Wearable technology. It's an exploding product category in desperate need of a category-defining product. And now, with the Consumer Electronics Show upon us, we get to see whether some company, any company, can release an uncompromised, mainstream consumer hit in 2014.
Manufacturers have unleashed a torrent of ambitious but confounding wearables over the last two years--perhaps you've heard of Samsung's beta-like Galaxy Gear, or Google's alpha-in-everything-but-name-only Google Glass? At CES 2014 in Las Vegas next week, many more companies will attempt to realize the unfulfilled promises of smartwatches, smart eyewear, and, yes, even wrist-worn activity trackers, because apparently we can never have enough of those.
The scent of freshly forged wearables will pervade most of CES, but the highest concentration will hover over a new TechZone area called WristRevolution. Ten smartwatch manufacturers--including Burg Limited, Cookoo, Sonostar, Kronoz, Metawatch, and Neptune Pine--will stake a claim to your human body part that's most ripe for exploration.
Do any of these names sound familiar? Indeed. And that's what scares me about the incoming class of smartwatches, if not all wearables: If industry heavyweights like Samsung and Sony can't figure out mini-computers that strap to our wrists, then how can we expect success from a no-name Hong Kong brand like Cookoo, or even Kronoz with its fancy Swiss pedigree? And then there's Burg Limited. Look at the image on the left. Is this smartwatch marketing or a Saturday Night Live sketch?
At least Qualcomm--a name so big it has its own sports stadium--will also have a presence in the WristRevolution pavillion, presumably showing off its already released Toq smartwatch. And it looks like Epson, another proud consumer electronics warhorse, will demo new wrist and smartglass wearables at this year's CES. "Epson was one of the first companies to launch smart glasses back in 2012," says Anna Jen, Epson's director or New Ventures/New Products. "Based on input from our development community, we'll be launching our next-generation Moverio smart glasses in 2014."
The hope behind the hype
I'm overcome with a mixture of excitement and dread over what awaits my wearable-curious anatomy in Las Vegas.
Wearable tech clearly has legs, and is projected to grow into a $19 billion market in the next four years, with consumer spending ballooning by more than 1200 percent by 2018. And my general feelings for wearables are warm and supportive. I'm jazzed by the prospect of strapping sensors and microchips to my temples and wrists. It's just so irresistibly gadgety.
Still, aside from a small collection of fitness products, currently available wearable offerings are difficult to use and aesthetically challenged. They confuse users (I'm looking at you, smartwatches). They elicit contemptful stares (I'm looking at you, Google Glass). Bluntly speaking: They're not very good.
The situation evokes memories of 2011 when traditional laptop manufacturers reacted to the stunning success of the iPad with a throng of flawed Android tablets. But this time around there's not even an iPad to validate the concept. At least one industry analyst, however, is optimistic.
"The wearables market is experiencing a hype bubble right now, but so did the Internet in 1999, and that didn't make the Internet any less important," says J.P Gownder, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. "Still, wearables vendors need to make sure that they are solving unique problems for users. A smartwatch that simply replicates the same activities you can do by pulling your smartphone out of your pocket won't find a huge market."
Activity trackers step to the front of the line
Activity trackers form the one wearables category that's somewhat mature, and not defined from top to bottom by flawed design. Certainly, a number of bottom-feeding fitness-tech companies will make a showing at CES 2014, if only because it's so easy to pack a simple wristband with an accelerometer, pair it with some off-the-shelf algorithms, and then go to market.
But a number of proven fit-tech players will also be at the show, and I'm excited to see how they'll evolve their gear. Basis, the company that trumpets the greatest array of body sensors in any wrist-worn activity tracker, promises interesting tricks up its sleeve, but is currently keeping mum on whether it will be showing off new hardware or extensions to its software platform.
Basis CEO Jef Holove did, however, tell me that he "anticipates a shift" in how manufacturers approach fitness-tracking hardware. "When Apple released the iPhone 5 with the M7 processor, it became even more clear that many of basic functionalities of trackers would be assumed by users' smartphones, creating a challenge for health trackers to do something more," Holove says. "For Basis, we've been taking this approach from the start with our multiple sensors getting at real bio signals. And we expect others will begin to look for ways to do more than apps can do on their own."
Then there's Fitbit, which has a large line of activity trackers, and will be at the show for the third year in a row. I don't expect any new wearables from this company, as it just released the Fitbit Force in October. But perhaps we'll see overall platform updates, or some kind of announcement that keeps one of the biggest names in activity tracking in the CES news mix.
Fitbug, famous for attaching an affordable $50 price tag to its activity trackers, says it will release a new iteration of its Fitbug Orb product. We'll also see a $100 activity tracker (and a smartwatch!) from Archos, a company with a rich if quiet history in tablets. And if this week's tweet from @evleaks is to be interpreted as a harbinger of CES riches, then we might also see a wristband presumptively known as the Lifeband Touch, a rumored activity tracker from LG.
But the activity tracker I'm most interested in seeing isn't even designed for humans. Yes, sensor-driven, quantified-self hardware has finally jumped the shark. Or rather... the dog.
A start-up called i4C Innovations will be unveiling VOYCE, a new wearable "vital signs and wellness monitoring tracker" for our canine friends. Created by a team of bio-medical engineers, veterinarians and dog behaviorists, the sensor-packed neck collar is designed to provide new insights into a dog's health and behavior. And if all goes according to plan, I'll be demoing the tracker at a Las Vegas dog park, chaperoned by a happy, wet-nosed Golden Retriever.
Smartglasses: Wear at your own risk
It's easy to focus on fitness trackers and smartwatches, as they're relatively comprehensible to consumers (enthusiasts, at least), and will represent the lion's share of wearables at CES. But while smart glasses spur significant "Why would I ever want this?" consumer confusion, and present a discouraging range of physical and social discomforts, I still expect to see some representation besides the Epson announcement I mention above.
Vuzix showed off its M100 smartglasses at last year's CES, and the company will be back again to show off its augmented-reality specs, which float a small head-up display in your line of vision. The M100s went retail in December for $1000. GlassUp will also be back in Las Vegas this year, showing off its eponymous specs that project simple strings of text (tweets, email, etc) directly in your sight line. If nothing else, the GlassUp take on augmented reality is stylish, and might relieve users of the public shaming provoked by Google Glass.
And of course I'll be on the ground at CES, covering the wearables scene, and sharing images of the show from Glass via my @jonphillipssf Twitter feed and Google+ account. Google's eyewear gives me neck cramps and eyestrain if I glance at its screen for long, extended periods, but at least in a sea of tech-obsessed humanity, I stand a good chance of avoiding public ridicule wearing Glass.
CES 2014 will be nothing if not wearables-friendly.