Looking good, Italy: How the home of fashion is making wearables beautiful

Wearable tech is gaining popularity in Italy, with the country's device makers focusing as much on good design as good technology.

samsung-diesel
The smartwatches made as collaboration between Samsung and Diesel Black Gold. Image: Samsung

Italians' penchant for dapperness is something you can always count on, even when it involves a new category of devices at the beginning of its market trajectory.

That's one of the insights you can take from some recent IDC figures about Italy's wearable market which, after a slow start, is apparently poised to gain momentum, thanks in part to the local passion for fashion.

"Almost all the latest announcements in the category showed that vendors put an effort to make their technology good-looking and history says this bodes well for the Italian market," Gabriele Roberti, senior research analyst at IDC Italia, told ZDNet.

According to the research and analysis firm, 700,000 wearable devices are expected be sold in the Boot in 2014, good for a 190 percent growth over 2013. The number is poised to increase to three million by 2018, with a 67 percent average annual growth for the period 2013-18. Things should get even better when it comes to money spent on these gadgets: revenues related to such devices will grow from €27m in 2013 to €450m in 2018, with a 75 percent average yearly increase.

The numbers are promising, according to IDC, especially considering that so far Italians have been pretty slow in picking up the trend compared to the US and the rest of the world. "We are still talking about a market that is globally small," Roberti said, "but you could already spot some differences between the various areas. Technology-wise, eight out of 10 wearable devices sold in Italy were in the lower echelon of the segment, like fitness wristbands, compared to seven out of 10 in the rest of the world."

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This means Italians have been less likely than others to buy what IDC calls 'smart accessories' or 'smart wearables'. According to the firm's own classification, the latter are devices that connect to the internet, while the former can download apps but need another device for connectivity, as is the case for many smartwatches in the market these days. According to IDC's definition, wristbands belong to the category called 'complex accessories'.

The lag between Italy and the rest of the world, though, should be overcome in the next few years, provided that such devices will get a fashion aura around them as the Italian market, IDC said, has shown a weakness for products that transcend pure technology.

"We have seen in it with smartphones: despite the recession, there seems to be a relevant group of Italian consumers ready to go for the latest device that appear to be good looking and become a sort of status symbol," Roberti said. According to the IDC analyst, since they are so closely tied to the smartphones, the same thing could happen to the new crop of smartwatches hitting the Boot.

With beauty in mind

This feature of the Italian market is something small Italian wearable makers seem ready to bank on, putting up a lot of effort in designing cool products. "Being Italians and being quite conscious about how prominent a role beauty should play in our lives we tried our best to build a product that is appealing even on the design front," said Filippo Scorza, CEO of MyAngelCare, a startup in the process of developing a NFC-enabled bracelet that will allow quick access to health-related personal information, to be used in case of emergency and for first aid.

The design of the bracelets, which become available from mid-2015, includes two parts: an internal layer that contains the NFC chip and the person's ID, and an external ring which comes in different colours and that can be easily customised by the user or a partner.

"In the wearable devices market, we think the first approach to the object makes the difference between success or failure. Therefore the product has to deliver a service, but it also has to be cool," said Riccardo Zanini, the company's CFO. MyAngelCare's four-person team sports an industrial design engineer and a graphic industrial designer.

The very same idea is shared by other companies like the start-up CircleGarage that is working on Hiris, a hexagon shaped-wearable which can track different aspects of someone's life, give the user feedback through vibrations, and connect to other technologies to customise the product.

The goal is to sell it to ordinary consumers but also to developers along with a kit that let them create their own apps and devise new uses for the sensors. Yet, CircleGarage tried to make Hiris, which is set to hit the market by mid-2015, as good-looking as they could through what the company calls "beautiful technology".

"From the very beginning we thought of Hiris as a sort of jewel that somebody has to wear, something that could express the soul of the project," Alessia Ronco Milanaccio, head designer at CircleGarage, told ZDNet.

"We tried to understand which materials were the most pleasant to see and to touch and we decided for aluminum and polycarbonate instead of plastic. The same attention to details put on the technology is put on the design front; they go hand in hand."

The hexagonal shape chosen for the product has both aesthetic and functional purposes. "It's a familiar pattern to human eyes and at the same time, as bees' honeycombs show, it also makes it easier to connect different technologies, which is something we want people are free to do with Hiris," Ronco Milanaccio said.

The fashion industry claims a seat

It seems that the wearable explosion looks set to bind Italy's technology, fashion and design even more strongly together, the last two being sectors where the country is traditionally strong.

After all, the first signs that this could be a profitable trend for the country have already materialised. Google has partnered with the Milan-based Luxottica, the world's biggest eyewear company which owns brands such as Ray-Ban or Oakley. Even though there may be also some patent-related considerations behind the move , the Mountain View company hopes to tap into Luxottica's knowledge to make its Google Glass more pleasant to wear.

Samsung, for its part, has just released a collection of its Gear S smatwatches designed by Diesel Black Gold, a brand of the Italian fashion multinational Diesel.

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