Wearables are personal devices that can be worn almost everywhere. The term is a fairly broad definition that encompasses fitness trackers, smart watches, connected glasses, intelligent clothes and even camera-equipped “life loggers”.
It is still a relatively young technology that, according to Garter’s Hype Curve (shown below) is currently somewhere on the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and will soon enter the “Trough of Disillusionment” over the next few years. The chart is the result of research by technology experts and analysts, and shows how various disruptive technologies enter the mainstream (or not) over their respective lifetimes.
Perhaps because wearables are riding high at the moment, hundreds of wearable gadgets have appeared over the past few years with many more yet to come. We’re about to be swamped by all manner of buzzing, flashing, beeping gadgets tracking our every move…
Wearables are by no means new – they’ve been an active research area for over 20 years. Even British Telecom had a small wearables research project back in the mid-90s, in partnership with the MIT Media Lab in Boston. In those days, BT worked closely with people such as Thad Starner who was one of the most prominent wearables researchers at the time.
He is now the technical lead on Google’s Project Glass.
BT’s research scientist would walk around the technology campus (and even the local supermarket) with Borg-like eyewear and a tangled mess of cables hooked into cloth keyboards and miniature computers. “Resistance is futile”, one might have said at the time. Joking aside, it was a serious project to explore how our lives might be enriched through the use of wearable computers.
The times have moved on, so what kind of wearables are available today?
Perhaps the most obvious example of wearable technology, smart watches are just that – wrist-worn accessories that in most cases connect to your smart phone to alert you of incoming events and messages. The capabilities of smart watches are improving all the time – with more advanced and useful features such as health monitoring and voice recognition now commonplace.
Of the major manufacturers, Samsung has released several Gear models based on Android, which haven’t been tremendously successful having received mixed reviews and poor sales. The concept however is fairly solid, but the technology still struggles to deliver a good user experience and the battery life on most smart watches leaves much to be desired.
Motorola’s Moto G on the other hand has been highly praised – it eschews the typical square face for a more traditional round one, something that might help it appeal to the more fashion-conscious consumer.
With the next generation of smart watches from the likes of Sony (with its Smartwatch 3), LG (with the classic looking G Watch R), and the Watch, the smart watch category looks set to grow quickly in terms of consumer choice.
Google hopes we’ll all be wearing its Google Glass in a few years to access the Internet, send emails and to replace many of the functions that smartphones are used for.
Google realises that few people are keen on the designs we’ve seen so far, so have teamed up with well known designers and luxury eyewear company Luxottica to manufacture the glasses in a range of styles and frames.
Google Glass early adopters have affectionately become known as “Glassholes”!!! According to Urban Dictionary, the term means “A person who constantly talks to their Google Glass, ignoring the outside world.”
“My vision when we started Google 15 years ago was that eventually you wouldn’t have to have a search query at all — the information would just come to you as you needed it” – Sergey Brin, Google co-founder.
Despite all the optimism surrounding Glass, there has been a great deal of public backlash in terms of privacy issues, and the fact that people wearing them have been branded uncool or geeky. News about Glass has been quiet of late – it makes you wonder whether it really will be commercially available next year.
Companies such as Oculus (now owned by Facebook) have launched gaming-oriented smart glasses which are more like VR headsets than everyday wearables, and Sony is also working on a prototype known as Project Morpheus that will let Playstation 4 owners play games in 3D.
But will smart glasses and VR headsets ever achieve real success?
Sports and fitness trackers such as the Jawbone Up 24, Nike FuelBand SE and Misfit Shine are sufficiently small and light that you could wear them all day. Most measure exercise and fitness metrics such as the number of steps taken, distance travelled, sleep patterns and even blood pressure.
Typically, these devices lack a physical screen in order to prolong battery life, but some newer models use low power e-ink displays or rows of LEDs to indicate daily progress or fitness goals.
Most of these trackers allow smartphone owners to install an app to hold their fitness data, but iPhone owners should also be able to view this information in the Health app, once HealthKit-compatible devices are available.
One such item of clothing is the Sensoria Wearable Sock, which is a small device attached to a sock that measures pressure, distance and the number of steps, and displays it all conveniently in an app.
Besides such novel concepts, companies such as Nike and Oakley have looked at into integrating all kinds of sensors into clothing. And then there are ski goggles such as the Recon Snow2 HUD that tell you speed, distance, vertical descent and even time spent in the air.
Consumer interest and attitudes to wearables
Interest in wearables amongst consumers is definitely on the rise, but wearables are many things to different people. For smart watches, activity tracking is consistently the most wanted feature, followed closely by telling the time (isn’t that an obvious requirement for a watch?). Various cultures seem to have different expectations for wearables, for example in China making and receiving phone calls is the most desirable smart watch feature after activity tracking.
A survey by CCS Insight in 2013 found that:
- A significant proportion of wearable owners have stopped using them mainly due to boredom
- Smart watches have a wide set of functions, which can prevent people from understanding what they are about
- Owners of smartwatches and those who declared an intention to buy one are mostly interested in the devices as a piece of novel technology
- Fitness trackers have a very clear purpose related to monitoring health and well-being
Similarly, a survey by Endeavour Partners found that one-third of American consumers who own a wearable stopped using it within six months, and while one in ten American adults own some form of activity tracker, half of them no longer use it.
Likewise, a survey by McAfee found that a majority of Americans expect wearables and biometric security to be common in the next decade. 70% of the consumers surveyed predicted that the most common device in 11 years will be a smart watch, and 70% believe wearable devices will be commonly used.
The most popular wearables today
Indicating a growing demand for all wearable gadgets, Amazon recently opened a new store selling everything from smart watches to wearable cameras.
The top three activity trackers and smart watches are currently:
- FitBit Flex (£179.99)
- Jawbone Up 24 (£99.99)
- FitBit One (£74.95)
- KidiZoom Smart Watch by VTech (£29.99)
- Sony SmartWatch 2 (£95.99)
- LG G Watch (£138.95)
Wearables market size
Globally, the estimated market size for wearables varies from anywhere between 19 and 27 million units. That equates to nearly $4.5 billion in revenue this year growing to over $50 billion by 2019.
- In 2013, Pebble watch shipped 93,000 devices and took over 275,000 preorders
- Wrist-worn devices will account for 87 per cent of wearables shipped in 2018
- Fitness wearables are the fastest-growing category because of their clear purpose, user benefits and affordable prices
- North America leads the way in adoption of wearables: 5.2 million wearables were sold in North America in 2013
- According to Kantar Worldpanel ComTech July 2014 data, the smart watch market in the UK has a penetration of 1% and fitness bands 2%
As you can see, there is a huge untapped potential if the devices (particularly smart watches) can overcome concerns about security and solve the issues of battery life and usability.
Wearables to watch out for
It’s an exciting time to be involved in the nascent wearable industry – a glut of new devices are coming onto the market over the next year, but which are the most exciting?
Here is a brief rundown of what we can expect between now and the end of 2015.
Release date: early 2015
The Apple Watch is certain to be the most high profile device released during 2015. Opinions so far are fairly mixed, but it’s received favourable hands-on reviews and comments from the industry in general.
Nick Hayek, the CEO of Swatch Group recently commented:
“…if you compare the consumer electronics companies different, so-called smart watches, Apple has certainly created a very good design, but its within consumer electronics category and not watches…but as always aesthetics in watches are very emotional and therefore very personal…”
The Apple Watch will be priced from $350 for the aluminium ‘Sport’ model, which means it will probably sell for upwards of £300 in the UK.
Samsung Gear S
Release date: late 2014
Samsung is promoting it’s Gear line of wearables very hard, so expect to see the new Gear S before 2014 is out. Apparently, it will use Samsung’s home brewed Tizen operating system instead of Android, which might be a sign that the technology Giant is seeking to differentiate itself from Google and its Android Wear platform.
LG G Watch R
Release date: late 2014
LG have taken the classic approach with the G Watch R which is expected sometime this October. The watch face is a round design which looks similar to traditional sports watches, so it might find favour with lovers of classical timepieces.
HTC One Wear
Release date: late 2014
Apparently HTC will introduce its smart watch called the One Wear ‘soon’, which might mean Q4 this year or even early next year. It will run on Android Wear and feature a round face similar to the Moto 360. Much like its smartphone lineup, the HTC One Wear is expected to be available in both polycarbonate and metal versions.
Microsoft Smart Watch
Release date: 2015
Microsoft has said in the past that they are ‘interested’ in wearable technology and smart watches. As of yet, there has been no official confirmation that a smart watch is on the cards, but rumours say that the device will be compatible with Windows Phone, iOS and Android smartphones.
If anyone can produce a compelling smart watch to rival Apple it could be Microsoft, at least the ability to create incredibly useful apps and services. Their design credentials are less certain but judging by the Surface tablet, the hardware itself will be of high quality and use premium materials.
Release date: 2015
TAG are already an established luxury brand, but any foray into smart watch territory would be an important new direction for traditional watchmakers. The Baselworld watch and jewellery show occurs in March 2015, where TAG and possibly other Swiss brands may demonstrate their first smart watches.
Release date: 2015
Already available to developers, Google has confirmed that a consumer version of Glass is on the cards. Glass will probably be available in a range of designs to appeal to the mass market, and with Google’s considerable weight behind it, we can expect hundreds of apps to be available at launch.