When we think wearables, we think future, not past, but the first (albeit crude) wearable electronics were back in the ‘80s … cue the calculator watch — a huge leap for computing on-the-go, but hardly a defining fashion moment. Flash forward to 2014. You can’t turn anywhere online without seeing wearable electronics in the news, whether it’s a smartwatch launch like Samsung Galaxy Gear, FitBit, the controversial Google Glass, or the wave of electronics embedded into clothing and jewelry. All of these technologies represent the next level of how humans interact with our digital world. Here are my three key considerations that will inform whether the wearables market is here to stay, or merely a footnote in tech and pop culture history.
Creating a Market
It’s the human condition that without an identified need, we need to be sold on new ways of doing things. We pivot towards what we know and are familiar with, and our first reaction is usually to reject. Witness the lack of sustainability for Friendster or MySpace sites. While both had the makings for the monumental success of Facebook, they failed to attract the masses in the long term the way the current social networking giant did. In my opinion, what these social granddaddies did do was prime the pump so that when Facebook came along as a communication platform, connecting and sharing with friends online was a more natural progression, and met with open arms and minds (and a lot of time).
So it’s not surprising to me that the wearables market is catching fire for practical, familiar purposes. Wearable fitness electronics have seen explosive growth, from monitoring overall health to blood pressure to sleep patterns, just to name a few. If you’re training for a marathon or working towards specific physical goals, sporting a Fitbit is functional: it gauges miles logged, steps climbed, and calories burned. But for the rest of us, the virtual appendage of a smartphone meets most of our other digital requirements, and in many ways is the wearables market’s fiercest competitor.
Fashion over Function
A new tie designer could splatter its advertising everywhere, but if the design doesn’t appeal to mens’ sense of style, it won’t ever be a fashion bullseye. Why? Because the rules of marketing apparel are not going to change—it has to look good.
With wearable designs in their infancy, I think most appear clunky and have a prototype look and feel. Google Glass, for example, can be spotted blocks away—not in a good way. Geek-chic or not, these specs will need to have a “normal” glasses appeal to catch on beyond the early-adopter market. Whether a necklace, wrist band, or any other wearable, it has to look stylish enough that consumers want to be seen in it, and we have a long way to go on that.
Where Privacy Begins and Ends
One of the biggest issues consumers and critics have with Google Glass is its ability to record surreptitiously, on top of all the data that is collected on apps. There are currently no rules and regulations around this.
At the same time, we are swimming in a virtual sea of marketing messages and tracked by marketers—on our computers, mobile devices, and everywhere else we are connected to the online world. The floating decimal point on what privacy means in the digital age continues to move. Research shows, however, that most consumers, particularly younger ones, are comfortable with all of these digital breadcrumbs. Add to that, we’re getting more familiar with the idea of the Internet of Things to monitor tasks and systems in our daily lives. Ultimately, though, I think for the majority of consumers, if wearables want to live up to their hype, there will have to be clear reasons for the information that is being collected and why the intrusion is worth it.
The wearables market has exciting potential for consumers to shape the way we interact with computing devices, while making our lives easier, more productive, and help us achieve our goals. Though ushering in a new generation of digital capabilities, wearables still have stumbling blocks to overcome to make sure they are more than just a trend headline in 2014.