Over the past decade, the consumer world has experienced a revolution in mobile computing technologies which saw the cellular phone take on an amazing array of new functions through the use of electronic circuitry and computer-connected sensors. Considering the current ubiquity of smartphones, it’s amazing to think that this technology was still being developed in the early 2000s and had not yet reached widespread popularity and use.
The spurts and starts of wearable technology in recent days are reminiscent of that earlier period of smartphone development. We’ve all heard that wearable gadgets are a major part of the future of computing, but most of the consumer world is still waiting for a product that can appeal to the masses. Google Glass was released with a lot of hype earlier this year, for example, but it hasn’t reached a wide consumer base. A high price tag and an unfashionable look have been cited by some as reasons why the product hasn’t seen the sort of sales expected.
Developers of wearable technology haven’t exactly figured out the secret to commercial success with these products as of yet, but the time in which they will is soon coming. Holiday shopping forecasts for England show that sales of wearable gadgets will be 182 percent greater than they were during the 2013 holiday season. Other industry reports are predicting that global shipments of wearable tech devices will likely explode from 27 million shipments in 2014 to 116 million shipments in 2017. The demand for wearable tech is growing; as many of us saw with the meteoric rise of the iPhone smartphone device or the Android operating system, all it will take is a single functional and design improvement to unleash the power of wearable tech for practical and personal use. Today, we wanted to take a look at advances in this sector of technology well before the wave of its popularity crests, as well as some of the issues which have proven to be obstacles in the way of consumer acceptance of wearable tech.
A Lack of Aesthetic Appeal
The whole idea of “wearables” and computing devices which can be worn on a person is not new and it has long been a pop culture touchstone among fans of science fiction; just watch an episode of Star Trek for proof. The first wearable gadget which was made available to consumers was the calculator watch, released by multiple manufacturers in the 1970s. Pulsar, Hewlett-Packard, Casio, Citizen and other manufacturers released their own versions of what seems now to be a very niche technology. As personal digital assistants and cell phones increased in functionality, calculator watches became little more than novelty items for collectors.
In some ways, wearing the calculator watch was a badge which signaled to others that the wearer is tech savvy. The highly technical appearance of computers worn as accessories is currently one of the major problems with widespread acceptance of existing wearables, however. High tech firms in Silicon Valley and elsewhere have primarily focused on the function of their devices and not their appearance, and even the design improvements which made Apple products so popular were always coupled with practical innovations which improved the efficiency or function of those devices.
In the very near future, tech and fashion will have to merge in order to create the first generation of commercially successful computer wearables. These gadgets work by collecting data directly at the point of activity, tracking a running distance or trajectory of a golf swing for example. Other wearables, like smart watches being developed by Apple, LG, Motorola and others, are designed to provide users with quick access to useful software programs. However, because these devices are visible to others at all times, personal style becomes a much more important issue than with a smartphone which can be tucked away into a pocket.
One example where technology has been able to fuse well with fashion is in the world of headphones. Some brands, such as Skullcandy and Beats by Dre, have been able to build success by offering a product which offers good audio properties as well as the ability to make a striking fashion statement. Beats in particular invests a great deal of money to create custom headphones for celebrities, such as was the case with the company’s $1 million pair of diamond-encrusted headphones fabricated for rap star Lil Wayne. As WIRED astutely points out in this piece on the advent of wearable technologies, Beats won’t recoup that huge cost by selling the pair of diamond headphones, but the truly unique nature of the product’s appearance, coupled with a celebrity endorsement, makes the brand more attractive to consumers.
It’s this sense of fashion savviness which may go a long way in unlocking the profitable potential of wearable computing devices. Some of those viewing the activities of wearable tech manufacturers are noticing an increase in partnerships and business activities between the tech sector and fashion designers like Colette and Barneys New York. Still, at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, although wearable tech was major theme among the innovations present, few devices from leading wearables manufacturers achieved what could be considered to be a fashionable design.
Evolution in Functionality: Less Is More
Of course, whether a device looks pretty will not be the primary concern of most who are interested in wearables. The ability of a gadget to provide data to a user in a meaningful way will likely still be the major reason anyone buys a computing wearable.
Most examples of computing technologies that have been implemented into wearable devices rely heavily on the icon-based user interface of smartphones. In many ways, this is very useful; a person can tap the screen on his or her wrist a few times to initiate a wide variety of apps. However, this merely extends the functionality of a smartphone to a separate device. Even with the ability to track fitness statistics and other data, its perhaps not myopic to suggest that it will be tough to get consumers to accept this model of wearable tech. Smartphones and tablets brought computers out of offices into a variety of environments for personal and practical uses. With a computing device already in the pocket, will the added convenience of a wrist display that may save a user a few seconds be enough to support strong sales?
In its piece linked above, WIRED additionally points out a couple of stories of small successes among wearable manufacturers. In both cases, the technology answers an issue for a certain demographic in a way that is both practical and fashionable. The NFC Ring, for example, was a piece of wearable tech invented by a British man who needed a simple way to remember to lock his apartment door. He achieved this by embedding a near-field-communications chip into a ring, automatically locking his door when closing it through the use of an NFC-enabled door lock. The Embrace+ is a bracelet device which connects with a smartphone app to deliver notifications on calls and text messages to a person through various flashing light patterns. These patterns could help a person understand whether they’re received a notification from Facebook or if a family member is calling. The developers of the Embrace+ envision their device succeeding mainly with teenaged girls who want to remain stay connected in the classroom or other places where smartphone access may not be allowed. The Kickstarter campaigns for both of these products had financial backing from thousands of supporters, a large number of which were for device pre-orders.
The first generation of successful wearable tech, therefore, may not be devices which are intended to provide deep computing platforms through which a wide variety of software programs can be accessed. The formula might be as simple as solving a human problem, even one so seemingly trite as keeping up with social networks while in class, by installing the least amount of computer circuitry possible onto something people want to wear.
Workplace Productivity and Privacy Concerns
The emergence of new technologies seems to be quickly followed by concerns on the part of those who feel threatened by the presence of those technologies. Recently, for example, the Motion Picture Association of America and the National Association of Theatre Owners announced a joint policy to ban Google Glass and other wearable gadgets capable of recording video from movie theaters all over the United States. A similar ban is enforced in the UK.
Some viewpoints on the possibilities posed by wearable tech are absolutely Orwellian. A study conducted by consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) showed that 59 percent of respondents had concerns about wearable technologies. The overwhelming majority of those people were wary of privacy violations, data security breaches and the chance that more technology could hurt interpersonal communication. The PwC study allows for the potential for dystopian and utopian futures resulting from wearable tech developments.
One application of these technologies is illustrative of this point. Devices which can track fitness and nutrition data have been developed by tech firms and are being implemented as a way to improve healthcare for individuals. The data from these devices could be analyzed by healthcare providers and employers. This could result in people being offered more favorable premium rates as a reward for healthy behaviors, but some have raised concerns that employers looking for ways to cut insurance costs might go too far in using corporate wellness programs to punish unhealthy behaviors.
Wearables will likely make a much bigger impact in the business world before it makes much headway into consumer markets. A study conducted by human resources software and services firm Kronos reported that nearly 75 percent of respondents saw benefits to wearable tech in terms of productivity, efficiency and safety at the workplace. Although enthusiasm was muted among American respondents (48 percent), support was overwhelming from respondents in China (94 percent), Mexico (96 percent) and India (91 percent).
Wearable gadgets have the potential to introduce computing technologies into our lives in a practical way that cannot be matched by smartphones or tablets. Everything from healthcare to home security to dance performances are already being targeted by wearable tech solutions. The incredible diversity of wearable gadgets will likely make this sector an intriguing one for research and development in the coming years.