Are Wearables Wearable Yet?

wearable technology

Image courtesy of COM Salud

LONDON, United Kingdom — Reading the news, recently, you would think that modern wearables might never reach the mainstream after both Google and Apple are struggling to hit the forecast for the unit sales of Google Glass and iWatch. Is the criticism fair? We think not, more just a sign of an immature technology.

Outside of modern times, the only wearable technology, to penetrate widely into the consumer market successfully has been the humble wristwatch. How did it achieve this success, and how can wearable designers today learn from this?

The theories of Diffusion of Innovation and the Technology Adoption Lifecycle have been widely discussed and applied to everything from the use of farm machinery to the smartphone revolution. Briefly, these theories describe how technologies are first adopted by enthusiasts with the time, money and a specific unmet need that the technology solves. If this proves successful the rest of the market follows and the technology gets widely adopted. Sounds simple, right?

How did these theories apply to the wristwatch? The unmet need that the wristwatch originally solved was timing of military manoeuvres without having to reach into your jacket for your pocket watch. Following this, it was many decades before these timepieces were found widely on a majority of wrists. These adoption timescales demonstrate that while the wider market didn’t have the same unmet need, there were still some benefits or attractions of the technology to the wider market. Ultimately, wristwatches made it to become one of the leading fashion accessories and even collectors items and their place in the market was cemented for centuries.

wearable technology

Image courtesy of Intel Free Press

Modern wearables are only just reaching the first stage of their journey. They have found a group of lycra-wearing enthusiasts around the world who regularly wear and use their products. But beyond these fitness fanatics there hasn’t been large volume diffusion of the technology. Many brands are currently trying to make the move from the hardcore statistics play of a “fitness” device to a gentler and less-intrusive “wellness” product: a perfectly reasonable strategy to penetrate an adjacent niche, but I believe they are still missing the desires of the majority.

For the majority of the market knowing the number of steps you’ve taken, your heart rate, etc is only of mild and fleeting interest. Equally, reading e-mails on your watch might be useful, but the problem is you probably want to reply to some e-mails (maybe not!) and speaking into your watch just looks too Star Trekky and not exactly very private.

Wearables are (by definition) something that you wear. If you want people to wear them the first criteria must be that they look good, then it shouldn’t get in their way and shouldn’t make them feel like a dork when they use it. If you don’t get these fundamentals right then nothing else really matters, you may as well strap your smartphone to your wrist with an elastic band.

In order for wearables to penetrate the wider market they will have to step up on the design front. The Technology Adoption Lifecycle tells us that only a few percent of the population are actually interested in technology and have the risk appetite to adopt it. The wider market will follow more rapidly when it becomes strange for people NOT to have wearables and this only occurs with items that are deemed to be fashionable and acceptable for all people to be seen using. In my opinion this was one of the main pillars of the iPhone’s success. Sure, many people argue that it’s all about the software and the user experience, which is true to a point, but if you look like Spock every time you want to reply to an e-mail it will never reach the mainstream.

wearable technology

Image courtesy of Lawrencegs

There are companies putting the design element first: Misfit Wearables for example are making a step in the right direction, but where are the products jointly developed with leading fashion accessory houses and technology companies? There are some early signs of this, but we are yet to see a product!

Perhaps the technology is just not mature enough to meet the design constraints of the fashion industry? Is the current crop of wearable designers overly focussed on functions (which most people won’t use) rather than form (which is the real concern when you are wearing something the entire day). Will we ever see fashionable or even collectable wearables made from high quality materials or will they remain in the locker at the gym? Join the discussion!

About the author

Experienced venture capitalist and father fascinated by the impact of technology on all aspects of life. With a degree and doctorate in the physical sciences he understands the value of the right people being in the right place at the right time.