The current wave of wearable technology shows no signs of ebbing. On the contrary, the imagination and innovation of wearable applications is at an all-time high. Pick up any technology newsfeed and you can read of smart-wigs, smart-shoes, smart necklaces, and cufflinks. Point being, the conversation has moved beyond just watches and glasses and the usages beyond just health and communication. The news of these new gadgets can spark equal amounts of admiration and exasperation in our minds.
What is truly awesome is that this explosion of ideas stirs our collective imagination in a way that it hasn’t been stirred in decades. It’s something like the space age, when every child thought that landing on the moon was just the beginning and that there were still many extra-terrestrial discoveries to be made. In the same way, the wearable offerings today are just the tip of an iceberg.
Wouldn’t it be brilliant if there were smart bike helmets that could sense approaching cars, gauge their speed, and send the biker an alert? Wouldn’t it be awesome if my wedding ring automatically sent a notification every time I took it off and misplaced it somewhere? It would save me the time and trouble of turning the house over every time I can’t find it. (I hope someone from Tiffany and Co. is reading this.)
These ideas may sound outlandish but they present a value to a certain user base and in this grey area, we will find the frontrunners of the wearable 2.0 generation.
Wear the Wave
The next wave of wearables have a lot going for them, but they will only succeed if they take into account the mistakes made by wearables 1.0 and develop on them. It wasn’t until Apple’s iOS devices made computing and communication easy, usable, and intuitive that we saw a widespread adoption of smartphones and tablets. We have seen a surge of wearables hit the consumer space but it will take the same level of simplicity for the true winners to emerge. Reports by market research firms like Accenture and Neilson reveal that most users surveyed agreed that they could find some value in owning and using wearables, although there are still hurdles to clear before widespread adoption.
Let’s take, for example, a couple of the most talked about wearables currently available in the marketplace. It could be Google Glass and Pebble, but we might as well just call them hyped-up wearable #1 and hyped-up wearable #2. Why? According to analytics firm PrimeVisiblity not one of the wearables on the market made it on their list of the 10 most wanted gifts for Christmas last year.
But What to Wear?
The concept of wearables is hardly new. The oldest instance might be the abacus ring, which was invented in 1600s during the Qing dynasty. (You don’t see many of them around now.) Old as they might be, wearables still have to deliver a solid value proposition for mainstream adoption, otherwise they will also be relegated to the pile of cool but frivolous inventions like the remote headband that promises to take away the stress of finding misplaced remotes or even the back scratch grid tshirt, which turns back scratching to simple mathematics.
The availability of Google Glass propelled a surge of new profile pics on social media with several of my friends looking debonair while posing with the device. But beyond getting your picture taken with the hot new gadget and posting it for your friends to envy, what will compel you, as a user, to bring your wearable to a level of “can’t do without?” Most of the reviews of any wearable device on the market first ooh and aah about the gadget but then begrudgingly admit that there is just as much potential for the device as there is room for improvements.
The most frequent criticisms of most wearable devices have been their weight, their longevity of use, and their battery size. Other aspects have been the amount of tasks we could get done, what the users needed or wanted from these wearables, and their overall usefulness. Some devices have been found lacking in the looks department. Several of them have been called out for clunky interfaces or even the inability to do what the users ask it to.
Users are demanding ease of use and an extensive experience. Take, for example, the contrived way of interacting with the Google Glass interface. Yes, I love the coolness factor of the gadget but I am also prone to switching back to my phone and laptop after a few minutes. Android Wear’s touch and voice interface, while a step in the right direction, is still going to be a victim of the lamentable quality of it’s speech recognition software.
What to Wear it With?
Another problem with wearable devices today is the lack of continuity with other devices—they can’t always sense other smart gadgets and figure out how to work together with them. Why does every wearable work with the unbelievable conceit that it’s the only smart device in my life? Why does my phone, my watch, and my Glass all have to tell me the time and weather, the calls notification I missed, and the text messages I should read. If they are going to be truly smart they should learn when I have eyeballed and dismissed a notification from one device. CNET reported that Google spent a year learning about the embedded internet space from its NEST LAB’s acquisition. This should give the other players vying for a piece of the wearable market a hint of the dedication that is needed. If the industry spends time learning, we can expect bigger things from the next generation of wearables.
Wear … er, Where’s the UX?
UX doesn’t only imply an easy interface, it includes solving problems and providing a service that is of value to the user. So far, everything that’s been offered only appeals to the tech savvy consumer. What the iPhone offered was usability and empathy—things everyone wanted. Wearables will have to rise to the same challenge. They will have to provide valued services without being obtrusive and without causing the users extraneous learning pains.
For widespread common adoption, the new wave of wearable will have to keep users at the fore. If someone wants my grandma to wear a pair of smart glasses, they will have to solve real problems for her—like providing driving assistance, giving her the ability to see text on street signs bigger, acting as a smart access key to her car, or being accessible on her car’s display interface (akin to Apple’s CarPlay). Maybe the smart glasses could also be a monitoring device for me to keep tabs on her. Whatever it does, the device must provide a first-rate user experience.
Putting the Why in Wear
I acknowledge that wearables can only do so much, so fast, and that there is no straightforward method to follow in their development. Every industry player is in unchartered territory and, in a sense, the playing field is level, allowing companies of all shapes and sizes to bring different strengths to the game.
The wearable industry has created an excitement in consumers for tiny processing units that blur the line between accessories and gadgets. Users are looking for new form factors and applications in wearable designs, and the rapid changes that we are seeing in the industry are a clear testament to the imagination and enthusiasm of developers and designers.
While price points continue to be one influencer over buying decisions, user experience will be a bigger factor. The products that get the experience right will have loyal customers of all ages and sects of society making these devices an integral part of their everyday lives.
Illustration of smartphone courtesy of Shutterstock.