Where Have All the Wearables Gone?

Where Have All the Wearables Gone?
Abel Acuna |   | 

Life After Google Glass and the Rise of Snap

Not that long ago, everyone was wild for wearables. Google Glass, Apple Watch, FitBit and other fitness gadgets made wearables look like a safe bet for the headline tech story of 2016… Except that it wasn’t. Google is repurposing Glass for ‘business users’, but the excitement and innovation seem to have disappeared. What happened?

Let’s start with ‘Glasshole’. It was an insult that took Google by surprise in response to Google Glass. They simply didn’t expect the backlash against the early adopters. There were two problems really. First of all the glasses were, well, kind of ugly. Next, the people who donned them were generally considered pompous and affected. It was so much a problem that the Guardian even wrote an article on exactly how one could avoid being a ‘glasshole.’ In short it wasn’t a good look literally or figuratively.

Beyond the ascetics and reputation, there was another problem. People weren’t really sure what the benefits of a small low-res screen in the corner of their eye all of the time might actually be. Sure some early adopters were certain that wearable computers were a necessary step to the future, but most folks just said, “Meh.”

Where is Google Glass today?

While Google is no longer promoting Glass as a consumer product, they have quietly supported the Glass at Work program. Working with partners in industries such as healthcare, manufacturing, and energy to target business uses of the device.

Of course, Google isn’t the only company to offer consumer wearable products. If you want to attach something to your neck, wrist, chest, baby or cat, there’s a wearable for you.

The Internet of Things Meets Fitness

Although the Apple Watch didn’t make as big as a splash as one might have expected, fitness wearables did seem to catch on. There was a moment when it seemed like everyone and their brother was tracking their heartrate, daily step count, miles pedaled and whatnot on a FitBit, Jawbone or Garmin. But recent statistics show that engagement with fitness wearables is starting to slow. The underlying reason seems to be that people are unlikely to depend on a device out of habit unless it can provide unique value. These types of wearables can’t do much that your phone can’t and you’ve got your phone with you anyway, so …

What’s the Killer App for Wearables?

In order to get people excited about, and dependent upon, wearable devices two things seem to be curtail. A strong use case and an unobtrusive profile. One company that may have found the right balance is Snap.

Snapchat’s first consumer electronic device has taken the market a bit by surprise. The company recently announced that it will sell Spectacles, a set of connected sunglasses that record 10-second snippets of video. The wearables which sell for $129 can only be purchased from a “Snapbot,” a single purpose vending machine that doesn’t seem to stay in one place for very long. The Snap app will tell you if one is nearby. In a reflection of its changing focus, the company also rebranded itself as Snap, Inc and is now calling itself a “camera company.”

Spectacles have only one button that you press to begin recording your snap, according to the Wall Street Journal. The cameras feature a 115-degree lens, which according to the company approximates a person’s field of vision.

According to Sean O’Kane, writing for the Verge, “At a really high level, Spectacles are all about giving Snapchat users a more immediate way to record videos (but not photos) that get sent right back into the app. They are supposed to remove the last few layers of friction from the already pretty frictionless process of recording video with your smartphone. Spectacles also let you capture the world around you without removing you from that world. And Snap thinks Spectacles will let you capture things from a unique perspective.” When it comes to the mix of form and function, O’Kane seems to think that Snap gets it mostly right, “The most initially remarkable thing about Spectacles is how much Snap got right in making them. At the most basic level, Spectacles are very good sunglasses,” he said. “If smartphones have decimated traditional digital camera usage because of how close they hew to the adage of ‘the best camera is the one you have on you,’ then Spectacles has a chance to let you literally embody that sentiment.”

Snap’s clever Snapbot distribution system is part of its commitment to roll the product out in slow numbers. For now, they are calling it a “toy,” but keep in mind that Snapchat itself was initially seen as a novelty. It’s hard to make that argument now with 150 million users a day and a valuation in the tens of billions.

The Future of Wearables

Spectacles may or may not catch on, but the wearable concept will continue to evolve. As Moore’s Law tells us, as components get smaller, products get more efficient and more powerful. Compared to what we’ll see in the future, wearing an Apple watch is like wearing a boombox on your wrist. With advances in conductive fabrics and sensor-clad smart garments, fashion and technology will emerge to the point where a distinction will be unnecessary.

As Jen Qunilan reported in Wired, alternative forms of energy to power wearables are on the rise.  “In December 2014 Tommy Hilfiger launched clothing with solar cells to charge devices. We’ve seen kinetic energy-powered gadgets from Chicago-based AMPY to Darla Hollander of Everywhere Energy,” she wrote. “A personal favorite is the Peltier Ring by Sean Hodgins that leverages body heat to power small LED lights on a ring. While energy advancements require more polish to achieve commercial viability, they’ll be on your wrist sooner than you think.”

While it is too early to accurately predict exactly which features will prevail or what form the technology will take, the possibilities are quite limitless. Wearables have the capacity impact how we get health care, stay entertained, shop, and work. Despite some early misses, wearables are likely to become a way of life sooner rather than later.