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Why Some Wearable Cameras Work And Others Are Just Plain Creepy

The pioneering life-logging company Narrative is shutting down. Here's what it learned about the UX of wearable cameras.

Why Some Wearable Cameras Work And Others Are Just Plain Creepy

In the winter of 2014, my son was born. And for the first month, I had all the ups and downs of any new parent. Elation. Exhaustion. Panic. A new understanding of the fleeting nature of human existence. But I’d vowed to be present in my own life. I didn’t want to be one of those parents hidden behind a their dSLR. So I wore a Memoto camera (since renamed Narrative Clip). A little white box the size of any lapel pin, it clipped onto my shirt to automatically photograph my life every 30 seconds.

[Photo: via Narrative]

The photos it took captured candid intimacy at another level. My in-laws seeing their grandson for the first time. A gaunt self portrait in the mirror at 3 a.m. They were so intimate, in fact, that I couldn’t publish them in a review I’d planned. So I just didn’t write any review, though a colleague did.

Yet I stopped wearing the camera all the same. Because when people visited, they’d inevitably see it clipped to my shirt, ask what it was, and when they heard it was a camera—even though I’d promised not to share the images online—they’d tense up. Even in my own messy home, piled high with diapers and bouncers, I was imposing on their personal space.

[Photo: via Narrative]

Now, as my son is rapidly approaching his third birthday, Narrative has announced that the company is shutting down. The news seemed to confirm a suspicion: Wearable cameras are a failed experiment. They simply make people too uncomfortable. At the same time, many companies are still set on making them a success, as Snapchat eyes the space and Google toys with relaunching Glass.

So I connected with Narrative cofounder Martin Kallstrom to have a frank discussion of what went wrong with his company. The social aspects of wearable cameras are definitely a problem—but one that Narrative was actually able to solve simply by considering the context of their product, knowing how, when, and where worn cameras made people uncomfortable. What actually defeated Narrative in the immediate was poor business strategy rather than a failure of the product. "If it turned out the market didn’t find our product valuable, it would be easier to live with," says Kallstrom. "But now the opposite is actually true. We had great demand, but we sort of mismanaged the opportunity."

[Photo: via Narrative]

A Business Plan That Faltered At The Worst Possible Time

It may be hard to believe that a company that raised $550,000 on Kickstarter, and another $12 million from investors, would simply run out of money, but that’s exactly what happened.

The first Narrative Clip launched on Kickstarter in late 2012 for $279. It shipped in late 2013. The company sold 25,000 units. So far, so good. The problem was, the first generation was built with off-the-shelf components, meaning it lacked the efficiencies of a product engineered from the ground up—both in terms of its manufacturing cost and the control the company had over the entire product UX. "During shipping, we realized we should switch over as soon as possible to a second gen to address that fact," Kallstrom says.


[Photo: via Narrative]


So they got to work immediately on the Clip 2. It was an all-around better product, as you would expect, with improved image quality and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, so you wouldn’t have to plug it into a computer manually to sync. But at $200 a pop, the profit margins were still slim (just 10% at retail), and it wouldn't actually ship until 2015.

"What happened was, at the same time we stated shipping, we started running out of money because production was delayed," says Kallstrom. "Certification. Production ramp up. We were almost a year late."

This gap between generations was a tricky situation to navigate. The company needed to raise more money to build their new product, but Kallstrom didn’t want to approach investors until version two had actually shipped (lest they simply assume it could never ship). The company could have laid off much of the staff earlier to have more runway. Instead, while it did resort to laying off 3/4 of its 40 person crew eventually, it tapped the rest of its capital to keep the offices open. It shipped version two. And then it circled back to investors. At the literal worst possible time.

"GoPro released a catastrophic quarterly report the same week we started fundraising. We had to spend a lot of the time doing the pitch defending GoPro, why the market was still good for Narrative," says Kallstrom. "[We said] GoPro is selling 1.5 million units a year. Their growth is lower than expected. But it's still a good market for Narrative to ship hundreds of thousands of units."

And maybe worst of all, this fundraising timing didn’t allow Narrative to show its pièce de résistance of user data: Historical Clip 2 user data (since the system had just shipped) shows that with improved UX, the Clip 2 had a 40% long-term retention rate. That's perhaps worse, perhaps in line with wearables in general made by companies like Fitbit. Not bad, as Clip was a lot more invasive than the average fitness band.

Unable to raise necessary funding, and without the cash to manufacture more Clips or keep employees paid, Narrative decided to shut down.

Google Glass. [Photo: Flickr user Kārlis Dambrāns]

Wearable Cameras Have A UX Problem—But It Can Be Solved

If Narrative’s figures are to be believed, then maybe wearable cameras aren’t inherently freaking people out. Maybe there’s a real market for them, even though Narrative itself went under. If so, what lessons could companies like Snapchat and Google learn from Narrative?

I bring up my own test trial with the first Narrative Clip, citing all of the people I made uncomfortable, explaining it was just this sort of experience that made me realize Google Glass was far too invasive to be successful.

"What we found is that it depends very much on the context or setting," says Kallstrom. "In a public area, people are already being sort of representable all the time. But if they’re in a domestic setting at home, maybe they want to be able to relax and not think about how other people perceive them."

Google Glass. [Photo: via Google]

Kallstrom tells me about a time the team visited wineries in Napa, and their fellow photo-taking tourists got the concept immediately. But as soon as they left those more public spaces full of like-minded memory junkies and had more intimate dinners, patience for lapel cameras quickly waned. Even Narrative’s own creators learned that the most important feature of the Clip was that it could be unclipped, and stuck into a pocket at a moment’s notice if its presence was unwanted.

A big issue with Google Glass, Kallstrom says, was just this: "Google Glass has a camera, but it’s still glasses with a screen. It’s rude to ask someone to take off their glasses," says Kallstrom. "But you do want to do that." As a result of social norms, Glass makes you, the photographed, feel powerless.

Snapchat Spectacles. [Photo: via Spectacles]

But Kallstrom, like myself, is warmer to the idea of Snapchat’s glasses (and not just because Narrative had confidential business discussions with Snapchat in the past).

Because while Snapchat’s glasses are still glasses, they’re intentionally packaged to be worn for social moments—the times you’d be taking photos with a camera (on Snapchat!) anyway. Likewise, "if you see police officers wearing body cameras, it makes sense for them to capture their work," says Kallstrom. "Or if you see a skier doing sports, it makes sense for them."

[Photo: Flickr user North Charleston]

"When people are confused why exactly are you capturing photos, then that [bad] reaction will come out as a privacy concern or them being uncomfortable," he continues. "As soon as it makes sense, or they think, ‘I want those photos too,’ that’s when it just makes sense to take photos hands-free."

That "I’ll share the photos with you!" pitch alone wasn’t enough to make family comfortable while I was wearing the Narrative Clip, but I think there may be one last reason why, lurking in Kallstrom’s own feedback. People were, in essence, both surprised by the camera in context and powerless to its presence. But what if I’d handed them each a Clip to wear, too? Would it have been okay then? And in that regard, if one of these wearable cameras can reach a critical mass, could we get to a place where we stop caring about being photographed altogether? I’m still betting the answer is no, but honestly, it’s anyone’s guess.

As for Narrative, its story may end here. It has announced plans to close, and it is giving customers a few weeks to grab their photos from company servers. But Narrative's IP is up for sale, and the Clip 2 could always be put back into production with the right buyer; the 10-person team is ready to be put back to work inside another company.

"I really hope that many people in companies and businesses in the future can learn from the things that we did," says Kallstrom, "so these kinds of products can prosper."

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