Are Wearable Gadgets The Next Tech Revolution?

Forget smartphones and tablets. Gadgets like the Nike+ Fuelband are ushering in a new data-rich wearable future, says a recent analyst report.

Are Wearable Gadgets The Next Tech Revolution?

Forrester Research has published a new report called Smart Body, Smart World. And its thesis is one we’ve been talking about here on Co.Design for a while now: The next innovation in computing isn’t tablets or smartphones, but rather a new age of sensor-packed “wearables” like the Nike+ Fuelband. Forrester sees in this category the potential to transcend its geeky niche and carve out a significant chunk of the current paid-app ecosystem.


The Jawbone Up

“We’re entering an age of human-centered design, shaped around people and their existing habits and body language,” Fjord CEO and report consultant Olof Schybergson explains. “Instead of learning how to interact with machines, it’s the reverse–machines learn to work with us.”

So how do you design for this new market, and just who will it affect? The report’s author, Forrester Senior Analyst Sarah Rotman Epps, filled us in on how she believes the future will play out.

“For a wearable to be successful, it has to be something you want on your body all day anyway, even if it had no function,” she tells Co.Design. “I think there’s more to it than that, but absolutely, the sensuousness of design is crucial because this is something that is literally on your skin. It has to not only be comfortable–it has to express something about who you are.”

The Fitbit Zip

This idea of personal expression is key, she points out, citing Tim Cook’s choice to wear a Fuelband during the latest iPad Mini press conference. “That sends a very different message than the BodyMedia Fit, worn on your upper arm where you’re not supposed to see it.”

But hardware is only half of a wearable’s design. The software backend is equally crucial, serving as a “conduit for the data” helping consumers comprehend the rush of algorithm-chewed information they’re producing. It’s this interface bridge that ultimately makes up the “killer app” part of the equation–assisting in lifestyle improvements like losing weight or tracking seniors’ activity to what Forrester calls “life-and-death choices” like managing diabetes or driving a car.

“Apple’s vision is this sort of hub and spoke model where the phone is the aggregator of all this data. I think that will be true for a time, but I also think that what a phone is is changing,” Epps says. “Google [Project] Glass is really built as a standalone phone.”


The Nike+ Fuelband App

Interestingly enough, the biggest impact of the wearable revolution may be on retail. Epps sees a future in which the Best Buys of the world aren’t really a player in distributing billions of devices within the electronics market. Instead, you might go to REI for an outdoor GPS wristband or Nordstrom for a fashion-forward earring sensor.

The ultimate question for businesses, though, is “how does this affect me?” What if your speciality isn’t in human kinetic movements? The report actually sees insurance of all things as one of the industries most susceptible to wearable disruption, enabling consumers to negotiate better rates by submitting data-rich proof of their active lifestyles.

“If you’re not at least thinking about designing for these types of services, you’re already late,” Epps says. “Think about the media industry and how difficult the mobile and tablet revolution has been for them. What are they going to do when the devices we interact with don’t even have screens?”

Get the report here.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.