Wearables have been with us for a number of years now and each major manufacturer has shown off their vision for how smartphone-connected and sensor-packed devices can make us better human beings.
There are many fundamental problems with wearables that still haven’t been solved or which don’t look like they will be improved on in the long run. Here’s my breakdown of what needs to happen before wearables can really become the breakthrough products that they aspire to be.
Smartphones are the transformative devices they are because they replace a variety of gadgets and in an increasingly dramatic fashion. My iPhone 6s has become my main camera, my music and podcast player, my GPS, my PDA, a phone, a clock, a portable gaming machine, and now even a mobile wallet and place where I keep loyalty cards, coupons, as well as movie and airline tickets. In a few years it will help me start my car, keep my home secure, and if I strap it on my forehead, give me access to new VR and AR experiences. That’s one device with myriad uses, aside from being the most essential personal messaging and communication tool.
Wearables, on the other hand, don’t really replace anything essential.
Helmets, goggles, and eyeglass-type wearables are still far too bulky and awkward to be viable. Anyone who had demoed an Oculus or even a Microsoft HoloLens will tell you they aren’t the most comfortable rigs to wear even for a few minutes, much less for hours. The challenge is fitting a computer, a power source, and various antennas in a space no larger than what a pair of Oakley sunglasses takes up and right now that feels like a faraway dream.
Head-worn wearables need to be lightweight, unobtrusive, and shouldn’t ever call attention, but that’s certainly not the case today. For virtual reality headsets, many of them look like your wearing Beats headphones across your eyes, they’re an ergonomic nightmare.
There’s also the concern of having our eyes focused on an Ultra HD display so close to our faces, plus the long-term effects of having radios buzzing in the proximity of our brains. That’s definitely something to consider.
Okay, smartwatches replace analog and mechanical watches and they do offer far more functionality. The problem for me is that after having used a Pebble, Apple Watch, and various Android Wear watches my use for them diminishes through time. Notifications and accessing certain apps on the sly is good (although, sneaking a look at your watch in any social function always seems rude).
The best smartwatch features for me are the ability to find my phone when it’s missing as well as quick response to time-consuming emails by voice and the ability to make calls. The secondary functions of health tracking and guiding me through workouts are nifty but not essential. It’s been months since I’ve actively looked at any of the apps on my Apple Watch because accessing their iPhone versions is so much faster and intuitive.
The small screens of smartwatches is a huge issue to overcome and having to use multi-touch or even Force Touch on the Apple Watch does little to make things easy. I think that voice control and voice assistants are possibly the best way to interact with these wearables—that is if some people can get over the awkwardness of speaking into their wrists.
Health trackers, like the ones made by Jawbone, Fitbit, and Misfit are more affordable and more singular in their function. I like that you can wear one even if you wear a watch or not. The trend I’m seeing is that these companies aren’t content just selling affordable activity trackers and want a bigger piece of the smartwatch market.
CES 2016 saw a bunch of larger, more expensive health trackers from many companies that were even bigger than smartwatches yet offered minimal notifications or extra features that make smartwatches a better overall choice. The fundamental issue with these wrist-based or pendant-type health trackers is that they feel faddish and don’t seem to be able to do multiple things well. Pricing is also all over the place for these devices, although from my experience, you get what you pay for.
We are also seeing a lot of traditional watchmakers releasing their first generation of smartwatches. Whether in partnership with technology companies like HP or on their own, these premium brands like TAG Heuer, Movado, Breitling, and others feel that they need to be represented in the new wave of wearable devices, and rightfully so. What’s interesting is how we’re seeing the change of value for timepieces.
A Patek Philippe, Rolex, or Audemars Piguet timepiece is an heirloom and a fine watch that will last generations of users and even appreciate in value through time. Smartwatches are limited by the same finite limitations of smartphones. Battery life, processor speed, memory, and even operating system version are all ingredients that are good for a few years at most. Dipping a smartwatch in 18K gold or attaching a US$5,000 strap just seems wasteful for a product that’s going to be obsolete in a maximum of three years.
One big issue with smartwatches is that they have to make their case to people who are keen on wearing watches to begin with and within this group, they have to try and appeal to those who just wear watches because they are practical ways to keep time and the aficionados who will likely turn their nose up on anything that isn’t complicated, expensive, or rare enough for their collection.
Many women find the current crop of smartwatches too large and unwieldy, even with some companies focusing on the fashion aspect of these watches, there doesn’t seem to be any one model that’s universally desirable for lady users.
Still, there’s no denying that wearables industry is a billion-dollar business and will continue to evolve in various interesting ways. We’re now hearing of fabric-based wearables like smart shirts or even ladies’ brassieres that have sensors and all sorts of tracking devices.
The areas of health and sports tracking are the most convincing fields where wearables, no matter how dorky they look, make complete sense. I’ve heard stories of people whose Fitbit or Apple Watch has helped them lose lots of weight, or watch their food intake, sleep better, and be more aware of their overall level of activity. As they say, you can’t put a price on health and so a few hundred dollars for a device that can help keep people on track is justifiable.
When wearables can proactively monitor health conditions, collect and send critical data, as well as interface directly with doctors and care providers, they become more than essential tools in saving lives. This is coming with projects like Apple’s HealthKit and various other initiatives that change the patient records and monitoring game so it gets easier to pinpoint illnesses and areas that need attention. For me, this is where wearables will prove to be indispensable, and making all these available to as many people as possible for an affordable price really feels like a worthwhile future.