Monday, 18 February 2013

Wearables can learn from history

Wearables are seen as the new digital battleground. The big boys are spending serious money to get involved, Google's Project Glass, debatable rumors of a 100 strong Apple iWatch team, snaps have surfaced of a Samsung watch, Nike Fuelband is already established and in the wings there is a host of kickstarter projects.

Lets look back at the original wearable, the watch. Prior to the mobile phone it was likely to be the only item of technology - be it mechanical or digital - that the average person would carry with them. Interestingly the wrist watch first became popular during the first world war where it was far easier to look at your wrist than find your pocket watch. It has succeeded as our primary wearable for four key reasons.

Utility:  a watch provided a function that was an important for members of the industrialised world.  We needed to know the time, to make sure we got to work on time, caught our train, met our friends, knew how long till closing time etc. When you were out and about, if you were without a watch you were out of the system. You had to rely on finding public clocks or to ask others for the time. A watch was a vital part of your work equipment.

Status and fashion: watches were/are available in many styles and at many prices. The choice of watch could be an expression of status, a reflection of your fashion tastes, or an indication of your type of job. The specialist watches have moved mainstream. Few who wear an aviator or divers time piece actually fly planes or dive deeper than the municipal pool, but the additional functionality or performance capabilities appeal as symbols of adventure, strength performance etc.

Affordability: we think of the digital watch as being the dawn of cheap watches. Of course there were mechanical watches which were cheap, but in the days of mechanical movements the more you paid the more accurate the time keeping. Digital allowed a £1.99 watch to keep time as well as a £5000 one. Digital allowed functions which were once the domain of expensive watches to be affordable, and for new functions to be integrated. People can afford to loose digital watches. While they are securely strapped to our wrists only some are cherished as symbolic objects; my father's watch, the first watch I bought; weeding gift etc.

Ease of use: In most cases you can hand a watch to someone and they will be able to "use it". It seems an odd term to apply to such a  mundaine item of technology, but most watches are well designed for telling the time. There is a fashion for hard to decifer watches or some fashion designs are poor in terms of usability. But on the whole telling the time forma  watch is easy. Where they have additional functions there may be problems, setting the date, finding out the atmospheric pressure, resetting the stop watch etc may be harder. But the core function is easy.

I would argue that for a wearable to succeed it will need to match the same criteria, but with one additional element, interoperability. A wearable must work with an existing operating system and may need to tie in with some cloud solution for data storage. This is an important new consideration and is why Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazone and even Facebook are monitoring and may enter this field. Smaller players know they cannot succeed with an issolated solution and will wed themselves to one or more OS.

Up untill a couple of years ago wearables were primarily research or millitary projects. In both cases utility was the primary goal. Secondary was ease of use whereas affordability and status & fashion were rarely considered. As they look for a mass consumer market these also ran criteria come to centre stage.

So far most devices are aimed at the sport fitness and well being. Activity trackers, sleep monitors etc. Sport and fitness is a big bussiness and an area where dedicated individuals are willing to spend on high tech clothing and equipment. The spread of obesity is also a prime market, where such devices can assist to motivate and engage indivudals in a healthier lifestyle. So it is a good first segment. But if we leave this area aside, there are many questions that need answered.

  • What problems will wearables solve? 
  • What data do we need collected via sensors and either stored or relayed back to us in real time? 
  • Does a wearable need to exist in isolation or as part of another mobile device eccosystem?
  • Will the wearable establish new needs?

Google appear to be going down the constant virtual assistant route. Where the device acts as an extension to your brain, pulling in information that it thinks will be useful to you and presenting it as an augmented layer over your view of the world. I am sure users will be able to highly tailor the types of assistance offered and some will be on demand other automatic.  While it is always hard to second guess Apple,a n iWatch would be a convenient method of accessing data streams form your iphone. The battle weary digital executive will find it easier to look at an iWatch than pull out and unlock their iPhone - back to the trenches.

Nike have shown that you can grow a market where users were previously unaware of a need. Initially through the Nike+ and now Fuelband they have generated a need which was previously only supported by at the one end pedometers and the other heart monitors. Both of the later were either seen as boring or fanatical, and not as applicable to fitness for the masses as Nike's offerings.

Status & Fashion
The Nike Fuelband, the Jawbone and the Fitbit are the first mainstream wearables which have attempted to meet all criteria - to greater or lesser sucess. They are still specialist items, designed at the keen sports/fitness user, and their price point of around £100 is heading in the right direction. They are also the first devices which try not to look techie. They have a sports aesthetic rather than a geek uglyness. Project glass is aware of the need to produce an attractive product in order to broaden the appeal.  One company, Misfit is starting with looks and fitting utility into an object designed to look good and feel more like jewellery than technology.

Early adopters will pay high prices for entry into the elete set, but the masses will require affordability. It took many years for mobile phones to become almost disposable items - the cheapest I could find today was £5.99 for a pay as you go basic phone. So we can expect the first wearables to have a higher price point and economies of scale to bring down the price. In some cases they could be subsidised by data packages. Google Project Glass will require a constant internet connection to save to the cloud and to retrieve data. Others such as Apple may use design or brand values to justify higher prices.

Ease of use
This is the big one. The wearable has to be easy to use its self and the data it collect has to be accessable and presented in a way which adds value. Nike has a track record of stylish user interfaces mapping your training performance data, and adding social and competitive elements. They are the current masters. The Fuelband itself is easy to interact with and the notion of fuel points is a master stroke. By using a single energy currency they make it easier to introduce gamification and competitive social interaction.

Who knows who will win. Forrester Research see this as the next big battle ground. Will we have a single wearable eccosystem or use a best in class approach? The big boys will attempt to produce the defining products which open up the market and open consumer's minds to the potential of wearables.  Apple may create a device which creates a totally new market. Google Glass may provide an all encompassing solution which can be bent to fit every user need. Or the market may fragment into niche products for different activities or professions.  Rather than todays tech giants having it all their own way it is just as likely that a new kid on the block will produce the killer device, and the OS providers will scramble to work with or buyout the new entrant.  Who knows, but in five years time not wearing computing devices will as old hat as, wearing a watch.

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