Where-ables: Are They Real? And Do We Care?

It seems that almost daily Google, Samsung, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and the legion of second-tier device makers announce the development of a new wristlet or connected-bauble. Fanfare ensues. “Reviews,” sneak peeks, patent descriptions and opinions flood the blogosphere peppered with the customary hyperbole hailing the next great shiny thing.  But where are these toys? I have yet to see anyone actually wearing one (aside from some tech nerds and industry shills at CES or a TechCrunch conference). And more importantly, do people really want them?  From what I am hearing, I’m not sure that the demand is consistent with the hype.

Let's look at the evidence: Uber-bauble Google Glass has promulgated a virtual protest industry whose sentiments range from pure satire to paranoia to outright hatred. This is not a good sign. As the Snowden circus has revived a global call for privacy and Facebook’s never-ending pursuit of personal data collection continues to turn users off, the idea of omni-connected accessories on every wrist and nose-bridge is making people edgy.  Now with all this talk about the “internet of things” -- or “IoT” as we are now calling it -- people are clamoring for places where they can hide from Big Brother.  Visions of "Minority Report" (I watched it again recently, and the images have become frighteningly plausible) race through my mind as I read about iBeacons, wired homes and smart TVs. Every single event in history is now captured on video from either a quick-draw iZapruder or a security camera tucked under a traffic light. It's no wonder that this new category of tech is being met with a cold response.  

A recent Nielsen study indicates that while 70% of consumers are aware of wearable tech, only 15% actually use one. Availability and awareness are not the issue. While part of the reason is price (the current spate of tech watches are just too costly) and limited perceived value (not enough options to make it worthwhile), other reasons are plain apathy and a need for more fashionable options. Aside from the utilitarian barriers, many of these techno-gewgaws just simply don’t look good. 

Early design peeks show clunky, awkward-looking and outright B-Movie-looking accoutrements. Apple’s historical commitment to design has produced the best-looking gadgets in the world, so consumers can likely hold out hope that their tradition of sleek sex-wear will continue (I am jazzed to see what the iWatch will look like, frankly) -- but some early entries look like they were invented for a 60s sci-fi flick. No one that I have spoken to would wear one of these things, even if they possessed the ability to beam people to the Caribbean. I suspect that the attention to design will become more and more of a core aspect of this category, but the first-movers seem more interested in jamming something into the marketplace than taking the time to make sure people will want to be buried wearing one.

A recent study by Endeavor Partners reveals another interesting “Dark Secret of Wearables." People who DO purchase wearable devices (fitness & activity trackers specifically) show a consistent decrease in use over a relatively short period of time. It seems the novelty wears off, and the commitment requirements needed to glean long-term value prove too much for today’s hyper-distracted users to sustain. 

Unlike a traditional wristwatch, the profit derived from smart devices lies not in the initial purchase (many OEMs lose money on their initial sale price) but in their sustained ongoing use. Keeping people engaged and active is the real goal.  That is proving to be a tough barrier to get over. Virtually everything people need today can be accomplished via their smartphones. Getting over-teched consumers to adopt an entirely new set of usage habits on an entirely new device category is going to be the most difficult hurdle. Most digitally initiated people already face a complicated relationship with their gadget menagerie of iPhones, Tablets and Laptops. Is a wrist-computer really needed? Or will this just become another redundant example of tech giants looking to create demand for a new category in their quest for first-mover status?

On top of those distractions, the economics are not too promising. People simply do not have as much disposable income anymore for new toys. With the unveiling of the coveted iPhone 6 in September, that gem is likely going to be the prime tech purchase for a good majority of the smartwatch demographic. Will people be willing to spend an additional $200, $300, $400 on a new tech? I’m not betting my Rolex on it.

Regardless, the fourth quarter of 2014 promises a whole fleet of new wearables flooding the marketplace. As the carriers and retailers get ready for showtime, it will be interesting to see if the public bites. 

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