmare, but it sounds amazing.

For how long, though? Last year’s Pokémon Go Plus wearable was a one-trick Ponyta whose appeal soon wore off. Although it was novel, it didn’t do anything the smartphone app didn’t already do better

That’s a problem Joni Kettunen, CEO of heart rate analytics firm Firstbeat, has seen in the past. “The most famous product in China used to be the Xiaomi Mi Band,” he says, referring to the super-cheap pedometer originally released in 2015, with several new iterations since. 

“Is anyone here wearing one?” No hands are raised. He doesn’t look surprised. “The pedometer function is too simple," he explains. "It can’t resolve any problems for the consumer, so no one will wear it for a long time. New things aren’t necessarily continually useful.”

The main appeal of the Xiaomi Mi Band was its extremely low price, but that wasn't enough to make it wearable in the long term

In the long run

I think that’s another reason the shirt works so well as a wearable. Many of us abandoned wristwatches in favor of smartphones many years ago. 

For us, any wrist-based device has a hard act to follow; unless it does something as continually useful as showing the time, it’ll be abandoned in the sock drawer before Christmas. 

The Tron top has no such handicap; it’s a straight replacement for something all runners already use, and doesn’t lack anything you’d expect to find in premium sportswear. The complex data from its 15 sensors always be relevant to athletes, and if the right developers buy the SDK, it should be easily accessible and understandable through various apps.

The only person I can think of who might disagree is the man who’s spent all day running on the spot in Xenoma’s booth on the show floor. Despite the air conditioning, Shanghai in June is hot and humid – and I bet he doesn’t have Billy Joel on his earphones.