People often make huge judgements on tech solely from the headline. The growing claim that “wearables are dead” I’ve found in stories in the media and my conversations with other tech people just feels incredibly shortsighted. Wearables aren’t dead or dying. Here’s why.

Motiv ring, Misfit Vapor smartwatch and Apple's AirPods

The Motiv ring, Misfit Vapor smartwatch and Apple’s AirPods

Firstly, what is wearable tech?

Looking up various definitions online, there are a lot of vague ones. Wikipedia actually had the clearest I could find:

“Smart electronic devices that can be worn on the body as implants or accessories” — Wikipedia

The following would all classify as wearable technology:

  • Smartwatches (these are often the main wearable that is declared “dead”)
  • Fitness trackers
  • Smart headphones (AirPods, Hear One, Vinci, Vi)
  • Connected clothing (Project Jacquard)
  • Invisibles (tech tattoos)
  • Wearable payments
  • Pet trackers (not all wearables need to be for humans!)
  • Brain sensing headbands (Thync, Muse)
  • Connected rings (Motiv, Ringly)
  • Connected glasses (Google Glass, Spectacles)
  • Plenty more!

There’s a lot around in wearable tech and it isn’t showing signs of dying down any time soon.

2016 wasn’t easy

Wearables had a few rough patches in 2016, which often led to declarations that wearables were now deceased. The biggest of these was the news that Pebble had closed its doors and sold some of its assets to Fitbit. That was a blow to many Pebble fans, myself included. However, it wasn’t a sign that wearables were dying. Nor a sign that smartwatches were collapsing. It was just one company that didn’t quite do as well as hoped. Competition came in and made life more difficult. What competition you ask? Other wearables. The Apple Watch was released and took a big chunk of the market. Fitbit and other fitness trackers were quite successful, and Pebble didn’t quite have fitness tracking on their radar until late in the game. Smartwatches aren’t dying, they’re just in a whole wearables industry full of many participants all trying to work out what works best.

Jawbone had been having some difficulties too which also led to the pronouncement of our wearable industry’s death, but at least one part of its difficulties was resolved with Fitbit dropping their patent challenge late last year. That’s another company struggling against another competitor in wearables, not against the survival of their whole industry. Fitness trackers did pretty well in Christmas 2016, with Fitbit’s iOS app hitting number one in the App Store over the holiday season.

“In contrast to smartwatches, fitness bands have a very clear purpose in consumers’ eyes. We expect growth on multiple fronts, be that people receiving a device as a gift, buying a fitness tracker for the first time or existing owners upgrading as designs improve and new functionality is added” — George Jijiashvili, CCS Insight

Pebble wasn’t the only news to mark the death of smartwatches. Last year, LG, Huawei and Lenovo all said that they weren’t releasing new smartwatches in 2016. That was it. Clearly, smartwatches are a collapsing market. Not only that but Android Wear 2.0 was delayed. In a lot of media and discussion, people just mash the two together — smartwatches are wearables. Wearables are dead.

Well, both aren’t dead. CES 2017 just finished up for this year and it’s a very different story:

“CES 2017 is in full swing over in Las Vegas and wearable tech – in particular new smartwatches – has definitely been one of the main themes of the show.” — Paul Lamkin, Forbes

If wearables were indeed dead, maybe now they’re the undead. I don’t think I’ll ever look at my Pebble watch the same way again.

Wearables’ potential is still to come

Wearables haven’t become a mainstream thing as quickly as some companies had hoped, but that doesn’t mean they are dead. It just means it will take a bit more time before wearable technology becomes a more mainstream concept.

“There is still time for the start of what could potentially be a booming market that takes tech from our wrists and is put literally, on our backs.” — Nadja Sayej, Motherboard

Just as virtual reality has been kicking around for much longer than just the past decade, wearable technology has been slowly developing for years:

“Although wearable tech seems relatively new, this category of tech has been trying to sputter to life for at least a few decades. The digital watch — which is passé today — first emerged in 1972 and could be considered the first step toward what would eventually become the Apple Watch and Android Wear devices.” — Dane O’Leary, Android Authority

As technology progressively gets smaller and smaller, it’ll be more and more convenient to have technology on us at all times. We are still in the experimentation phase trying to work out what makes the most sense while getting it into a more compact form factor.

Smartwatches haven’t failed, they just weren’t the next big thing that absolutely everyone needed to own — that’s okay. Not everyone is interested in wearing a watch. One of the things I highly admired about Eric Migicovsky, the founder of Pebble (there are many things I admire about that man), was his honesty on this point:

“Some people probably don’t need a smartwatch. It’s rare for a company to acknowledge that some people don’t need our product, but I think it’s truthful.” — Eric Migicovsky

Smartwatches aren’t for everyone. Just like Beats headphones aren’t for everyone. Nor are Snapchat’s Spectacles. That doesn’t mean the technology is destined to fizzle out and die. I think smartwatches, in particular, were slightly over-hyped, with a lot of the hype not pairing up with actual consumer demand. Many were happy not to wear watches anymore now that they had smartphones, so encouraging people to return to wearing watches is a tough task.

An XKCD comic on smartwatches

Source: XKCD

That just means we need to set more realistic expectations. As Sophie said so perfectly at Wareable:

“Rightly or wrongly (wrongly), everyone seemed to want the smartwatch to replace or usurp the smartphone. That just hasn’t happened so of course, in our binary brains, they must be useless pieces of plastic and chips.” — Sophie Charara

She concludes her piece on this with:

“Smartwatches can be a thing without selling in smartphone numbers. It’s not 76 million a quarter or nothing, kids.” — Sophie Charara

Smartwatches and some wearable products can survive targeting niche areas, I don’t think it makes the industry doomed to failure. Not to mention, things aren’t looking so bad all around the world:

“Wearables including smartwatches and fitness bands could dethrone tablets as the second-most popular mobile device in China in 2017.” — Business Insider

Yep. Not quite dead then.

Wearables are going to be HUGE

I honestly believe that wearables are going to be a big thing — we just won’t likely be calling them “wearables”. They’ll be all sorts of emerging technology from the list above that will become more commonplace. We are already very used to having technology with us at all times — most of us keep our smartphones in close vicinity at all times. Wearables are just an extension of that concept, but in a way that’ll make these devices almost invisible. Rather than a smartwatch, you might wear a pair of smart glasses that serve as both your smartphone and personal assistant. Similar to Google Glass but with the social stigma and kinks worked out.

For those who don’t want to wear glasses, they might instead wear smart headphones that will provide a personal assistant ready to provide them information and directions at any time. Apple’s AirPods, Hear One smart earbuds, Vinci headphones, Vi biosensing earphones and many others are on the way (Apple’s AirPods are already available!). Will everyone wear smart headphones? Or smart glasses? Not necessarily. But there’ll be some form of wearable that’ll work for different personalities. The wearable technology ecosystem will be incredibly diverse and very personal. This year at CES, the Motiv Ring was revealed which is an activity tracker on par with Fitbit but in the form of a ring. That could sway some people who didn’t want to wear anything on their wrists to wear technology in a different way.

Two Motiv Rings

The Motiv Ring

It’s personal

Smartphones are the most personal and important items most people own in this modern age. They contain our memories, our contact to loved ones, our source of instant gratification and, to an extent, our very own superpowers. Wearables will be even more personal than that because what we wear is a large part of our identity. Smartphones can be tucked into a pocket and hidden away, but wearables will be much more visible — so variety is going to be essential. Early stage wearable tech didn’t quite manage to be the fashionable items that people would be willing to wear, but some fitness trackers and even the Snapchat Spectacles are managing to achieve that now.

Dilbert from 23rd May 2014 on wearables looking ridiculous

Dilbert, 23rd May 2014, says it all

Personal assistants

Another successful device for Christmas 2016 was the Amazon Echo. The Echo sold out over Christmas and the Alexa app came in at number 4 in the iOS App Store. The rise of Amazon Echo and other personal assistants in 2017 is likely to build up that AI ecosystem to the point where people will want Alexa (or their other assistant of choice) with them at all times — how will they get this? Wearables.

I think Pebble were onto something with their Pebble Core, sadly that product is dead.

The Pebble Core

The Pebble Core was intended to contain a portable Alexa!

Clothing

“The most exciting wearables won’t look like computers. They won’t look like anything. Look down at whatever you’re wearing now. That’s the future of wearables.” — David Pierce

Connected clothing is on its way, but I’m certain it’ll take a bit of time to find the most successful combination of clothing and tech which the public are actually interested in wearing. For it to really take off, it’ll need to be either completely invisible or super fashionable. One project that’ll move us closer to this reality is Project Jacquard from Google.

Embedded electronics in clothing

Source: Google’s Project Jacquard

Let’s keep wearables alive for a bit more.

2017 will be an interesting year — we will get to see how wearable tech evolves and changes. Maybe it’ll be the death of calling them “wearables”? Smart headphones are already being called “hearables”. Either way, emerging tech is moving towards a wearable future. VR/AR headsets will slowly become compact enough that we can wear them as glasses and carry them around. Fitness trackers will keep their niche but move into more compact or fashionable offerings. I’m certain we’ll have plenty of dud wearable products too, but I don’t think they’ll take down the entire concept of wearable tech. I do worry about the amount of tech waste they’ll add to landfill but that’s an opinion piece for another time!

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