Winter Is Coming For Wearables

Editor’s note: Kitty Ireland is a product strategy consultant interested in how technology changes the human condition and is a founding member of the team that built the lifelogging app, Saga.

Remember wearables? Those wristbands and glasses that were going to take over our lives? This time last year, many of us had high hopes that 2014 was (finally) going to be the year of the wearable.

Whoops. The wearables revolution didn’t come to pass in 2014, and it’s not going to happen in 2015, either. Why? Because we gave up. While more wearable products were launched in 2014 than ever before, most are sitting in a junk drawer somewhere. More than half of us who purchased a wearable activity tracker have since abandoned it.

No one showed up. Analysts expected 90 million wearables to be shipped in 2014, but the reality is looking to be more like 52 million, even after holiday sales. And this year doesn’t look any better: TECHnalysis Research predicts sales of 40 million units next year.

Smartwatches showed up. Gartner says that in 2015, more than half of the people shopping for a wearable device will opt for a smartwatch rather than an activity tracker.

And most importantly, the tech didn’t change our lives. Despite the glut of wearables seen at CES in January 2014, there are now only a few widely recognized products in the category.

Yes, early adopters, I can hear your feathers ruffling. While there may be some growth in the category over the next five years, I’m here to argue that the heady days of wearables as the “next big thing” are over for the foreseeable future.

What we’ve learned from 2014 is that today’s simple wearable gadgets aren’t enough. They’re not a complete solution. They do well enough for a very specific set of early adopters and fitness buffs, but they aren’t worth the investment for regular people.

Go quantify yourself

Go to any quantified self (QS) conference, and you’ll see wearables everywhere. I’ve met lots of Google Glass-wearing folks festooned with wristbands, body cameras and tracking devices of all shapes and sizes.

For quantified selfers, wearables are one of the keys to a better, happier and fitter life. In the QS movement, wearables are regarded as just one way to achieve “self-knowledge through numbers.” They’re also an easy and semi-convenient way to track personal data related to your habits, weight, fitness and mood.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, wearables don’t magically make you thinner — or happier. Once you have the data, you still have to act on it. An app or a device won’t do the the hard work for you.

That’s not good news for mainstream audiences who (for the most part) want some kind of immediate and tangible return. Most wearables don’t give much back beyond a bunch of data. Even when they tell you something potentially insightful, it’s still hard to figure out what to do, and even harder to find the motivation to do it.

Today, wearables and the Quantified Self face the same barrier to adoption: access to tools that will help us make sense of all of this data.

Gary Wolf, co-founder of the Quantified Self, believes better days lie ahead. “It is still not very easy to use our data to address unique personal questions. I think there is a role for intermediate, exploratory ‘platforms’ for meaning, filling a middle ground between totally processed and totally home cooked.”

Hardware is hard

While it’s true that wearables haven’t done themselves any favors in the hardware department (they’re clunky, still have to be charged regularly, and sometimes cause you to break out), it’s also clear that they haven’t found a workable value proposition outside of fitness tracking.

The real challenge with wearables isn’t the hardware, though. It’s the return we as end users get for slapping something on our wrists.

Astro Teller of GoogleX has been thinking about this challenge a lot. At Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit, he said, “Wearables are tough. They’ll eventually be a part our lives, but there’s this mantra that there’s no point wearing something on your body. There’s no point in having it on your body unless you can give people something you really couldn’t get otherwise. It has to be qualitatively better for it to be worn.”

Today’s wearables require an investment that many aren’t ready to make. We hope this won’t always be the case, but finding killer use cases (other than step counting or fitness tracking) has proven elusive.

Jim Gemmell of trôv suggests wearable companies target people chronic health conditions — or those looking to avoid one. “It will become rarer and rarer for someone with a common ailment like diabetes, asthma, or heart disease to avoid health logging as the devices and apps improve.”

He may be right. Susannah Fox and Maeve Duncan famously showed that with one or more chronic conditions track more personal data than anyone else. Insurance companies and healthcare providers recognize this, and may be the ones to ferry even the late majority into the future.

For those without chronic conditions, wearables still a hard sell, especially with competition from free apps in the market that replicate much of the functionality.

Our computers, our selves

But despite the gloomy forecast, I’m still excited about wearables. I just have given up on seeing mass adoption of the current products.

I know our bodies will become our computer interfaces. I know that wearing body cams like the Narrative Clip will become commonplace (and not just for police officers). We will never see people like Chris Dancy walking down Main Street, USA, but all of us will covertly collect the same amount of information, if not more.

That’s why I’m afraid winter is coming for wearables.

Today, artificial intelligence startups are poised to eat the world. But you don’t have to be a historian to remember the “AI Winters” of the past, where enthusiasm and hype for technology so far outpaced performance that most casual observers lost interest. It’s hard not to draw parallels to the wearable space, given the level of hype we saw in at the end of 2013 — and the level of disappointment many of us felt at the end of 2014.

Yes, someday, there will be a thaw. The tech will get better. Personal data trackers will become ubiquitous. We’ll see a new generation of tools that will help us access, aggregate, and even make sense of our personal data.

We might have to live through some chilly days to get there, though.