Wearables inch towards the Mass Market

One could be forgiven for starting to equate Wearable Technology with QR codes – the Next Big Thing that never actually happened.

Both have gained enormous traction with the marketing community and tech press, yet both have as yet failed to find a significant user base among ordinary consumers.

Often the problem is not that there isn’t an active market of Early Adopters ready to try out new product, but that these eager consumers quickly become Early Abandoners also. Surveys of smartwatch owners have shown that within months of purchase, over 40% of owners stopped using the device, either through forgetting to put them on, or simply because of boredom with the whole idea.

The fact is that wearables have failed to ignite consumers’ imagination in the way that early smartphones did. Even before the iPhone arrived to bring intuitive multi-functionality to our pockets, we found earlier generations of mobiles almost equally addictive. Killer apps such as mobile email and SMS found an instant sweet-spot to enhance our digital lives, and stylish devices from Nokia and Motorola drove the desire to own.

If we were to draw continue the parallel with smartphones, we would probably conclude that the wearables market is currently where the PDA market was in about 1997 when the Palm Pilot launched. The devices were of limited utility, delivered a questionable user experience, and had no style credentials whatsoever.

So how will the current crop of wearables designers overcome the hurdles in front of them? The answer is we’re probably at the beginning of the biggest open product development cycle in technology history – the entire wearables market is one big public beta release. Monica Rigati, chief data scientist at Jawbone, said at SXSW “The world is so connected, we’re making unfinished products. The difference between a product when it’s launched and when you buy it six months later is vast.

This beta, being conducted by countless players from Samsung and Google right down to the nimblest of start-ups, is trying to answer two key questions:

  • What constitutes useful given the limitations of wearables size, shape, screen etc?
  • How can we make these functional pieces stylish and fashionable?

 The experimental nature of the wearables market is best captured by the Google Glass Explorer program. By releasing the device to the most creative minds in the tech community, Google hoped to try to find the killer app which would make Glass, and potentially other wearables, something that we can’t live without.

These experiments are of course no guarantee of success: Google has created a serious issue for itself and the market through the ‘Glassholes’ tag, and other experiments have been worse still – Samsung’s much-vaunted Galaxy Gear watch had a return rate in excess of 30%. We can probably expect to see plenty more corporate and VC money evaporate before the key questions are answered.

But I’m still optimistic that wearables will overcome their twin challenges, and be a meaningful part of our daily lives before too long.

In the style arena, we’re seeing plenty of developments. Apple have recruited heavyweights from the fashion world, with Burberry’s Angela Ahrendts being followed in short order by senior hires from Yves Saint Laurent and TAG Heuer. TAG’s Patrick Pruniaux is particularly interesting as his background in sales and retail indicate a fashion-first go-to-market plan.

Samsung are realizing that partners are required to add style credibility to their current tech-first brand, and are reportedly developing plans for fitness-based wearables with Under Armour.

Tory Burch

And a host of independents are taking the style-first approach, with Fitbit’s Tory Burch collection looking particularly attractive, and Withings activity band adding a classic spin to the movement sensor.

And wearables are slowly rising to the more difficult challenge of being useful. Much of this is about making the experience really relevant to the form factor, which not demanding unnatural changes in behavior from the user. A good indicator of this is Ringly, which as well as being an attractive piece is highly unobtrusive. All the intelligence is built into the accompanying app, which you program to offer the right alerts for you. Thus you can program your ring to vibrate when your Uber has arrived, but not when you receive a text from an annoying ex, for example.

The Martian Notifier hones in on the use of the notifications, offering simple functionality to view a range social media, messages and more through a screen embedded in a traditional looking wristwatch.

Both of these have made the leap from trying to cram as much tech into a device as possible, to trying to provide only what’s really suitable for the interface.

If both fashion and utility continue to move forwards then wearables may well hit some of the huge projections being made for the sector.

Of course, the great unknown is Apple. Should they be able to slam-dunk the wearables space as they did to the smartphone market, we may be looking at a huge and unexpected growth in wearable tech behavior, and a lot sooner than we currently think.