By Maghan McDowell
with contributions from Kari Hamanaka
 on January 17, 2017
Under Armour CES

SAN FRANCISCO  Some in Silicon Valley are taking a bit of a breather.

While the tech titans continue to sharpen their virtual reality, develop automated sales associates, deliver packages by drone and track users’ every heartbeat, the Average Joe and Jolene are still figuring out social media.

Thus, despite a culture of fast iterations and bleeding edge innovations, some technology firms have found it wise to temper the pace, as neither consumers nor retailers are taking full advantage of the latest and greatest. The industry is doing what it does best — pivoting and delivering more fine-tuned versions of technologies that already work, making incremental changes (while developing their big dreams in the back room for when the world is ready for them).

It was clear at this month’s annual CES tech confab in Las Vegas that the technological push in the worlds of fashion and retail is toward offerings that are more individualized and helpful to both marketers and customers.

Fashion designers and brands would be wise to exercise a bit of restraint, said The Science Project president and chief executive officer Jeremy Bergstein, who said over-eager marketers risk going too far when it comes to offering technology for which the customer is not yet prepared or willing to adopt.

Bergstein, who works with companies such as Uniqlo and Kate Spade, said, “We are overshooting with the amount of horsepower we give these customers. Most customers aren’t ready for this technology that is full volume.”

He recommended that retailers first consider what is appropriate for the brand. “We work with a lot of fancy fashion brands and they are very discerning. We can’t bring in tech that seems extraneous or novel.”

Rather than just adding in technology because it exists, Kwolia ceo and founder Anne Marie Stephen recommended approaching technology as an enabler to accomplish innovations. She added that the retail rules that might have existed 10 years ago are no longer valid. “It’s a completely different landscape….Retailers are very concerned about what is happening today, but that won’t lead to success in the future.”

Besides, despite all the talk of drones and robots, retailers still haven’t tapped the full potential of the smartphone.

Eddie Garcia, vice president of member experiences at samsclub.com, encouraged retailers to not think about just replacing the credit card with the phone but rather to use the opportunity to solve problems.

“The U.S. is behind a bit globally, and at the end of the day, you have to solve a problem for the customer and a lot of the mobile payment experiences haven’t gotten there yet,” Garcia said. “Until you provide a meaningful value proposition, you are not going to see adoption.”

Likewise, makers in the wearables world have been dialing it back to focus on what consumers are most likely to use and 2017 looks to be a year in which offerings are more subtle and curated than full-throttle experiments.

Snap Inc.’s Spectacles offer a simplified version of tech-enabled eyewear. They take off where Google Glass left off and are more fun, less ambitious and at $130, are far less expensive.

Fossil Group has released a range of hybrid smartwatches from lines such as Kate Spade, Misfit, Michael Kors, Diesel and Armani Exchange that are a traditional analogue timepiece equipped with “smart” capabilities, whether it’s notifications or fitness tracking, without needing necessarily to be charged.

Sonny Vu, president and chief technology officer of connected devices at Fossil Group, said he sees this trend gaining popularity — partly because it’s more familiar to the customer.

“They just want a watch experience augmented by technology. It’s a beautiful piece of jewelry or watch and, by the way, it can do this,” he said. “But it still looks like a Fossil Watch.”

Companies are being careful to make sure the tech they add to wearables serves a purpose.

“[Wearables] need to be more meaningful. They need to be actually usable,” said Firstbeat Technologies ceo Joni Kettunen during a CES panel.

Firstbeat’s heartbeat analytics software technology is aimed at professional athletes and others looking to monitor their performance and is integrated into about 70 devices from companies such as Garmin and Huawei.

“We believe that the era of simplistic activity trackers on your wrist is coming to an end,” said Spire cofounder and ceo Jonathan Palley. “The future of our industry…is about delivering real outcomes to real problems.”

Spire’s tracker, which looks like a small stone, can be clipped to a waistband and gives notifications and solutions specifically aimed at those looking to manage stress levels and productivity by monitoring breathing patterns. The company’s device was recently tested in a Stanford University Mind & Body Lab study using 10 percent of LinkedIn’s workforce — more than 400 people — and found that those who used it were able to lower their stress and anxiety levels and increase their energy and productivity.

That’s not to say style isn’t playing its part.

“Wearables are worthless if someone’s not wearing it,” said WiseWear founder and ceo Jerry Wilmink during a separate talk on his company’s smart jewelry line, which is now sold at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.

“The wearable needs to be something you would wear even if it didn’t have smart technology in it,” he said. “Realistically if it’s designed so well that you’d wear it every day, you’re on to something.”

Yonatan Wexler, executive vice president of research and development at OrCam, said, “Life-changing technology has to be such that it has to be something that changes your life so much that you don’t want to live your life without it.”

OrCam’s technology is aimed at the visually impaired and its smart camera, called MyEye, attaches to a wearer’s glasses frame. The camera “sees” information for the person wearing it and then “forgets” it, thus avoiding any potential privacy issues.

Other companies, such as Ming Young Biomedical Corp., are among those looking at how clothing can be turned into smart devices, but working hard to stay on the right side of useful.

Ming Young develops and works with textiles that act as a circuit board helping to monitor a person’s heart activity. “How do we play off the clothes?” challenged Ming Young ceo Chang Ming Yang, adding the term “wearable” should be about comfort, durability and the ability to mass produce at a low cost, among other factors.

Even if the future is unclear — as always — the worlds of fashion, accessories and retail are increasingly investing in tech. At CES, Under Armour showed off its energy-measuring sneakers, for example, and Gap unveiled a new augmented reality-powered app, proving that in the business of building the future, they have the dering-do to stake out new territory in the Wild West of new technology.

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