Wearables will follow a similar path as the smartphone market, Forrester analysts predicted in April 2012. “Wearables will move mainstream,” they said.
But will they?
Do you believe this?
From fitness trackers to smartwatches to computers you wear on your face, this emerging market, enabled by the increasing miniaturization of hardware components and lightweight materials, has increasingly been piquing the interest of investors and early adopters alike.
Futurist, artificial intelligence expert and inventor Ray Kurzweil predicted that access to the Internet will eventually become completely wireless and provided by wearable or implanted computers. He’s now Director of Engineering at Google, whose Google Glass team includes scientists who have already built prototypes of bionic contact lenses.
Are you ready for Google Eyeballs?
Am I? I don’t know. Maybe?
Wearable technology, in and of itself, is nothing new. The idea that humans want to augment their own capabilities with gizmos and gadgets has been around for ages. From pocket watches to the headcams that once provided 24/7 video to live blogging startups like Justin.tv, we’re enamored of our little add-ons. We believe, combined with machine, we are more. We are smarter. We are better…stronger…faster, right?
In this latest take on the market, tech press (yes, sometimes ourselves) presumes that wearables becoming the next major area for technological progress is a forgone conclusion. The question we’re asking is not if, but when? And who will dominate? Which wearable device will become the first real mainstream consumer hit? A smartwatch from Apple? Google Glass? Fitbit? Jawbone UP? Pebble? MYO? Shine? FuelBand? Basis? Etc.
So far, the market for wearable devices seems limited to the health and fitness sector, and to some extent, gaming. Track your steps and runs, your heart rate…your fertility. And even though these devices haven’t yet succeeded in placing a band or wearable gadget on every man, woman and child, nor have they established themselves with a presence in every home the way that computers and cell phones have (at least in the developed world), other startups have already been jumping ahead to build what they think will come next after wearable computing is the norm for all people.
An activity tracker for the everyday quantified-self enthusiast, which takes on the higher cost of wearables with lower pricing, and doesn’t require anything but an iPhone.
Wearables: $1.5 Billion Market By 2014
I don’t mean to downplay wearables’ potential in the markets they now serve. If, in fact, the trend continues to heat up, we’re talking about 15 million smart wearable device sales in 2013 growing to almost 70 million in 2017, and a global market for smart wearables worth more than $1.5 billion by 2014, up from $800 million this year.
But these predictions (the above from Juniper in January) assume a lot. That Google Glass will be available to consumers sometime later this year, for starters. That other big companies like Apple and Microsoft will also buy into this trend. That there will be “significant adoption” among consumers.
Even with the data that analysts pour over to come to their conclusions, it’s difficult to accurately predict the future. While wearables seem reasonable, worthy and likely soon-to-be-widespread additions to the personal-computing lineup for athletes, those engaged in health or fitness activities, in a variety of medical health monitoring scenarios, and maybe for some portion of gamers given the right applications, it’s harder to predict to what extent the remainder of the population will adopt wearable technology.
Few, outside of the extreme optimists and pessimists, are willing to predict the potential for Google Glass, for example.
Will we love our devices so much that we wear them in the shower? Or is Glass the first step toward the creation of some omnipresent, omniscient Google Being/soul snatcher?
Who knows? Even augmented contact lens maker, now Googler, Babak Parviz once responded, “I’d rather not hazard a guess here,” when a journalist asked what wearable technology should be developed next. And he and the team at Google X are literally building the future.
So go ahead and say that you know for sure and you’ll be a liar.
VCs don’t know for sure. Startup founders don’t know for sure. Scientists don’t know for sure.
But if you believe funding equates to potential, then look to the wrist: Jawbone ($202 million raised), Fitbit ($53 million), or Pebble ($26 million) are ahead of clip-ons like Striiv ($6 million) or Shine ($8 million), as well as non-Google smart glasses Vuzix ($800K) or Epiphany ($11 million), for example. Bodymedia raised $12 million and sold for $100 million. It’s not like there’s not money to be made here.
Still, wearables are not (yet?) the iPhone. When the iPhone launched, people got it. It was obvious that it was the next step. Today, Glass, arm and wristbands, smartwatches and clip-ons and stick-on sensors are here in their newly imagined glory, and people are still scratching their heads and placing their bets.
Personal Data Collection In The Wake Of PRISM
Our society stands at a crossroads. On the one hand we have what appears to be almost an instinctual notion to record and document everything, maybe as some way to feel that our small selves are connected to a greater human experience. By recording and sharing bits of ourselves and our lives, from the days of cave paintings to Instagram photos and now to the very number of steps we’ve taken and beats of our heart, we are somehow not as alone as we feel.
On the other hand, we’ve thrown caution to the wind with sometimes over-zealous collecting and sharing; behavior made so easy — almost too easy — that our thoughts pour out of our heads and onto servers in the cloud before we’ve had time to stop and consider the repercussions. This fact we’re now forced to face as we gawk at the extensive and invasive government spying campaign, PRISM, that has been quietly scanning our digital exhaust in ways we once naively believed to be only found in works of fiction. 1984 is 2013, and somehow it’s taken a reveal of this size to wake us up to that fact.
Will this impact our comfort level with wearables?
In this moment of pause, another movement is also gaining steam. The rebirth of anonymity. The ability to inject ephemeral into digital. The distributed. People like to point to Snapchat as the instigator of this trend, but that’s giving one service too much credit.
You can see it also in the messaging app diaspora, a rebellion against one network to rule them all. You can see it in the one-name or unnamed bloggers filling Tumblr with content, or in the anonymous confessions through secret-sharing app Whisper, which saw 2 billion pageviews in June (so far). You can see it in the rise of the (almost) anonymous and untraceable currency Bitcoin. In apps for disposable phone numbers. In new projects for disposable phones. In Tor.
Will we proceed into the technological future guided by our hearts, which want to collect and share ever more, or our minds, which now know better? Will we brazenly adopt wearable computing anyway for its promise and potential to augment humanity in ways that seem almost inevitable in their arrival? Or will we back away slowly — at least for now — until our society is able to respect the line between what’s public and private?
I don’t know.