Wearables! They seem to have been billed as the future of consumer technology for years. Despite a number of the leading manufacturers in the technology industry telling us otherwise, wearable technology has yet to set the public imagination alight. Despite a lack of consumer interest, the big players in the market are continuously ramming products down our necks in the hope we’ll buy one just to make them shutup.
But why have wearables such as smartwatches and smart eyewear been such a categorical failure up to this point?
The Problem with Wearable Tech
Apple, once famed for its technological foresight and pristinely designed consumer products, recently dipped their toe into the smartwatch market. The much hyped ‘Apple Watch’, ditching the famous ‘i’ prefix we associate with all their products, is set to hit the shelves in less than a month’s time. Unfortunately, on this occasion the aforementioned technological foresight and creative design have abandoned Apple. To me at least, the Apple Watch is not particularly attractive, too expensive and barely enhances our digital lives. A damning report I know. Still, it hardly disappoints any more than the countless other wearable devices on the market. The industry, as a whole, continues to fall into a set of very similar pitfalls, and Apple’s failure to break free from them is alarming considering their previous record.
Humans can get pretty tribal. United or City? Coke or Pepsi? Apple or Microsoft? Technology is a consumer industry that is constantly exposed to tribal purchasing decisions, due in no small part to Apple’s ‘us against the world’ attitude. We often adopt a certain company’s ecosystem of smartphones, tablets and PCs, sticking to them religiously, free from logic or rationale. As consumers then, we are all too easily swayed by the way we feel a device looks in eyes of other people. A mobile phone is for calling, texting and procrastinating at work. Rationally speaking, fashion and culture should not come into it. With wearable technology, this factor lingers even further forward in the decision making process.
Let’s face it, we are a self-conscious bunch, and we like to be seen in public with the latest ‘cool’ gadgets in tow. With a smart watch, fitness band or smart eyewear, this is even more of an issue. And so far, tech designers have fallen short in creating a product that really stands out. Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smartwatches are big and cumbersome. Sony’s look cheap. Apple’s are rectangular (no one wants square edges on their watch).
I don’t know what you’re smiling at fella
And what of smart glasses? Take one look at Google Glass, or indeed Sony’s latest attempt at smart eye wear, and you’re more likely to fall over laughing than hand over the several hundred pounds they retail at. Honestly, many of us would rather risk tumbling off the end of a mountain due to our poor eyesight than endure public ridicule from sporting Google Glass about town. Wearable technology, as an industry, has a serious fashion problem.
Even if you do stumble across a favourable looking wearable, such as the Moto 360 smartwatch or Misfit Shine fitness band, you’re left battling with the industry’s second major pitfall. Functionality.
Wearable tech is often billed as the next step in our technological evolution. Adopting a smartphone’s functionality on a device the size of our wrists could take us to a new level of convenience. And that would be true, weren’t it for the fact that almost every viable device on the smartwatch and fitness band market requires a paired smartphone to access its full potential.
Essentially then, the smartwatch has become an accessory for the smartphone. An interesting proposition perhaps, but not at the price they currently enter the market at. True to form, Apple are positioning their watch at the top end of the market. Ranging from £300 to, brace, £13,500, the Apple Watch is a considerable investment, wherever you draw the line. And that’s without considering the original £539 you’ve already spent on an iPhone 6 (and that happens to be the lowest spec device on the market). The Apple Watch may be extreme example of the smartwatches tendency to be overpriced, but you’ll generally struggle to find an attractive and functional smartwatch for under £150. What you get for your money then, is basically the small convenience of no longer having to pick your phone out of your pocket to check notifications. Unless you’re wrists are constantly suffering from RSI from fiddling around in your pocket, the value just doesn’t seem there.
The Moto 360- attractive, but a slave to the smartphone
The Problem with Wearable Tech, continued…
The benefit a fitness band can bring to your health is often elevated as a major advantage to purchasing a smartwatch or fitness band. But again, in reality all you’re given is some repackaged tech from the 90s in a futuristic digital time piece. Heart-rate monitors, accelerometers and pedometers are all great but once again, you’ll need your smartphone to take full advantage of a fitness trackers tech. There are a number of apps that can break down your fitness goals, calories burnt and log your sleep, all of which can be used without the need for a fitness band.
Save yourself the £50-£100 most fitness trackers fall into and get yourself a cheap pedometer and a good fitness app. You can input all the details of distance travelled, food eaten and hours slept yourself and get broadly the same information in return, fitness band or no fitness band. Some might suggest that a wearable interface keeping you up to date on your fitness goals can be motivational. To them I’d say well…get some motivation.
So, what’s the problem? Surely the industry is aware of the lingering issues hampering wearable progression? Unfortunately for tech companies trying to move consumers onto the next big thing, research into components is just not advanced enough at the moment. The components required to house a smartphone’s capabilities on something sleek and small enough to fit on your wrist is just not a viable recipe using the current technology. Samsung have proven this with the Gear S, the smartwatch that doubled up as a smartphone. Underpowered, unappealing and frankly enormous, the Gear S looks more like Buzz Lightyear’s arm panel than a compact vision of the future. At £280, less is definitely not more.
Even detached from the wrist, the Samsung Gear S looks pretty vast
Wearable glasses also provide particularly damaging evidence for a market that is still not ready for major consumer input. The reason Google Glass and Sony’s SmartEyeglass are so hilarious in their aesthetics is that they simply can’t fit the required level of power into a unit that doesn’t encompass your entire face. Create a product with anything less than a smartphone’s capabilities and we simply are not interested.
If the tech just isn’t sophisticated enough to create good enough products, why do all of tech’s biggest players continue to pursue this failing cause? Technology developers have recognised the shelf-life of the smartphone is fast approaching. Aside from upgraded specs, smartphones devices are beginning to look increasingly similar year on year. Features such as curved screens and finger recognition are really nothing more than novel attachments. The same goes for tablets, which are already in seeing a sales decline. That leaves consumers increasingly likely to stick with what they’ve got, free from the internal requirement discussed above to have the latest gadget.
Looking to push the evolution of our tech along, the industry is pushing ahead with plans to get us all on board with smart wearable devices. With the technology currently in its early beginnings, any early adopters to the wearable cycle could find themselves upgrading devices for many years to come.
All of which means that one piece of advice can ring true when considering a wearables purchase. Wait. Wearable technology may well be the future. Certainly, the natural progression of the technology industries suggests that the next big thing mustn’t be too far away. But for now, it isn’t smartwatches and it certainly isn’t smart glasses.