October 28, 2021

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Is Wearable Tech Finally Having Its Fashion Moment? – Tech News Briefing

This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.

Zoe Thomas: This is your Tech News Briefing for Thursday, October 7th. I’m Zoe Thomas for the Wall Street Journal. Today, we’re taking a stroll down the catwalk to discuss wearable tech. For years, wearable devices looked like something out of a sci-fi film. They were bulky and obvious and just plain unfashionable. On top of that, the tech that powered them often wasn’t very good. But in recent years, that’s changed. Just look around at how many people are wearing Apple watches these days. But can the ever changing and fickle world of fashion really be upended by tech and what kind of impact could wearing these data collecting accessories all the time have? On today’s show our men’s fashion editor, Jacob Gallagher joins us to discuss how tech is finding its style and what it means for people wearing it. That’s after these headlines.
Facebook has slowed the rollout of new products and put work on some existing products on hold while it conducts reputational reviews according to people familiar with the matter. More than a dozen people are examining the products to determine how the company may be criticized and to ensure they don’t harm children. The scrutiny follows the Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files series. Since the series came out, the Senate has held two hearings to examine the impact of Facebook on children. Our reporter Emily Glazer says the company is preparing for more scrutiny.

Emily Glazer: I think there is no denying that right now any issues and questions around Facebook and how its products impact kids are having a massive impact on Facebook. We saw that in the Tuesday congressional hearing with the whistleblower, Frances Haugen and a lot of questions from lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat that are very concerned about this. Our reporting also shows that from congressional aids that they expect to call other Facebook executives for future congressional hearings. Senator Blumenthal, the chair of that subcommittee has already requested that Mark Zuckerberg come before it. And our reporting also shows that the committee or members may subpoena documents from Facebook. So I think that there is probably a lot to come.

Zoe Thomas: The video game streaming platform, Twitch suffered a data breach that included how much money the platform’s biggest streamers make. Details leaked and posted on the online chat forum 4chan also seemed to involve Twitch’s source code. The alleged hacker said the goal was to hurt Twitch’s business and alluded to the platforms purchased by Amazon in 2014. Twitch said its teams were working to understand the extent of the breach.
And Google is rolling out a new feature for its Nest Smart Thermostat that’ll let users dial down their use of fossil fuels. The new feature allows users to set their devices to automatically tap renewable power sources like wind and solar when they’re available. So for example, they could favor clean energy for heating and cooling or only run appliances during daylight hours or when it’s windy out. The update though is currently invite only.
Okay, coming up, take tiny cameras, tap to pay technology, and sleek pattern analysis, but make it fashion. We’ll discuss how wearable tech is disrupting the fashion world after the break.
Fashion probably isn’t the first place you’d expect to find tech. Think about Ray-Ban’s Wayfarer sunglasses. The style was worn way back when by fashion icons like Audrey Hepburn and Muhammad Ali, but now Ray-Ban has released a new version in collaboration with Facebook, that includes a camera and a speaker. And unlike other smart glasses, these still have their signature style. And Ray-Ban is far from the only company blending fashion and function. There’s the Oura Ring that tracks your sleep and bracelets that measure your athletic ability like the Fitbit and WHOOP band. Our men’s fashion editor, Jacob Gallagher has been looking into how companies are balancing tech and fashion, and how some common concerns about tech could be coming to clothing too. And he joins me now. Hey Jacob.

Jacob Gallagher: Hi.

Zoe Thomas: Jacob, there are a lot of new wearables out there. Tell me from a fashion perspective why something like Ray-Ban’s smart glasses work?

Jacob Gallagher: What Ray-Ban was very smart about doing was that the camera, which is kind of the main part of the stories glasses, which are made in collaboration with Facebook is that the camera sits on the side of the glasses. So if you’re walking down the street or if you pick them up in a store, they do look like regular glasses. They read like a typical Wayfarer. Whereas, previously with Google glass, they were more of a novel shape. The technology was very apparent. They were a bit cyborgy and these wear the technology much lighter.

Zoe Thomas: Okay. So that’s what makes these Ray-Ban wearables stylish. But when we’re thinking about wearables and function, what are they trying to do? What’s the goal of most of them?

Jacob Gallagher: Wearables kind of fall into two categories. You have, for right now broadly speaking, you have data tracking wearables, you have things like the WHOOP band and the Oura Ring, and then you have kind of functional wearables in a sense, and that’s a smaller category and function meaning they do something. They will perform an action. But for right now, a lot of the category is still dominated by things you wear to track personal data.

Zoe Thomas: And when it comes to those data collecting wearables, what kind of things are they collecting? What are they analyzing for?

Jacob Gallagher: The whole modern wearables rush kicks off in the late 2000s with Fitbit and with the Nike FuelBand Plus, and these things that were really tracking steps and tracking calories and tracking your motion and your activity. That still is a huge chunk of it. The WHOOP band is by and large focused on how active you are and measuring in many different ways. It’s beyond steps now. It’s how much activity time you have, your running speed, those kind of things can be tracked by these devices. In more recent years, of course, sleep has become this huge conversation piece and everyone’s really focused on not just getting their eight hours, but getting enough deep sleep and getting the right kind of sleep and measuring how restless they are and the Oura Ring tracks an incredible amount of data around sleep in particular, your body temperature as you sleep.
And it puts together this idea of how rested you are and you can look at it and it’s a way to control and track your sleep. I spoke to people and they were saying, “It makes me crazy because I’m gamifying sleep.” With steps it’s a little different because you’re active and you’re aware and you can say, “I got to take a thousand more steps. I’ve got to take 2000 more steps.” Sleep is a little bit trickier. If your device is telling you, you need to sleep better, it’s hard to just suddenly go, “I’m going to sleep better tonight.”

Zoe Thomas: That brings up a fairly common question, a couple fairly common questions in tech. For starters, what are they doing with all that data?

Jacob Gallagher: Well, the companies say that the data is held in the aggregate typically. Most companies say that they will not sell your personal data. It’s the speak that a lot of tech companies have when they track your data. They say you can access your data and we’ll delete it if you ask us to. In some cases they’ll say that, but they typically will aggregate data and then use it for some purpose, whether it’s putting together reports on health or frankly selling advertising. It just depends company to company, but they do have access to your data. That data is being retained.

Zoe Thomas: Another big question that people think about when they’re talking about tech is privacy. It’s a big problem for everyone. Are these companies in any way guaranteeing privacy for the users?

Jacob Gallagher: From my perception, I don’t think any tech company could guarantee privacy in this day and age. I don’t know what that would look like, but you can read the privacy policies of these companies on their websites. I would caution listeners to do that if they’re thinking about buying one of these things and you just trust that what they’re saying is true that they’re not selling your personal data and that they’re not focusing on saying Jacob Gallagher is terrible at sleeping and you’re making a trade off. You’re getting the data and they’re getting something out of it as well.

Zoe Thomas: When it comes to privacy in something like the Ray-Ban glasses though, if I’m just an everyday person on the street, how do I know I’m not going to be affected by them?

Jacob Gallagher: I think affected is an interesting term because I think if you’re walking down the street in New York, how many people are going to know that the light means that you’re filming them. But even to that end, in Joanna Stern’s review in the Journal, and then there was a Buzzfeed review that separately got into this, you can just tape over that light and no one would really know. And I asked Ray-Ban about the privacy quotient there. And their response was basically that the light is more than what you have on a phone camera, which is true. But the difference being that if you’re filming someone with your phone, they can tell from your body language the way you’re holding your phone that you’re probably filming them. I think our antennae are up a little bit more to spot that. Whereas with glasses, it’s like someone walking down the street, they’ve got glasses on and again, the lenses are super, super subtle.

Zoe Thomas: What about the costs of these things? Are they very expensive high end pieces or are these reasonable for everyday people to pick up?

Jacob Gallagher: They are fairly reasonable. In terms of a piece of technology, I would say, they’re not your cheapo sunglasses, but the Ray-Ban’s clocking around $300. The Oura Ring is around $300. The WHOOP band, I believe it starts at an $18 a month membership that includes the band. We’re at a point where an iPhone costs a thousand dollars plus. So in terms of technology, it’s not terribly expensive, but it is a bit of an investment and it is kind of interesting as well when you’re thinking about price that these devices are typically sub $500, let’s say, but they have a lot of luxury cache. Now they are things that Kim Kardashian is wearing. You see a lot of celebrities wearing them and they are this thing that you’re okay showing off. And I think that that is kind of the main development so to speak is that they’re now a lot more wearable in that sense. I know it sounds dumb to say wearables are more wearable, but they’re now something that more seamlessly you can just wear on any given day.

Zoe Thomas: So does that mean that tech is taking over fashion or is this fashion embracing tech?

Jacob Gallagher: Well, so far fashion, mainstream fashion’s embrace of tech has been a bit halting. There’s been steps toward it, like Michael Kors because has a smart watch and you have these small movements toward it. And I think it’s hard because in terms of technology, you want to trust that the tech is really going to work. We still in our brains think a fashion brand does this thing and a tech brand does this thing, which is why I think the Ray-Ban Facebook partnership was probably pretty savvy because Facebook, not withstanding what they’re going through in the past couple weeks, has a pretty strong reputation for being good at technology. And Ray-Ban has a strong reputation for being fashionable. So that’s a nice marriage there. What it is certainly happening is that tech brands, they’re paying very close attention to how things look.
And that’s a huge concern for them in terms of saying this has to be something that people are going to wear and this has to be something that people are going to want to wear all the time. Each CEO I spoke with of these companies, they were saying it is important that you wear it all the time because you need that data all the time. I don’t know if we’ll have a world in which a fashion wearable or a wearable that is fashion first does a million different things. I think that they might be more one to three tools within them. When I was speaking with the director of wearables at Ray-Ban, he was saying, the more you add in, the more that does change to the design shape. That’s obvious. If you keep adding in different do-dads to it, they’re going to get bigger and beefier. And if you want to retain the style, you have to be pretty targeted about what the things are going to be doing. So I think that that’s probably what we’ll see more of going forward.

Zoe Thomas: So marrying style with functionality. All right. That was our men’s fashion editor, Jacob Gallagher. Thanks for joining us, Jacob.

Jacob Gallagher: Thank you.

Zoe Thomas: And that’s it for today’s Tech News Briefing. You can always find more tech stories on our website, wsj.com. And if you like our show, please rate and review it. You can do that wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Zoe Thomas from the Wall Street Journal. Thanks for listening.

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