From Google Glass to Apple Watch, wearable technology is generating a fair bit of excitement these days. What once seemed like science fiction - being able to tap into the internet via your watch or your glasses - is now becoming reality.
Leading exciting developments in the wearable tech scene isn't the sole domain of corporate giants like Google and Apple, though, and there's a clever bunch of small Kiwi companies making inroads in the sector.
Auckland-based StretchSense, for example, recently won the sports and fitness category of the Wearable Technologies Innovation World Cup 14/15 - the leading global competition in the wearable tech space - for a fabric stretch sensor it's created that's specially toughened for sport and fitness applications.
The Onehunga-based firm produces soft sensor technology for measuring human body motion - or "rubber bands with bluetooth", as CEO Ben O'Brien describes it - with applications in areas as diverse as physiotherapy, sports training and animation. The firm now has around 100 customers, generally large corporates, in 16 countries.
O'Brien says there's been a lot of hype around the topic of wearable tech, but he senses the nascent sector is evolving.
"I get the sense now that the industry is transitioning from hype to something that is very real," he says. "My sense from being involved in the industry is that there are a lot of people out there that know they're going to make some good money in this space and it's just around the corner."
O'Brien has been leading the charge to bring Kiwi wearable tech companies together, organising the country's first Wearable Technologies Picnic in August last year, and says a strong local ecosystem is crucial to support companies in the sector.
Many of the wearable tech companies interviewed this week have a strong focus on developing solutions for the sports and fitness sector, which has been a frontrunner in adopting wearable tech solutions.
Performance Lab is one such firm, which has developed what it calls its ARDA Coaching Engine - a digital coaching tool that this year will appear on smartphones, smart eyewear, fitness trackers and indoor fitness equipment. The tool was conceived by Performance Lab co-founder Jon Ackland, a veteran exercise physiologist and sports performance consultant.
Like StretchSense, Performance Lab is a business-to-business firm, and targets companies that already have big fitness-oriented customer bases, explains Baruch ter Wal, the firm's vice-president of marketing and user experience.
My sense from being involved in the industry is that there are a lot of people out there that know they're going to make some good money in this space and it's just around the corner.
So how does a small Kiwi company (it currently has 18 staff) connect with big brands looking for the next big thing in wearable tech?
"One thing that opened doors for us is that our external investment has come from Intel Capital. That stamp of credibility has certainly helped," says ter Wal. "And Performance Lab also has credibility in the market because of the 20-plus years it has spent working in athletic circles."
North America is the earliest adopter of wearable technologies, says ter Wal, making it a natural focus for the company, and Performance Lab's CEO is based in Silicon Valley.
Another seeing big opportunity in the US is Impactwear, which has developed a garment that uses advanced material technology to provide impact protection to help prevent a fall-related hip fracture.
Impactwear has been selling in the US since mid-2014, and CEO Natasha Williams says the size of the market is giving the company the opportunity to develop a brand targeted at individual consumers as well as businesses such as aged-care facilities. In the consumer space, for example, there are 10 million people in the US diagnosed with osteoporosis and 40 million who are at risk of developing it, she says.
Auckland-based company I Measure U, which produces measurement and analysis systems for human body movement, has developed wearable tech solutions for elite training institutes and athletes. It's also developing a consumer-oriented solution that will give real-time technique feedback to runners to reduce their chance of injury.
The startup, founded by Mark Finch, has so far funded its growth through high-value contracts (it's developed bespoke solutions for Athletics Australia, for example) and sensor sales. But it's also planning a Kickstarter campaign to gather funds to complete the development of its consumer-focused solution.
I Measure U was founded in May 2013, and Finch emphasises the wearable tech scene is a great place to be.
"Meeting everyone we've met, doing everything we've done, winning the awards we've won - but most importantly being at the forefront of this wearable industry in sports has been amazing. We're literally paving the way in this running sector and doing things that no one has ever been able to do before, and that's truly exciting."
Ben O'Brien, StretchSense
Ben O'Brien is CEO of Auckland-based sensor technology firm StretchSense, which has around 16 staff.
Can you tell me about the wearable tech you do?
We make soft sensor technology for measuring human body motion - but the easiest way to describe it is to say we make rubber bands with bluetooth. The idea that a rubber band can know how much you're stretching it and transmit that data over bluetooth allows you to do all sorts of things.
You can take these rubber bands, put them on the body and when you move, you deform the rubber band, which then tells you something about body motion. And that can be used in physiotherapy, medical devices, to track someone's movement after surgery or injury, in sports training or the animation industry. It's very powerful taking something everyday and giving it smarts because all of a sudden you can do these wonderful things.
Where did the idea come from?
If you look at any kind of smart technology at its heart sensors make everything work, because unless you can tell what's happening it's impossible to understand a system or control it - just imagine driving down the road with your eyes closed. So we looked at where there were gaps in sensor technology, because that would show us where the opportunities are.
Most conventional sensing technologies that are precise are also hard, but there was nothing that was soft but still precise. And if you look at humans, we're generally soft and squishy, and so are our clothes and a lot of our environments, so that's where the idea for StretchSense came from.
How did you come to set up the company?
We've been working commercially in this space for six or seven years now. Me and my co-founders Todd Gisby and Iain Anderson were at the Biomimetics Laboratory at Auckland University - Todd and I were PhD students and Iain, who's an associate professor there, was our supervisor. Along with others at the lab we did a lot of contract research between 2009 and 2012. We learned a lot of lessons along the way, and at the end of it all we said we really like the process of commercialising technology, so that's when we set up StretchSense.
What market opportunities are you pursuing now you've set up the company?
The really big ones that get me excited are in the sports and fitness space. We actually just won the sports and fitness category at the Wearable Technologies Innovation World Cup a few weeks back with a new fabric stretch sensor we launched that's specially toughened for sport and fitness applications.
My grand vision, though, and the thing that gets me really excited is augmented reality - using sensor technology with the body to create avatars in virtual worlds. With augmented reality I think motion capture is going to be a really exciting application space for what we do.
How are you honing in on the opportunities you can follow?
We're a business-to-business company so we work with large corporates in these spaces. We help them use the sensing technology and they bring market knowledge, the distribution channels and the killer app. I think we're in 16 countries now with something like 100 customers, which are big corporates.
Unfortunately I can't tell you what these apps are because all of our customers of course want to be the first to dominate in their specific markets. The whole value proposition we bring is that if you come and work with us we will get you up to speed quickly and aggressively with this new sensor tech and you will then be able to win in your own market where competition is tough.
You've been leading the charge in terms of bringing people together in the wearable tech industry, organising the first New Zealand Wearable Tech Picnic last year. What's motivated you to do that?
In terms of staff we have around 16 in the company, but if you include our investors, shareholders and the board the number is probably more like 30. Then if I include the companies we work with - suppliers, people who ship things for us, professional service providers - it's probably more like 70 people.
So for a two-year-old startup we're already touching the lives of maybe 70 people very directly. That's quite a profound thought that even at this early stage we're utterly dependent on the ecosystem around us, and that dependency is only going to grow. So I think you need to do everything you can to strengthen that ecosystem because you need it.
What's your ultimate vision for what you'd like to see StretchSense become?
Gargantuan to be honest! I want to build the internet of soft things using new soft sensor technology, and we're really taking this all the way. Wearable tech has become kind of a buzzword and generally with buzzwords you get a lot of hype.
But I get the sense now that the industry is transitioning from hype to something that is very real. My sense from being involved in the industry is that there are a lot of people out there that know they're going to make some good money in this space and it's just around the corner.
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