Before this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, I issued a challenge: I wanted makers of wearable tech to prove to me that the time had come for this category of gadgets. What I was seeking was irrefutable proof there was wearable technology out there demonstrating enough clear and immediate benefit that consumers would flock to it in droves.
That’s not what I found.
Which is to say that nothing I found at CES offered up the kind of ‘love at first sight’ that I had with my first iPhone (an iPhone 3G), my first smartphone of any kind. The smartphone needed no additional argument beyond itself to prove its worth: no discourse on market trends, no explanation of how it will appeal to specific niches, no apologies about its current limitations. Of course smartphones had their doubters, as will any new tech, but simply using a good one was enough to convince most of their worth.
Not so with wearables. CES 2014 was a veritable explosion of wearable tech, with major companies including LG (the Life Band Touch) and Sony (the Core) both debuting activity trackers at the show. Many others also added their respective hats to the ring, including JayBird (the Reign), Garmin (Vivoki and Vivofit) and GlassUp (plus a slew of other Glass-type eyewear). At best, however, each of these devices only edged forward the potential of the wearable space; at worst, they represent a descent into a major growing area of concern with the category.
The new Sony and LG devices serve as the best examples to articulate the inherent problem in wearable tech. The category isn’t popular with OEMs simply because it looks to be a new area where people are willing to spend money – it also represents a tremendous opportunity to continue the kind of consumer behavior tracking and analysis begun with smartphones.
Smartphones have proven a veritable treasure trove of data about the people who use them, and that data is immensely useful in developing a product pipeline, and in attracting content and marketing partners. Sony’s Core is designed not just to track fitness, but to provide a log of essentially every connected AND real-world activity a person undertakes throughout the day. In the right (wrong?) hands, it could provide a near-perfect profile of the average day of actual consumers, which is the kind of data portrait that makes marketers weak at the knees.
That’s why Google created Glass, in case anyone was wondering. The search giant’s first and still most influential success was targeting ads at users based on expressed intent (search ads). Arguably, everything it’s done since then has been designed in some way to gather more info on its users for a more complete picture of what they’re looking for (Android, Google+ are just a few high-profile examples). Wearables is simply the next evolution, and that’s why we’re seeing everyone chase that carrot, rather than any especially huge market opportunity in terms of consumer appetite.
It’s telling that the most impressive wearable at CES for me was a mostly aesthetic iteration of an existing product. The Pebble Steel is the Pebble I always wanted to begin with, though the underlying software and feature set remains mostly unchanged. In fact, my existing Kickstarter edition Pebble never left my wrist during the show, providing a tether to our coverage team which proved superior to any system we used previously. I think it’s telling that Pebble has never positioned itself as a monitoring or logging device, in the context of the argument above, and that may have a lot to do with its continued success.
I still think there’s a lot of potential in the wearables market, but to explore that potential fully, device manufacturers need to at least couch their salivation over the data vein they have to power to break right open in a very convincing veil of consumer concern. Especially now that the Snowden whistleblowing has shed additional light on the value of our privacy, wearables need to concentrate on showing consumers what they offer, rather than just providing a list of what data they keep track of.