Wearables moved from the buzz idea of 2013 into a tangle of clips, bands, badges, brooches, glasses, earpieces and headsets. It’s all too easy to be cynical about the products launched at this annual tech frenzy in the Mojave Desert, but here’s a skeptical case between the tech crowd’s boosterism and the casual scoffing. Let’s step back and try to separate the potential from the hyperbole.
Nike, Google, Samsung, Intel, Jawbone, Fitbit, and maybe Apple can’t all be wrong—right? As the smartphone boom matures, the tech industry is casting around for the next big growth category, and the one now being worn on many manufacturers’ sleeves are wearables. In a typically breathless statement from CES, one analyst summed up the hype: "The first big story [of CES 2014] is the real inflection point for wearable devices... It is about these devices moving from niche applications and early adopters into much more mainstream products."
As many have pointed out however, most of the current offerings are classic cases of technology in search of a use case. Step-counting and onwrist text-messaging are not setting anyone’s world alight. Here are four major problems preventing wearables from reaching the masses.
The case for the current crop of wearables is too reliant on the lazy assumption that advanced or extreme users are bellwethers for the mass market. It doesn’t follow that what sports geeks and self-quantifiers do today, the masses will do tomorrow. Most people have neither the time nor the inclination to track the minutiae of their lives on a tiny digital accessory—they are not that motivated, or narcissistic.
We carry devices in our pockets and bags, but wear accessories as expressions of identity. People who wear watches and jewelery often have more than one item. This is why there are many more brands in watch, eyewear, and jewelry markets—even some small brands have portfolios with hundreds of SKUs. Apple has captured a large chunk of the smartphone market with essentially the same phone (mostly in black). Even with its brand kudos, the iPhone giant will struggle to overturn a centuries-old culture of fashion accessorizing and sell at the scale it needs. Few in the tech sphere understand the rigors of designing for the fashion context in the way Tag Heuer or Mykita, for example, do.
The most obvious obstacle with current devices is limited battery life and the hassle of charging yet another gadget. But even if this challenge can be overcome, there are questions over the accuracy and meaningfulness of the data captured. Beyond step-counting, which many of the activity trackers can accomplish adequately, companies are attempting to widen appeal by trying to capture other elements of users’ "wellness"—making guesstimates of calorie intake from pictures of meals and stabs in the dark about sleep quality. One startup even claims its band can monitor nutrition and calories consumed by shining light through the skin to detect them in the bloodstream. This is all skating a little close to sorcery.
Wearables are the high-profile consumer face of the wider shift to the Internet of Things. The need to wear extra gadgets, though, is being undermined by other IoT developments, as sensors become embedded invisibly in existing stuff. Why wear a sleep-monitoring wristband when the sensor-equipped mattress beneath you can do a much better job? The biggest threat to the wearable nirvana is the smartphone. The mobiles that we carry around with us are incorporating movement-tracking capabilities. The iPhone 5S’s M7 chip is dedicated to processing motion data from the phone’s accelerometers, gyroscope, and compass sensors. As more health and fitness apps and equipment tap into this functionality, dedicated activity trackers are likely to go the way of the alarm clock, radio, MP3 player, GPS unit and camera, swallowed up by the smartphone.
There will be niche markets of course: fitness freaks and self-quantifier obsessives will buy specialized activity trackers, and governments are likely to expand their tagging of offenders with ankle bracelets. But what are the prospects of prying open the volume markets that the consumer tech industry feeds on?
If companies keep a clearer-eyed focus on balancing credible use cases with form factor limitations and aesthetics, all is not lost. For example, the market for tracking the location of employees shows signs of lifting off.
On a less creepy front, remote care of the elderly has huge potential. The number of elderly people wishing to live independently for longer is already huge, and growing rapidly. This group is less attached to mobile phones compared with younger generations, and the current fall detectors and alarm button pendants on offer are demeaning. The telecare industry is also fragmented, antiquated, and ripe for consolidation.
One-way to circumvent the aesthetic issues around wearables is to make them less visible. This is the route taken by glucose monitor patches and Google X lab’s smart contact lens research (although Google has a bunch of technical and legal hurdles ahead, not least of which is the old battery problem).
Finally, maybe there is life in the smart watch yet. Yes, the current crop suffers from many of the fundamental faults listed above. In addition, most devices try to cram in too much functionality, and a whole generation has also lost the watch-wearing habit—another mobile substitution.
There may also, though, be a credible opportunity for a product-service platform that could be licensed to watch and fashion brands—if a few fundamentals are respected. Small screens are a pain to interact with, but there is an opportunity to have high-priority, timely, and context-aware notifications delivered to the wrist, without the need to reach for a phone. As long as they find configuring such devices easy, many people would value en-route traffic alerts, flight boarding alerts for key meetings, emails from VIPs, Twitter mentions, and so forth. Information should be delivered within a UI that requires minimal input. And finally, the platform should allow watch brand licensees a high degree of aesthetic customization. The key to any success will be brutal focus (saying no to most features), the quality of physical and digital integration, and how astute and discerning the notification service is.
There is no chance of wearables emulating the smartphone boom, but some sizable niches are likely to enjoy time in the spotlight—and even form enduring habits.