Opinion: What not to Wear

Aesthetics are high on the agenda for the Wearables market but, post-CES, the category still lacks mass appeal, says Raakhi Chotai. However, smaller players launching more niche products have the potential to crack the killer user case

In the run up to last year’s CES, hopes were high for wearables. The big players in consumer electronics rushed to add their offerings to the roster, with great fanfare. The LG Lifeband touch, Garmin’s Vivofit and Sony’s Smartband all made their spectacular debuts at last year’s trade show.

A year on, little has changed. With less fanfare, Las Vegas once again played host to rows upon rows of booths dedicated to demos of the latest fitness-tracking-health-monitoring-message-notifier combos. But that elusive ‘must-have’ functionality is yet to materialise. A watch that tells you to look at your phone, or a headset that vibrates when your bus is due decidedly lack the mass appeal necessary to launch wearable tech as a credible (if somewhat confused) consumer category.

Admittedly, this year’s big releases have shown signs of improvement. For those companies attempting to ply the masses with their accessories, aesthetics were high up on the agenda — you’d be forgiven for thinking that last year’s offerings were designed for C3PO’s couture wardrobe. The gorgeously normal-looking Withings Activité and Intel’s collaboration with Opening Ceremony are a step in the right direction, but there’s still a way to go; even the all-powerful Diane von Fürstenberg couldn’t make Google Glass something anyone outside of Silicon Valley wanted to actually wear.

I’d wager that the future of the category doesn’t lie in catch-all functionality, but in in targeted solutions to human problems. By jumping on the bandwagon and launching souped-up accessories, the big players are trading mass appeal for true progress and innovation. Smaller outfits, however, are releasing purpose-built products that just so happen to be wearable and are looking more likely to be the ones who identify that killer use case. Granted, they have a smaller audience, but better a real focus than a customisable strap.

Take, for example, X2 Biosystem’s xPatch, a small device that can be taped under the ears of sportsmen, designed to help give accurate assessment of the effects of a blow to the head. The patch received flak from sports fans for being ‘gimmicky’, but to my mind, this is exactly where wearables can and should be used. The xPatch serves a specific purpose, providing invaluable information to medical professionals.

Another example is UC San Diego’s temporary tattoo, which offers a needle-free way for diabetes patients to monitor their glucose levels. The discreet, flexible patch uses a mild electrical current to measure glucose levels in the fluid in between skin cells. At present, the tech doesn’t have a numerical readout, but one is being developed. Once that happens, the patch has the potential to change the lives of millions of people with the disease.

Last year, Gartner’s annual Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies predicted that most wearable technologies are 5–10 years from the mainstream ‘plateau of productivity’. It sounds like a way off, but it does seem like there’s light at the end of the ‘trough of disillusionment’. Now that the hype has died down, it feels like wearable technology might finally start living up to its potential.

(This article was originally published on contagious.com, 11/5/15).