Nov 12, 2021

Axios What's Next

This week we asked if any of you had tried a "virtual reality gym" that lets you experience futuristic and immersive workouts. Our fave response is below.

  • We'll pick up with more of your photos next week. See something that makes you think about the modernity of our lives? Take a picture and email it to whatsnext@axios.com.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,222 words ... 4½ minutes.

1 big thing: The future of fitting rooms

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

One snag in shopping for clothes online is that there's no way to try before you buy. Virtual dressing rooms — if the tech gets good enough — could solve that problem, Erica writes.

Why it matters: E-commerce is taking more and more of brick-and-mortar's share of retail, growing up to five times faster during the pandemic than it was before, per McKinsey. The rise of virtual dressing rooms could propel that growth even further.

  • The top reason why people shop for clothes in person is to try them on, per an NPD Group report from 2019 (cited by Morning Brew in a must-read deep dive into the tech behind virtual dressing rooms).
  • Return rates have skyrocketed during the pandemic as people have been buying more online. Some 42% of U.S. consumers surveyed returned items between March 2020 and March 2021, per Coresight Research. And all those returns are costly for retailers to process.

But since 2010, apparel retailers — including Warby Parker, Walmart, Nike Amazon and Asos — have been experimenting with tech that lets people test stuff out at home, Morning Brew reports.

The options range from something as simple as a front-facing camera filter, which lets you see how a pair of sunglasses might look on your face, to Drapr, a startup acquired by Gap that lets you create a 3D avatar and see how you'd move in the new threads.

And the innovations in fitting rooms aren't just happening in the virtual world.

  • More and more brick-and-mortar stores are sprucing up their dressing rooms — and leaving behind those drab closets with fluorescent lighting — to make the experience better for shoppers.
  • Take Reformation, a women's clothing store, which has tech-infused fitting rooms with different light settings so that you can see how an outfit will transition from day to night. There are also screens inside the rooms that let you summon clothes to try on, or buy something you're loving, without ever having to speak to a salesperson.

What to watch: 50% of millennials and 45% of Gen Zers polled said they mostly shop online, per a Morning Brew–Harris Poll survey.

  • But just 19% of millennials and 11% of Gen Zers surveyed had tried virtual dressing room tech.
  • We'll see how quickly consumers become comfortable with it.

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2. Nap apps and smart bassinets hook new parents

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

There's a booming market for startups with products to help frenzied parents predict when newborns will nap — as well as devices that help bring on the naps via data-driven rocking, Ashley Gold writes in Axios Login.

Why it matters: There have never been more "smart" products available to help parents and families welcome a child. But we're only beginning to understand the potential costs and benefits of using software to rear a new generation.

What's happening: A growing number of parents are using apps and products to make sense of their babies' schedules — and get them to sleep more. Investors are taking note, as some of these businesses expand their user bases and increase sales.

  • Huckleberry tracks a baby's feedings, diaper changes, naps, medicine intake, growth and more. The company, which says it has served 1.2 million families, announced a $12.5 million Series A funding round last week led by Morningside Ventures, bringing its fundraising to $16 million.
  • Happiest Baby, maker of the Snoo smart bassinet, which rocks and soothes fussy babies to increase sleep, is exploring an IPO and could be valued at about $1 billion, Bloomberg reported Monday.
  • Cradlewise, which makes a smart crib, just announced a $7 million seed round led by Footwork, TechCrunch reported Tuesday.

Yes, but: Not all baby tech provides immediate relief for parents, and it can provoke anxiety where there doesn't need to be any.

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3. Coal exports rebound due to rising gas prices
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Data: U.S. Energy Information Administration; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios

Coal is experiencing a mini U.S. rebound thanks to higher prices for natural gas domestically and in key global markets, Ben Geman writes in Axios Generate.

Driving the news: U.S. coal exports are 29% higher this year, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) said in its monthly outlook Tuesday.

  • "Higher U.S. exports reflect rising global demand for coal amid high natural gas prices," EIA said.
  • Coal consumption in the U.S. power sector is slated to be 18% higher this year than 2020, also reflecting higher gas prices.

Yes, but: EIA notes coal-fired power has not increased as much in response to gas prices as in the past, due to lower supplies.

The big picture: Coal, the most CO2-intensive fuel, once provided over half of U.S. power but has bled market share to gas and renewables over the last decade.

  • It fell to 20% of total U.S. generation last year but is growing to 23% this year, per EIA.
  • White House climate policy is aimed at fully decarbonizing the power sector by 2035.
  • But turning that into reality likely rests on major incentives and investments Democrats are struggling to move through Congress.

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4. IoT projected to generate up to $12.6 trillion in value by 2030

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

From smart home devices to sensor-laden factories, the Internet of Things (IoT) is poised to generate trillions of dollars in value by the end of the decade, according to a new report from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), Bryan Walsh writes in Axios Future.

The big picture: The IoT is where the digital and physical worlds converge.

  • But just how large the IoT eventually becomes will come down less to technological development than to ensuring different connected devices can operate together and countering cybersecurity concerns.

By the numbers: MGI estimates by 2030 the IoT could enable between $5.5 trillion and $12.6 trillion in value globally.

  • About 65% of that value is projected to be created in business applications, like smart factories or offices, rather than consumer applications like internet-connected robot vacuums.
  • The IoT economy is predicted to lean toward developing countries — which benefit from being able to build smart facilities from the ground up rather than retrofitting — and China in particular, which MGI expects will generate more than a quarter of all IoT value by 2030.

The catch: It's far from certain all of this economic value will be realized.

What to watch: Whether the many companies contributing to the sector agree on interoperability standards that would make the physical IoT more like the digital, highly interoperable internet.

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5. Virtual reality workouts — the lowdown

A model wears a Samsung Electronics Gear virtual reality headset as she uses the Icaros VR fitness machine at The Body Ride personal training gym in Tokyo. Photo: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Michael P. Daugherty writes: "I tried [the gym chain] Black Box VR in 2019 in S.F.

"The biggest issue with lifting weights is how boring it is. Turning a workout into a VR game made the time pass very quickly while maintaining an intense workout throughout. It felt like I was done in 15 minutes, but it was actually almost an hour."

  • "I definitely recommend giving it a try. They have customized hardware that uses resistance bands instead of lifting actual weights, so it’s much safer than you might think, e.g., being worried about dropping something that you can’t see."

One of Daugherty's complaints: "When playing their game, I felt a lot of pressure to lift as fast as possible and rapidly switch between types of exercises."

  • "I was a little worried that my form would suffer and I might get injured if I didn’t pay enough attention. I think that because VR can track your body in 3D, they could give in-game live feedback on form or speed as a possible improvement. [TBH, I’ve heard the same complaint about CrossFit, though."

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