Wearables: not the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning

Another day, another wearables company is leaving the market. The announcement that Fitbit will acquire smartwatch pioneer Pebble follows this year’s trend of shutdowns and consolidation in the wearables space. The market, much like the aging devices I still wear on my arms, has lost its shine. While it might be sunset for the golden days of Wearables 1.0, it is far from the end of wearables. We are merely at the end of the beginning, not at the beginning of the end.

When I joined Misfit Wearables as their data scientist in 2012, the already buzzing wearables field was just about to cross over into the mainstream. Fitbit had launched their second and third products, Jawbone’s UP had just been re-released, Nike’s Fuelband was bringing wearables further into the mainstream, and Pebble had raised over $10 million on Kickstarter for production of its first smartwatch, breaking records and drumming up demand for smartwatches. At Misfit, we had announced our first product, the Misfit Shine, and our own Indiegogo campaign was picking up steam.

Piggybacking on the advances of mobile technology, the stage was set for an explosion of connected wearables, smarthome, and Internet of Things devices. In late 2011, Apple’s iPhone 4S shipped with Bluetooth 4.0 (BLE), leading to its adoption as the de facto standard for wireless communication between devices and phones. This, plus the increasing availability of smaller, cheaper electronics allowed device makers to develop affordable devices that would work both with Android and iOS. Enter the gadget-filled age of Wearables 1.0.

Wearable technology itself is not new, but the ability to seamlessly connect devices to apps and cloud-based services has dramatically improved its utility and its popularity. Current wearables automatically offer a level of accountability that had previously required real commitment to obtain. This kind of access to data about one’s activities and habits can be a useful tool. Just as bathroom scales can provide feedback to help manage weight, wearables allow for a similar kind of insight about an individual’s patterns of activity and sleep.

In the past few years, devices and apps have experimented with ways to remind and encourage their users to be more active. Though some have found the gamification and social features compelling, wearables have been largely B.Y.O.Q.: Bring Your Own Question. If you have a question about yourself or your activity that data could help you solve, these devices can provide this data. But without a question or specific goal, wearables alone won’t make you fit or even provide much beyond a verbatim account of your activities.

As people realized that the devices they were wearing didn’t come with a built-in purpose, let alone a killer app, many abandoned them, unfulfilled. In 2014, Endeavor Partners shared their study that 30% of consumers had stopped wearing their device within 6 months. This was largely viewed as a critique of wearables, and a failure of companies to engage their users. My view was more optimistic: 70% were still wearing their devices after 6 months! Even without a clear value proposition, people continued to charge their wearables, put them on their wrists, and collect data. However, the fundamental question remains unanswered: what would make wearables universally useful?

To answer this question, I often compare wearables to mills for grinding wheat into flour. Though some consumers have ideas of things they’d like to bake, most don’t want flour, they want cookies. The same is true for data: most people don’t want the data itself, they want cookies: the useful products and services that are built with this data. The problem is that for wearables data, we still don’t know what a cookie looks like. This is not the fault of wearables companies, but rather a reflection of where we are as a field.

Wearables 2.0 will be about the products and services built on top of wearables data. Of these, the most important will be the ones that bring this data into the healthcare system. Right now, evidence-based medicine is missing a critical dimension. Connecting longitudinal data about individuals and populations to clinically relevant outcomes will fill this gap. Wearables are already being used in hundreds of clinical studies, and will ultimately play a fundamental role in the future of healthcare and medicine. It will still take some time to get there.

My Pebble watch has been one of my favorite wearables, and I’ll be sad to take it off of my wrist when it reaches the end of its line. Since September, I’ve also received notices about the shutdown of the Basis B1 watch, the Narrative Clip wearable camera, and the AngelSensor open source smartband. These wearables will all join the growing collection of my device graveyard, leaving behind orphaned apps and drawers full of chargers.

Though these clunky plastic step-counting wristbands may be on their way out, the data they created and the lessons they taught us will play an important role in shaping the next wave of devices. It may take awhile to get here, but Wearables 2.0 is on its way.

Originally published at rachelkalmar.com on December 5, 2016