Wearables: from identity crisis… to revival in 2017?

Carlos Corredor

28 April 2017

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2016 was not the best year for wearables. After a period of growth in 2014 and 2015 best marked by the novelty imposing on functionality, the competition with smartphones and the absence of clear functions have worked to slow down wearable device sales. But in 2017, the increased capabilities of augmented reality, smart clothing, and monitoring can bring revival to the category.

When we talk about wearables, the first thing that comes to mind are two types of gadgets: smartwatches and fitness trackers. But the concept of wearable covers much more than that: any device -more or less occasionally- in contact with the body, that obtains biometric data and provides any information bidirectionally, can qualify as a wearable.

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What does a wearable offer that a smartphone doesn’t?

Experts consider 2016 a year marked by a crisis of confidence in the wearables market. Some news reports confirm a certain state of stagnation: in January, Fitbit laid off 6% of its workforce after a weak fourth quarter; Jawbone was going through serious financial difficulties; Apple does not provide official figures, but some sources estimate a 90% drop in sales of its emblematic Apple Watch in the United States between April and the third quarter of 2016, although the good news point to a possible trend change in the sales of Apple Watch 2 (with new interface and GPS) during the last quarter of 2016.

although good news points to a possible change in the trend in Apple’s sales. Apple Watch 2 (with new interface and GPS) in the last quarter of 2016.

At the end of the day, wearables must find their niche in the tough competition with the smartphone, a fully consolidated device that lets us do new things every day through constant technical improvements and new applications.

Beyond fashion or the desire to show off the latest gadget, functionality is the great challenge which conditions (for now) the adoption among consumers. Smartwatches and fitness trackers are primarily associated with notifications and health indicators. But because these functions are not decisive, the curve of mass adoption of wearables is slow.

To move beyond this identity crisis, people are making guesses about the new functions in wearables. They range from becoming support for B2B services like how Jawbone is gravitating towards healthcare (devices associated with platforms aimed at clinics and doctors) to opening up new possibilities for more research and development, like bracelets that detect emotions that arise during a conversation. For now, retail, which boasts a great weight in the economy that would make its participation decisive, is still sitting on the fence.

What’s to come in 2017

The Wearable Tech Show, held in London in early March showed the main developments and industry trends for 2017. Beyond some devices of debatable utility (do we really need a smart ring that measures the amount of vitamin D we absorb?) and others designed for very specific uses (such as walking shoes that help the elderly and people with Parkinson’s Disease), three lines for advancement in 2017 seemed to appear at the event:

1. Augmented Reality glasses

Google paved the way for glasses that add layers of augmented reality to what our eyes see with their -failed- Glasses. Microsoft’s Hololens have received much better reception (especially for corporate purposes) and can project holograms for all types of uses, from treating arachnophobia to improving a city’s network of public services.

In the industrial sector, different manufacturers offer devices that improve worker safety and operational efficiency; a good example of this is Optivent’s ORA-2. In other areas of society, models have evolved from Google’s initial concept; devices such as Moverio BT-350 from Epson incorporate augmented reality to enhance the immersive experience in museums and art galleries.

At its F8 conference, Facebook has just introduced its own proposal in line with these trends: a platform (emulating the proven success of this formula) for third parties developing augmented reality applications and effects. While the platform is mobile for now, Zuckerberg seems to keep in mind that everyone look at the world through some type of screen…and why not glasses that communicate directly with the brain?

2. Connected Clothing

It’s inevitable that technology and textiles will come together. Some predict that 2017 will be the year e-clothes are poised for takeoff. Sensors and chips will be invisibly inserted in our clothing -or into accessories– to eliminate the need for a screen in the human-machine interface, although smart garments still need to be connected to a smartphone.

Sportswear (especially shoes) led the way, and more and more everyday garments incorporate sensors that collect information from our bodies. A few weeks ago, Google and Levi’s presented the first connected jacket as part of Google’s Project Jacquard, which includes connectors and miniaturized chips in textile fibers, to convert parts of the garment into interactive surfaces.

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Source: Project Jacquard

And for what purpose? Google and Levi’s “smart jacket” recognizes gestures and data and transmits that information to a smartphone and other devices to connect to applications and services.The possibilities of interacting with an ecosystem of services and devices are enormous. For athletes, wearables measure and improve their performance. For people suffering from an illness, these sensors can monitor their status or evolution of their treatments. Will we someday end up paying to access the information issued by our own body?

3. Monitoring through IoT

Health was one of the major themes at the Wearable Show. While monitoring bracelets are already widespread, the trend is moving towards devices with increasingly sophisticated functions: Activinsights presented a bracelet that helps fight diabetes, obesity, anxiety, or sleep problems. Cardiomo is a small device that monitors cardiac activity 24/7, and send alerts when it detects anomalies. There are even devices that monitor sleep to improve its quality.

Wearables and the Internet of Things are associated as inseparable concepts. We can add a third element to complete the circle of “personal security”: blockchain, the ideal technology for validating data and operations traffic. Data-collecting sensors will go into all kinds of devices within the connected home. The voice will be our way of interacting with virtual assistants, eliminating the need for direct contact with the human body. Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon know it. And they don’t tend to get it wrong.