You’d be forgiven for getting optimistic about wearable technology lately – almost every public appearance of Sergey Brin has made him look like a motivational speaker for the Borg and several tech firms have shown off their first offerings of carpal-computers, like Samsung’s Galaxy Gear. Even I, though usually a
cynic skeptic, can see the rise of wearable tech resulting in something really inventive – but I think it has a long way to go yet.
Wisely, technology pundits have been careful not to totally write-off the idea of wearable technology too early, as such predictions usually come back to bite them – remembering the embarrassing backlog of 2006 articles laughing off the iPhone. Many have suggested that, as with the Jesus Phone, whilst it may be difficult for us ivory-tower tech writers to conceive of a practical use for the technology (or ‘weartech’ as it’s sometimes referred to, by me alone), surely those cleverclogs app developers can. Resulting in a repeated insistence that someone might, maybe, perhaps hit upon an idea for a weartech-specific app that will be so darn helpful as to launch it into the mainstream. However, this comparison is not a valid one as it ignores the circumstances that allowed the iPhone and its app ecosystem to thrive.
This is the first time that manufacturers have created form factors that have no precedent and are looking to – indeed, depending on – app developers to assign it a purpose. Mobile phones were already ubiquitous when the iPhone was announced and manufacturers had long-since hit upon the idea of the handset being more than just your basic blower. There was a proven market for mobile devices – old enough to have already refined the form factor and normalise it with consumers – and clear demand for them to be multi-purpose tools.
The original iPhone was successful even without third-party apps (only introduced with the iPhone 3G) because it did all the things we’d come to expect from a phone (and more) really well. But without an antecedent market for mobile phones, the iPhone would have been attempting to create and popularise an entirely new type of contraption, rather than build on an existing one, and its success would have been far less assured.
Even tablet computers had a precursor (of sorts) in the form of netbooks. Their fleeting success towards the end of the last decade proved that a market for smaller computers existed, to complement smartphones rather than compete with them. Steve Jobs introduced the original iPad to replace netbooks as this third-category device.
That’s not to say that no useful applications for wearable tech exists, but these tend to be gimmicky or niche or both. At least for smartwatches, their use as a fitness monitors could result in respectable sales amongst exercise enthusiasts. But when many cheaper wrist-worn activity trackers already exist, it’s hard to see how these users will regard the Galaxy Gear’s other features as anything other than expensive add-ons. Samsung may have announced what will turn out to be the most versatile pedometer in history. There are far more worthy uses for wearable technology than just calorie-counting of course, such as medical applications, but nothing that would put a smartwatch on every wrist or a Glass over every (other) iris in the consumer space.
The supposed selling point behind a lot of the consumer weartech being created at the moment is that it’ll link with your smartphone and augment some of its functionality and notifications – such as reading SMS and email messages – onto a screen visible somewhere on your body. Given that most of these products currently match (or exceed) the average price of a smartphone, it’s not wise for manufacturers to position the tech as a mere accessory to your phone.
Moreover, the limitations of the form factor would soon outweigh the novelty of using it. Sneaking a sideways glance at your phone is much more compatible with our sense of decorum than bellowing “OK Glass” in the middle of a crowded room, or having an intimate conversation with someone whilst stroking your temple like you’re trying to coax a tapeworm out of your skull. For a much more in-depth look at why using a watch as a phone would be a surreal and impractical experience, see this
bias rant objective analysis.
This reliance on the inventiveness of third-party developers is a backwards and potentially ruinous strategy for companies like Google and Samsung who, though in different ways, are trying to be the first-movers in the weartech market. Especially since the sheer variety of forms that wearable technology can take means that it will initially be very difficult to create apps without heavily fragmented support. Whereas a smartphone or tablet has a very limited and easily generalised set of interfaces, an application for weartech will have to account for each device’s unique ergonomics and quirks.
As the field matures and the myriad types of wearable tech become more clearly defined, this will become easier, since the best ways to handle the user interaction will evolve from successive generations. But without any comparable precedent and a lack of useful applications right now, wearable technology must rely on its gimmick driving enough sales to reach that level of development. The company that makes wearable technology a success will need to be patient, attentive to feedback and tolerant of making a loss at first but (if done right) the result could be truly revolutionary. Wearable technology can succeed, but now is not the right time.