This morning at Baselworld, the world’s premiere luxury watch show, there was ample news about wearables. That’s a sign that wearable tech is coming of age in some ways, but this represents the awkward teen years, not the arrival of adulthood and maturity. The announcements at this event felt like when the music stops in a game of musical chairs, not like the culmination of a focused plan.
Wearable tech is an extremely promising area for hardware and software alike, but also one where we’ve seen a fair number of false starts. The ‘Dick Tracy watch’ vision has led to multiple wrist-phone creations, dating back to before even the advent of the iPhone. Dedicated activity trackers had their own moment in the sun, before hitting a wall just shy of wide adoption, owing in part to limited functionality, and also to design and taste compunctions among consumers.
It’s still not a mass-market technology by any means, however, and it needs a key success to become more prevalent in its own right, and to inspire a world in which wearable tech has more tangible benefits in terms of interaction with the world around us. The Apple Watch is the most promising wearable to date in terms of having a broad, positive impact on the state of the category, but the rush from others to try to capitalize on or re-route some of its success may have a net negative effect on wearable tech in general.
This morning’s announcements included a partnership between Intel, Tag Heuer and Google to put Android Wear inside watch bodies that, though price wasn’t announced, are likely to range in from between $5,000 and $10,000 (this is what greeted me at Tag’s press site, by the way). Serial gadget failtrepreneur will.i.am has also announced a partnership with Gucci Timepieces to produce a wearable gadget that’s also a fashion accessory, and the press release announcing the news actually contains the word “fashionology” used without irony.
The point is that companies are frantic for partners that will offer some kind of legitimacy, which they must view as a shortcut to broader adoption. Wearables are worn, goes the theory, therefore we’ll look to the leaders in product markets like fashion and high-end watches to solve the adoption problem, which will in turn solve the software problem, and then also the wider problem of integrating wearable tech intelligently into a connected world.
Partners need convincing in order to build a network of services and device to talk to wearables, after all, and if wearables aren’t worn, it’s much harder to turn their head.
The problem is that simple addition doesn’t address the underlying problems facing wearables; you can’t just add “technology” to “fashion” and expect “fashionology” to come out the other end, in other words. A hasty union stands to do more harm than good, since dissatisfied purchasers of these devices will end up trusting each element less, and will be twice as shy about adopting anything wearable in the future.
Apple’s approach to smartwatches is really the only one with promise not just because it has the brand to sell hardware regardless of what is is, as some have suggested, but also because it’s focusing on the problem of wearables as a cohesive and complex one, not something that can be addressed by a rough-hewn partnership of two companies who understand in isolation individual aspects of the challenge.
The potential for a wearables future is one of seamless integration, when the tech you’re wearing interacts with everything around you in a way that significantly reduces friction and ultimately results in an environment that is tailored to you, and that anticipates your needs. To get there, however, we need consumers not to be wary of the category as a whole, and that means not producing half-realized devices birthed from unlikely unions.