Walking away from the third annual Wearables Tech Expo last week I have to admit I felt disappointed.
Going into the week I was expecting to leave on Thursday:
- …with a long list of case studies and success stories,
- …bullish on the wearables market,
- …with the names of companies and enterprises who were embracing wearables,
- …and walking away with great expectations for what’s to come.
But I didn’t see compelling examples of any of the above.
Which is ok because this tells me something just as valuable: The wearables market just isn’t there yet.
And let’s be honest, should I have expected anything different? I really only have myself to blame for the disappointment by setting unrealistic expectations. And no I didn’t learn my lesson from a year ago.
By the end of the conference I saw three core challenges:
- The technology still needs to improve
- Start with the enterprise, not the consumer
- Let use cases arise naturally
The Technology is Mired in Tradeoffs
Myriam Joire – product evangelist at Pebble – kicked off the conference with one of the better presentations of the week. She highlighted the technological challenges for smartwatches and other wearables. As you’ll notice, many of these challenges are contradictory, confounding the problem:
1. More Battery Life
Wearables by their nature are typically smaller than other devices. Smaller devices means a shorter battery life, fewer sensors, lower resolution screens and less functionality.
You get the idea…
2. Need to be “Lifeproof”
Borrowing the name of a popular iPhone case, wearables need to be “lifeproof“. They’re on our bodies and we want to keep them there so they need to be waterproof, drop proof, dust and dirt proof, sweat proof and more.
3. Visible in Daylight
There was a great observation made at the conference – you don’t need wearables indoors. When inside, you’re usually seated at your desk and have easy access to your phone or computer.
With wearables, you need them most when you’re most active, which is often outdoors. This means your wearable needs to be visible in direct sunlight.
This then requires either an e-paper/e-ink screen, or a high powered, high resolution screen, which of course eats up battery life.
4. Flexible Devices
Our body is not flat. Anything but. We’ve got curves!
This means our devices, screens and batteries will have curves too. That’s no easy feat.
5. Input Challenges
Each of the popular input mechanisms have their challenges:
- Buttons work, but more than 2 or 3 and you’re pushing aesthetic limits
- Touch screens aren’t practical for wearables
- Voice control is getting there, but accuracy needs to be 90% or better to be viable
There are also two other input mechanisms Myriam didn’t discuss, which I think might be the direction we head:
- Gestures, such as the flick of a wrist, are simple, natural, and (can be) non-distracting. Thalmic Labs’ Myo wristband has some of the best gesture controls I’ve seen.
- Automatic data capture will allow wearables to capture user’s intent without the user taking any action. GPS and context-based messages help Google Now to lead the pack with automatic data capture and display.
6. Device In/Dependence
This debate is still on-going: should the wearable be device independent while operating? Or, should it use another device (read: your smartphone) to manage the heavy lifting of data processing and network connectivity?
There are pros and cons to both, so I’m eager to see which way we trend.
7. Form vs Function
And perhaps the biggest challenge for wearables. Do you focus on form? Or function? Or somehow strive for both?
Can we create a device that has a long battery life (7+ days) and a flexible display? Can it be lifeproof and work in any environment? Is it easy to use and does it look good while worn?
We’ve all seen it, but one more time here’s a reminder of what we want to avoid:
Let’s Use the Enterprise to Solve Technology Challenges
What strikes me as most odd is the continued emphasis on consumer wearables. I’m just not seeing a ton of compelling fits between consumer desires and wearable technology yet.
Wearables are Old Hat to Enterprises
On the other hand, enterprises have been implementing wearables for years.
Shipping & distribution centers use wearable finger scanners to move shipments through facilities faster.
Retail outlets use wearable communication trackers to find sales associates and capture in store analytics.
And employees out in the field have been sending video streams back to the home office long before Google glass.
ROI’s Remove All Other Roadblocks
Wearables also solve real problems for business.
Product moves faster, work gets done with fewer man hours, and support teams need less on site travel.
All these solutions tie back to real dollars. The assistant to the regional manager doesn’t care if his employees look like a glassholes if they’re saving the company money.
By bypassing the form/function debate, we can use bigger devices. Bigger devices mean longer battery life, extra network connectivity and brighter screens. The majority of Myriam’s “challenges” just went out the door.
And we can use the enterprise’s investment in wearables to be the consumer’s R&D wing. This will improve devices to the point that they’re ready for the mass market, ready for the public.
So why, then, were the following sessions focused on consumers instead of business?
- “The Business of Wearables”
- “Bringing Wearables to Retail”
- “Why Wearable Tech is a $50 Billion Market”
Why Do We Need Wearable Technology?
As Marc Andreessen famously asked, “What’s the most important factor for success?” Is it the best team, a game-changing product or an unstoppable market? Well,
In a great market — a market with lots of real potential customers — the market pulls product [and team] out of the startup.
Conversely, in a terrible market, you can have the best product in the world and an absolutely killer team, and it doesn’t matter — you’re going to fail.
Markets matter most, and watching the sessions you can see that the wearables market just isn’t there yet.
Shawn DuBravac, with help from the behemoth that is CES, showed that consumers aren’t replacing their wearables. So far their devices are just “nice-to-haves”.
Then there’s the glut of fitness bands. I counted at least 8 different varieties in two days alone, all grasping at the slightest hint of a market.
Or even the countless panelists pontificating on what the market is going to be like, instead of what it is.
You start to see that we’re still searching for product/market fit as we try to strap more and more devices to our bodies.
So until then, until we nail the technology piece with devices that naturally belong on our bodies and provide the kind of value a smartphone does (devices like the Skully Smart Motorcycle Helmet are good examples of something that’s close), I’m remaining a bit bearish on the growing wearables technology market.