Wearable Tech, but should we?
This article was first published in print in the Yorkshire post newspaper.
If you went to see Cats you’ll know there’s a difference between whether it’s possible to use technology, for example, to CGI fur all over a human body, and whether a lower tech solution might be more effective and a thousand times cheaper.
Already this year there’s been a surge of press releases regarding Wearable Tech, which is a funny sector at the best of times. I recall going to various conferences and exhibitions and the one thing they all had in common was the eccentricity of the people involved. It’s true. The various technology sectors have a commonality of people, and the wearable tech folk were right on the edge of it. I suppose it’s because of the vectoring of art, fashion, and technology. Many of the ideas and products were definitely closer to surreal art than viable startups. Imaginations ran wild and free.
Just because we can do something it doesn’t mean we should, and in wearable tech, most times we shouldn’t. Blood pressure monitors, there’s a decent bit of wearable tech. Jeans with a built in keyboard and mouse on the crotch? Enough to give grandma a heart attack.
Wearable tech is incredibly hit and miss in terms of consumer uptake. Included in the success stories is the now famous Fitbit, but that’s a health tech product really, it just so happens that it’s wearable. What many startups try to do is add innovative tech to existing items, clothing being a notable way to almost certainly fail, and hey presto, wearable tech that no one wants. It’s a really hard space to succeed in because there’s a critical coolness factor which is vital to get right, and deadly to get wrong.
Remember Google Glass, the facewear that took photos, videos, had augmented reality capability and internet connectivity? Designed and manufactured by one of the world’s leading technology companies you would have thought they’d get it right. But they failed, ultimately because they weren’t cool. They didn’t look cool, and it wasn’t cool to walk around wearing a £1500 device on your face that might or might not be videoing everyone.
Remember the Snapchat Spectacles? A fraction of the price but ever seen anyone wearing them? Tech is temporal, fashion is fickle, together it’s not going to last.
Watches on the other hand are the original wearable tech. A digital watch, wow, add a calculator, amazing, add messaging and phone, ok, it’s all just adding more functionality to an existing product. Make the watch look cool, and it’ll sell. So what determines if a wearable tech item will become a multi billion pound industry or meme of ill design? Why did the digital watch evolve and the digital spectacles die? I think it’s simple. Watches were already cool and spectacles are essentially a medical device. They correct eyesight. Making them into a fashionable technology face wear is a couple of bridges too far. The commercially viable extension of that function isn’t to add internet connectivity and a video camera, it’s to have functions relating to improving eyesight. It’s so easy to add global connectivity to everything, but really, does it always require it? Usually not.
How about a tie with a QR code designed into the pattern, linking to your online profile? This bad thing also tried to happen. For some reason, possibly because VCs are too clever to fall for wearable foolishness more than two or three times, wearable tech often tries to crowdfund its way into the World. Having said all that, one item that I believe will become more mainstream is the payment ring.
A few years ago I met with the CEO of the company that made them. The rings act in the same way as a payment card, a wearable fintech. You tap the card reader with your knuckles and it takes the payment from the ring on your finger. It looks cool. If banks offered them, along with a card, I think there would be a widespread take up. I’m not sure why they haven’t. Would you wear an attractive, simple ceramic ring, to be used as a payment method in shops and on transport? Is that easier than getting a card out of your wallet? I think so and I think I would. But is it cooler than cat ear speakers on headphones bands? I just don’t know. Happy 2020 vision.