Wearables: what really matters

I love wearable tech. I really do. I think the always (or near-always) wearing of a sensing device can generate contextual data that can benefit me personally in a meaningful way. That’s why I left Farm to work at Quanttus; to be a part of the wearables revolution.

That said, the only wearables I have purchased were not to wear, but to tear down. The truth is that no wearable has delivered on the value proposition I seek.

I suspect I’m not alone. Wearables have been riding up the hype cycle for a few years now, and with with CES a few weeks ago there are again firms generating more heat than light when hawking their latest SKUs

This is precisely what the trough of disillusionment feels like.

The best part of the Trough is that it all gets better from here. I believe wearables are going to be increasingly important in our lives and, before long, will be providing real, tangible, value. This can only happen though if firms focus on what is important.

So what is (and what’s not) important in wearables?

It’s not about selling hardware

No one makes hardware if they don’t have to. It’s a difficult, expensive, brutish process that can sink a firm if not handled expertly. Sure firms like Apple have done well (though not so well in 2015), but today it is unlikely that the wearable success will be marked by firms selling wearables at iPhone-like volumes & margins.

It’s not about the aesthetic

A proper aesthetic is table stakes for the wearables market. Wearables are a fashion item and as such are held to a higher standard than a phone that can be tucked away in your pocket. Similarly, an elegant (even if very simple) UI is required.

While important, these are a means, not an end. The end is to get people to keep the devices on their bodies so that it can collect data.

Speaking of which…

It’s about the data

More specifically it’s about the insights that can be teased from that data.

Just think of all the data a wearable piece of hardware can collect (don’t think of how… more on that in a minute). With such a fat stack of data, the device (or backend) could for any moment answer questions like:

  • Are you wearing the device?
  • What’s your skin temperature
  • Is it light outside?
  • What’s your heart rate?
  • What’s your blood pressure?
  • What’s your blood glucose loves?
  • Are you clammy?
  • Are you biking?
  • Are you walking?
  • Are you on the train?
  • What’s your glucose?
  • Are you sleeping?
  • Is it noisy where you are?
  • What are you saying?
  • Are you stressed?
  • Is it humid?
  • Is it wet?
  • How long have you been moving/sedentary?

Some of these are questions are easy to answer. In fact, the answering of some (e.g. heart rate) are becoming a commodity. The firms that make the components are packaging them up with built-in libraries that let developers focus on building a device

For others (e.g. blood glucose levels) it’s a race to see who can develop the tech first.

What’s taking so long?

I feels like wearables have been around forever (though the Nike Fuelband has only been out since 2012) and yet stories of average consumers receiving valuable (let alone life-changing) insights from their wearable device are, to put it charitably, infrequent. Why is that?

Outside of the typical tradeoffs that come with hardware development (battery life, display resolution, durability, antenna performance, etc.) it really all comes back to this:

When we can’t measure things directly, we are forced to measure them indirectly. For example, if I want to know the core temperature of your body, I have to measure your skin temperature and make an assumption about the correlation between the two temperatures.

Even if I can do it, how will I know my data is good all the time? It may work when you’ve been in a 72°F office for a few hours, but what about when you’re outside? Or the shock from going to an air-conditioned cab to a 100°F parking lot? Will it work similarly on every person?

While it can be very challenging to get high confidence on something as core temperature, more complex or ambiguous parameters such as blood glucose or stress are more challenging still.

The paths forward

In the not-too-distant future I suspect that there will be a blurring of lines between consumer wearables and medical wearables. However in the immediate term I think that incumbents on both sides have some more space to grow before they start bumping into each other.

The Consumer Path

There will be two types of winners in the consumer wearable space: those who create a platform with which users become comfortable (think Apple Watch, Android Wear), and those who successfully develop value-creating sensing technologies that will be absorbed into those platforms.

In the short term, the bigger players such as Apple, Google, Huawei are likely to continue to refine the platform with fancy new SKUs, improved UIs, and other product design tweaks (though they are also likely to spend a healthy dollop of cash on R&D).

Smaller firms would be better served to adopt the mindset that it’s better to start off with a small group of devoted customers:

It is easier to turn a small group of people who love your product into a large group of people who love your product than it is to turn a large group of people who like your product into a large group of people who love your product.
-Me, paraphrasing someone whose name I can’t remember

This approach gives them passionate users who will be more tolerant of early faults, as well as a more narrow set of use cases that can reduce complexity.

The Medical Path

The big vs. small dichotomy holds well in the medical space as well, with startups like Qmedic focusing on trying to keep people out of the ER and big firms like Philips opening up a Connected Sensing Venture (what precisely they’re doing isn’t public, but the name isn’t too subtle).

In the medical world the name of the game in medical is Remote Patient Monitoring. This is, as it sounds, the keeping track of patients outside of a clinical setting. The potential value for this immense. A trial of over 6,000 patients in the UK found that a “telehealth” intervention (comprised of several functional, if clunky, devices ) resulted in:

  • 45% reduction in mortality rates
  • 20% reduction in emergency admissions
  • 15% reduction in A&E visits
  • 14% reduction in elective admissions
  • 14% reduction in bed days
  • 8% reduction in tariff costs

What’s interesting about the medical space is that, to capitalize on the insights garnered from the data captured, a more significant infrastructure will be needed. To quote Onny Chatterjee:

remote monitoring = 24/7 triage. The tough part re: the economics is that now, (more of) the value isn’t in knowing what to do, but in making people well. The treat-side of the loop needs to align with the monitoring for it to be worth anything. Also, depending on the landscape of the treat-side, that value can be wildly different.

In summary

Yes wearables are overhyped, but they do warrant some hype. As engineers & designers learn from the mistakes of previous generations (e.g. rashy fitbits) they will join new firms, start new firms, and develop new and better wearables and start providing people with real, tangible, value.

Who knows. Maybe I might even buy one.

Originally published at www.pdnotebook.com.