As 2016 came to a close, one tech trend was extremely clear: wearables aren’t catching on. In particular, smart watches are seeing a definite death-spiral. In October, Microsoft killed its Band, Motorola put a hold on any new 360 watches, Pebble got bought up by FitBit (but their watches are dead) and even Apple Watch is seeing unimpressive numbers (though they did see a boost in December, likely due to the hole in the market left by Pebble).
But then there’s Snap’s “Spectacles” – which saw a huge success at launch. So maybe wearables aren’t dead after all? Of course there’s always the chance they’ll die off just as quickly, now that all the early adopters have gotten theirs (or at least once they do get them – they’re sold out).
So then what’s the deal with wearables? Are they dead or not?
As far as I’m concerned, they are. At least in the way they have been recently defined (again, particularly when it comes to smart watches). Let me explain.
People aren’t looking for new gadgets to slap onto their bodies. At least not most people. What people are looking for are solutions that tie into their every day life. Solutions that are integrated. And that’s what Snap’s Spectacles do. They aren’t adding anything new to a person’s wardrobe. Instead they’re a new version of sunglasses, which people already wear, that have additional functionality. In particular, that functionality allows people to much more easily do the things they want to do – namely share things they see.
This is where smart watches fail. Since the advent of the mobile phone, we’ve become less accustomed to wearing a watch. It simply didn’t serve a purpose any more since our new phones we carried around did what our watches did for us. So that part of the wearables market was already facing an uphill climb. They needed to get people to want to wear watches again (and want to so badly that they would charge them regularly).
One of the reasons watches as they traditionally existed did as well as they did was because they became part of life, and didn’t need anything special to take care of them. For the most part, other than a new battery every few years or a quick winding, they just worked. They were not anything extra to do in life. In fact, I’d argue that if traditional watches required the amount of work smart watches do, the watch as we know it never would have caught on. Perhaps if somehow smart watches could have replaced our phones rather than added to them (think Dick Tracy) they might have done better as replacements for bulky phones, but for now? There’s a reason they aren’t flying off the shelves.
The same issue applies to why Google Glass never caught on. It again was something extra for people to have to wear. It was designed for anyone – not just people who wear glasses. So now you had a product that was something additional for people to both take care of and slap on their bodies (even worse – on their FACE). And frankly they didn’t look all that cool.
This is why Spectacles are working where Google Glass didn’t – even with a more limited amount of functionality. People wear sunglasses. Anyone who wears contacts or doesn’t need corrective lenses wears them. The usual requirements for sunglasses are for them to block some of the sun and to look fashionable – both of which Spectacles do. So most importantly, Spectacles are a replacement for something people are already using that’s as good or better than their current solution. Where they succeed then as a “wearable” is in their integration of technology into an already used platform. Not only do they work as sunglasses (and look cool) but they also allow people to integrate their digital lives (i.e. sharing moments) into their physical lives.
As the whole Internet of Things phenomenon continues, this concept of integration vs. simple “wearable” (or just plain extra stuff) is where I see the future successes in technology. Prescription glasses with cameras built in? That’ll work. A smartwatch variant that can project out a screen and interface that completely replaces your phone? That could work (in theory). Fitness bands? They’re dead. So are AR solutions that require the user to always wear an additional unit (like Hololens). Get them integrated into contact lenses or something you’re already wearing? That’ll work.
Of course this isn’t to say traditional wearables have no market. They do – but they’re going to remain niche. Specific wearables for specific use cases will be just fine (surgeons with AR, runners with FitBit-type-things) but the mass-market adoption won’t be in new gadgets.
No, the mass market adoption for wearables will be restricted to those solutions that integrate into our already existing lives. They’ll do amazing things to make our lives even easier – and best of all, you won’t even know they’re there.
The other day on Twitter I said the following:
Looking forward to a future where we see photos and are like “can you believe we used to carry those phones around everywhere?”
— Bill Aicher (@BillAicher) January 2, 2017
The same thing applies to all the other crap we’re adding on to our wardrobes.
Here’s to hoping that future’s just around the corner.