From the earliest wrist watch to the latest fitness trackers, we’ve been refining and expanding the functionality of wearable devices.
According to market research firm eMarketer, 39.5 million U.S. adults 18 and over used wearable devices in 2015, including smartwatches and fitness trackers, an increase of 57.7 percent over 2014. Researchers say this growth will continue through 2016 and beyond, with 81.7 million adults using wearables by 2018.
Technology meets other obsessions
The rapid advance of mobile phone and electronic sensor technologies, plus the convergence of affluence and self-obsession (reflected in the ‘quantified self’ market), has spawned the new electronics market for ‘wearables’: devices that track our movements, fitness, vital signs, whereabouts and a range of other data.
Pebble launched the first commercially successful smart watch with a record-breaking Kickstarter crowd funding campaign in 2012. Nike and Apple collaborated on the early Nike+iPod fitness tracking device. While Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone made him an early adopter of wearables, sensors and computers are now embedded not just in shoes but in clothing as well. Shoes and shirts can change color – for fashion – or have more serious functions such as the work shirt, promoted by insurer AIG, that traces workers’ movements in an attempt to cut work-site accidents.
Using our heads
Technology is also increasingly using our heads: “The head is fast becoming a piece of premium human real-estate for technology companies,” claims weareable.com. Clunky strap on cranial cameras developed in the ‘80s have become sleek eyewear that not only take pictures but also provide information – or create alternative realities. The first Google Glass headsets however – devices that put a computer right in front of your eyes and sold for
$1,500 – failed in the market. As wearable.com says, “An hour with Glass was enough to make you realize two things: The first is that it is an amazing glimpse into the future of technology and the way we augment connected data and the real world.
However, the second is that you will never want to wear Google Glass again.” Google will release its second attempt in 2016.
Just as Google found with its glasses, gain for wearable technology suppliers isn’t made without pain. Fossil’s Wrist PDA, launched in 2002, lasted only three years. In February 2014, FitBit’s Force device faced a total withdrawal after thousands of buyers developed skin rashes. Jawbone (the industrial design company that brought us sleek, in-ear Bluetooth devices) launched its fitness-tracking device, Up, in late 2011 but had to withdraw it soon after due to technical problems. Nike+ took advantage of Up’s withdrawal to promote its FuelBand in early 2012. In 2013 FuelBand faced a class action suit by consumers based around the efficacy of its data, and in 2014 Nike discontinued the product.
Innovation and the bottom line
The bottom line is that what’s technologically possible isn’t always what customers want, or are willing to buy in large enough numbers to make the venture profitable.
Wearables all require electronic sensors which are becoming more and more sophisticated. Apple CEO Tim Cook told the All Things Digital Conference back in May 2013 that the problems to be solved in building wearable electronics were not trivial – but they would be good news for the sensor industry: “The whole sensor field is going to explode,” Cook said. “It’s already exploding. It’s a little all over the place right now, but with the arc of time, it will become clearer I think.”
According to Dynosense, digital health monitoring products manufacturer:
“Advances are being made in the sensor space every day at the intersection of technology and the body, and the possibilities are open ended.” It’s the intersection of those possibilities with profits that electronics companies are trying to maximize.
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