Dress smart

Not yet inspired by smartwatches or clothes? In five to ten years, we may be wearing technology as naturally as we are currently checking the news on our phones.

Wearables – wearable technology – may feel like something that concerns tech-savvy men. How many of us will really rush to the shop to buy the new Apple Watch when it is launched? Would we be happy out and about wearing Google Glass?

Yet, around the world there are high expectations of the field. There is a buzz around it in Finland as well, and no wonder.

Nokia developed wellness applications as well as cellphones, and now a number of its former employees are taking the field forward in startups. One of them is the Espoo-based company with an office in Technopolis space, PulseOn, which has developed an optical heart rate monitor worn on the wrist.

“We believe that people increasingly want to measure themselves to get information about their wellbeing. The growth prospects for the entire wearables industry are high, even though it is still in its infancy,” says CEO Tero Mennander.

PulseOn describes its product as “the world's easiest heart rate monitor,” as its wearer no longer has to bother with heart rate monitor belts and sensors. The smartphone app connected to the device gives feedback on the effects of physical exercise on your condition and guidance in reaching your objectives.

Lightning growth ahead?

Another company in Espoo, Omegawave, is also utilizing Nokia’s legacy. Its pilot product is a combined EEG and ECG system for training top athletes. The device reports the athlete’s readiness for each kind of stress at any given time. It can also help to prevent injuries.

“The value of the global wearables market is currently in the region of EUR 3–5 billion. Some predict that it will increase to EUR 15 billion in five years, while others suggest up to EUR 50 billion,” says Gerard Bruen, CEO of Omegawave.

“Nobody knows yet where the development will take us. And that’s exactly what makes it so exciting!”

Continuing the legacy of heart rate monitors, body measurement devices are only one of the applications in the field. Intelligence has found its way to clothes as well, and a future jackpot could be lurking there.

Kuopio-based Myontec is one of the global pioneers in the field of sports clothing. The company’s smart shorts measure the functioning of and load on muscles during exercise. The company has won awards at leading trade fairs in the field, and has attracted publicity, even in the New York Times.

“Sports is the first area in which intelligence hidden in clothes is used. The biggest future opportunities lie in healthcare and rehabilitation,” Myontec’s CEO Pekka Tolvanen predicts.

Leisure and benefit

So far, wearable intelligence mainly attracts buyers as a pastime. Applications for top athletes do, however, hint at the direction where it is headed.

Ten years from now, the underwear of an elderly person living at home might measure their blood pressure or heart rate, or prompt their wearer to take that forgotten pill. A person recuperating from injury, on the other hand, could adjust their movement load with a device that also warns them about incorrect posture.

Occupational safety is one possible application. Someday, technology that warns users about danger may be hidden in the clothing of smoke divers or arctic fishermen clothing.

Pioneers in the field believe in both benefit and leisure.

“Which one of these two will be emphasized more in the future depends on the product group. Smartwatches might be more about leisure, but biometric sensors already now strongly involve encouragement. Seeing your development gives fitness enthusiasts motivation to continue following healthy habits,” PulseOn’s Mennander explains.

“Supervision of work ergonomics and prevention of problems may also become a really big segment,” Myontec’s Tolvanen predicts.

Finns on the lookout for market share

According to Omegawave’s Bruen, there is a lot of potential in Finland to continue to pursue a leading place in the wearables field after the initial phase. Bruen is a former Nokia employee, but the company he is now leading originated in the United States and uses technology from Russia. Omegawave became Finnish a couple of years ago.

“There is an enormous amount of expertise in the field here. You should be proud of it, and there is reason to grasp opportunities,” he believes.

“The most important task for a small company is to find the right partners so that they can compete at the same level as world-class giants. In five or ten years from now, the competition will probably be extremely hard, and there will be thousands of actors in the market.”

PulseOn's Mennander believes the same.

He lists the requirements: “Succeeding in business needs a strong competitive edge. You must protect your own innovations with patents so that your competitors cannot copy them. You should also seek international financing immediately.”

PulseOn says that its heart rate measurement technology is more accurate than that of any of the competition, such as Philips, one of the giants. Omegawave can take pride in the company currently having the only product in the world that measures and analyzes three bodily functions at the same time: heart rate, metabolism, and central nervous system.

Myontec is a pioneer in muscle measurement, but at least two North American competitors are pursuing the same market.

“It may be that small players will have to combine their strengths in some wearables product areas in the future,” CEO Tolvanen predicts.

Health technology breaks through

Which smart products become success stories and which ones do not can only be guessed. Myontec’s Tolvanen believes that smartwatches will leave activity trackers, which are now going through a golden era, behind in a few years. Smart glasses will be able to replace hands-free devices in cars, for example, within the next five years.

Smart clothes becoming more commonplace, on the other hand, requires better integration of electronics into textiles.

“In professional sports circles, certain items of smart clothing will be adopted within 1–3 years, in rehabilitation within 2–5 years. The public will accept the first smart clothes within 5–10 years,” Tolvanen estimates.

Mennander is not ready to bet on smartwatches breaking through, but he predicts that measuring vital functions will be a long-term trend. Bruen reminds us that two or three decades ago, the development of IT was at the same phase as wearables are now.

“Who could have guessed then all of the things for which we now use computers? And who would have guessed that we want to carry thousands of songs in our pockets, for example? It just happened,” he says.

The three agree on health technology being the thing of the future. The population is getting older in the West, and people are living at home longer. In poor countries, self-measurement may replace expensive hospital equipment. Mennander predicts that the self-quantifying trend may even become the social norm:

“Insurance companies, for example, may require consumers to monitor their health in the future.”