To be honest, we don’t yet know how we feel about wearable technology. This is best illustrated through the different dilemmas presented by the two biggest wearable launches so far.

First there was Google Glass. The internet got very excited long before anyone in the outside world got their hands on it. These glasses promised to give you super powers, allowing you to film things just by looking at them and have all the world’s knowledge available at the flick of an eyeball. The problem? We quickly realised that wearing cyber goggles would mean no normal human being would want you anywhere near them. There is no point being all-seeing and all-knowing if nobody wants to either see you or know you.

Then there is the Apple Watch, which continues to trigger similar levels of giddiness, never mind the squillions units that’ve already been sold. Some time ago, Pharrell Williams Instagrammed himself with his £12,000 Apple Edition, and a wrist possibly belonging to Karl Lagerfeld was shown sporting one as the hordes of less privileged punters salivated at the thought of getting their grubby hands on a cheaper version.

The only point we are too polite to mention is that they don’t actually do anything new. Does it mean I can leave my iPhone at home? No. Does it have some amazing function that will make my life better? Er, no. So why do I want it? Oh, just shut up and take my money already!

These are the two major happenings. One was potentially useful but would do less for your social standing than a Jim’ll Fix It badge, and possibly has been long forgotten by its makers. The other has no discernible function but nobody cares because it was chiselled by Jony Ives out of a block of ice procured from Marc Newson’s cocktail cabinet.

Where does that leave us? Lots of people love tech, and we seem unlikely to evolve past wearing stuff any time soon. In the absence of any clue how best to combine those two proclivities, there is a great deal of experimentation.

Back To The Future
Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi
The Dark Knight
Minority Report

Catwalk Cool

One certainty is that wearable tech is big business and everyone wants a piece of it. The market is stuffed with cheap’n’ugly plastic wristbands that tell you when to get off your fat arse, but let’s not concern ourselves with them. Luckily, there are more handsome pieces of technology that you can wear, too. They range from the stylish and sensible to the batty and brilliant.

In the summer of 2014, Ralph Lauren, pioneer of the four-dimensional holographic catwalk show, started selling the sleek Polo Tech shirt. Produced in partnership with the biometrics innovators OMsignal, it is made of compression fabric and it is fitted with conductive threads that relay, via Bluetooth, information about heart rate, energy level and breathing rate to a nearby smart device.

Ralph Lauren

Italian fashion house Zegna has long been at the forefront of combining tech with textiles. About a decade ago, it brought out the iJacket, which had buttons on the sleeve for controlling a big chunky iPod concealed in a special pocket. This evolved to became the stylish Icon Jacket, with integrated microphone, so you can listen to music and take phone calls without putting your hand in your pocket. Again, Zegna unveiled the Icon Warmer, a winter sports jacket with a heat-generating system woven into the fibres and powered by wireless recharging technology.

Fashion brands have made the odd questionable foray into tech. A few years back, Dunhill brought out the Sentryman USB pen, a novelty  that added several hundred pounds to the price of an already expensive pen for the dubious privilege of having a concealed memory stick. This followed on from the British luxury goods brand’s £600 biometric wallet, made out of “virtually indestructible” carbon fibre that could only be opened using a fingerprint scanner and had an anti-theft alarm that was triggered if it was separated by more than five metres from the owner’s Bluetooth-paired smartphone. Neither item appears to have been a raging success, and both were quietly dropped. But kudos to Dunhill: Pens with USB innards are now as common as, well, muck, and so are “smart” wallets, especially the kind that are intended to prevent your cards from being scanned in a pass-by.

Zegna iJacket
Zegna iJacket

And yet, for all the app-controlled skirts and Twitter dresses seen on the catwalks, proper wearable tech coming from the world of high fashion is relatively rare. Fashion brands put a lot of effort into social media and letting smartphone users “shop-the-look”, but most of the tech efforts are on engagement rather than clever things that people can actually wear.

Motorbiking, on the other hand, has a good one to talk about. The Skully AR-1 was described by Road & Track magazine as arguably the “most anticipated motorcycle helmet ever produced”. It has GPS and a heads-up display, but the best thing is the rear-view camera, which gives the rider a view of close to 180 degrees just by glancing down. It’s intended to give the ever-vulnerable biker far greater vision than they get from traditional mirrors.

Skully AR-1 helmet
Skully AR-1

Geek Watch

Whatever your views on the Apple Watch, it is certainly causing “real” watchmakers to step out of their timekeeping comfort zone. Fully aware that Silicon Valley is going to be competing with them for coveted wrist space, they have been forced to start thinking smartly. TAG Heuer’s showed off the Connected watch, which caused one of the biggest ripples at Baselworld 2016.

Casio, a Japanese brand with the techie know-how to keep the Californians on their toes, has already offered G-Shocks that can be used to flip through songs on your phone. Some time ago, they brought out a new version of the Edifice, a motorsport-inspired watch which, via a dedicated app, adapts the main time display to whichever timezone you travel to, while keeping an eye on the homestead with a small dial that shows you your kids’ bedtime.

TAG Heuer Connected
Casio Edifice EQB-700D-2A

For those who really mean business, Breitling’s B55 Connected throws around words like “Thermocompensated Superquartz” and “wireless data synchronisation” to let you know that you are buying a  proper tool watch. For the pilot who wants a connected watch to log the last detail of every flight around the world, look no further.

Perhaps the most complete riposte from Switzerland to the challenge from California comes from Frederique Constant, but it has been done with a little inside help. In partnership with Silicon Valley firm Fullpower and Swiss movement maker MMT, it has produced the Horological Smartwatch. Beneath the exterior of a handsome analogue timepiece is a fitness and lifestyle monitor that can make sure you are sleeping and moving the correct amount and feed all that info back to your smartphone.

Breitling B55 Connected
Frédérique Constant

Mechanical Mash-Up

For someone who wants a connected watch but also reveres the mechanical, Montblanc’s e-Strap – initially fitted to the brand’s Timewalker range – offers the best of both worlds. On one side of your wrist is a high-quality automatic watch. On the clasp side, the strap contains a small metal-encased device that is connected to your smartphone via Bluetooth. It vibrates to alert you to incoming calls and messages, which you can then read on the small screen. It also does the fitness-monitoring thing and even has a Find-Me function, allowing you to track down your misplaced phone at a distance of up to 30 metres. I might get one for my wife.

Bulgari, jeweller and maker of very serious watches, has dipped an interested toe into the smart world pool and set itself on a deliberately different path. The Diagono Magnesium concept is a self-winding mechanical watch containing a chip that can unlock anything from your car to your bank details. Developed in conjunction with Wisekey, the chip links to an app in your phone that in turn links to encrypted information stored in a data centre “buried in a Swiss military bunker”.

Montblanc
Bulgari Diagono Magnesium

For a piece of wearable tech that refuses even to acknowledge the use of smartphones, it is worth tipping a hat to the delightful craziness coming from the niche brand Breva. Having already made watches that measure barometric pressure, Breva’s Génie 3 is touted as the first ever wristwatch with a functional speedometer. How does it work? GPS? No, how dare you! This is a fully mechanical watch with not a battery in sight. At the press of a button, a tiny anemometer rises up out of the dial. As the airspeed increases, a little rotor spins around, telling you the speed you are travelling. So it would work in a car, but only if you put your hand out of the window.

This was never meant to be a big seller – for a start there were only 55 pieces – clearly aimed at people with £34,000 to spare, e.g. wealthy cycling fanatics who are fascinated by the delicate engineering that goes into making such a beautiful little mechanical object. You don’t buy it because it’s functional, but because you like it. Which is sort of where we are with all of these things. Maybe later evolutions of the Apple Watch that don’t need to piggyback on a smartphone will be the answer to all our technological needs. Or perhaps in the near future there will be a beautiful mechanical watch that will house a tiny processor that takes care of all your health and communication needs without the help of another device.

For now, we are going to see loads more attempts at sartorial circuitry and the pairing of gear tooth with Bluetooth. Some will be great and some won’t, but while the manufacturers give themselves headaches over what will make them money and what will make us laugh,  these are good times for the public. Remember, the Google Glass test is on our side: if you don’t like it, nobody can make you wear it.

Breva Génie 03 Speedometer
Breva Génie 03 Speedometer

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