In the recent months we have seen an influx of wearable technologies, with various manufacturers scrambling to get their devices out into the market. These include smart watches, smart glasses, health bands, and all sorts of devices meant to be worn as part of our clothing or apparel.
Wearable technology is not really new, as developers have been trying to blend gadgets and apparel for decades now. But with the recent introduction of platforms like Android Wear, the technology for wearable devices is beginning to become more standardized.
Google even introduced Glass early on, having first approached early adopters and those on the bleeding edge of tech. But even that has been met with some criticism amid privacy issues.
Wearable technology faces a few challenges, and it might not be quite as easy for devices like smartwatches and smart glasses to gain mass acceptance. Wearability concerns can be broken down into these challenges: physical and cultural and financial.
Design and physical limitations
In terms of design, smartwatches and smart glasses are still bulkier than we would want them to be. If you remember the Casio calculator watch of the olden days, these were a brazen sign of one’s geekiness, with their standout keypads and size. Perhaps it’s the same with most smartwatches that are being announced and launched these days, most of which are rectangular, thick and bulky — except perhaps for the Moto 360, which attempts to achieve a more traditional wristwatch design.
Smartwatch designs are still currently based on processors and components meant for smartphones, which is quite limiting in terms of size and form factor. According to analysts, however, this will improve over time. “I think there’s a lot of work to be done on the design,” said Chris Jones at Canalys Insight. As components become slimmer and internal components tailor-made for watches instead of phones, devices can start becoming sleeker and more wearable.
The key here is wearability, says Pebble principal designer Myriam Joire. “It becomes much more personal than just being in your pocket,” she said, comparing smartwatches to smartphones. As smartphone users, we are already highly connected in the first place, with an internet-enabled device in our pockets. But the main difference of smartwatches is that these are meant to be visible at all times, and not just hidden in one’s pocket. “You have to feel a connection with it aesthetically,” said Joire.
Apart from physical challenges, there is also a potentially bigger concern with wearable devices, which involves social acceptance. It’s hard enough to accept the fact that virtually all mobile phones today have the potential for being spying devices, with their photo, video and audio-capture abilities. But when you start wearing a camera-enabled device on your face, this opens up a whole new set of challenges and criticisms.
You may have already heard of Google Glass being banned from certain commercial establishments like bars and restaurants. There’s a running meme about Glass users being considered “glassholes” because of potentially rude or socially unacceptable behavior.
Google itself claims that the biggest challenge with Glass is not developing the platform itself, but building up the technology such that it becomes socially acceptable. When people start mauling Glass users because of privacy concerns — perceived or actual — it’s a sign that social acceptance might still be a long way to go.
Google has started sending home try-on kits for prospective users to see how they look with Glass on, which might help encourage users to warm to the idea of wearing — and seeing — Glass. The company has also started partnering with popular eyewear brands like Ray-Ban and Oakley, which is also a good sign, especially since eyewear makers are keen on being part of the trend.
And then, of course, there’s price. When a piece of eyewear costs $1,500, it’s not exactly chump change. This is one reason why wearables are mostly popular with early adopters. Those on the bleeding edge can afford to shell out big sums just to keep ahead of everyone else.
“Because of the price point, [wearable devices] tend to really be only for early adopters,” says Rob Chandhok, VP at Qualcomm Technologies, which manufactures the Toq smartwatch. These devices will become more appealing when they start offering better functionality, however, says Canalys Insight’s Jones.
Smartwatch prices are expected to fall, however, especially as component manufacturers start designing and building parts especially meant for these devices. And with big manufacturers running equally big marketing campaigns for their wearables, that’s a good sign for those who are on the lookout to become more connected without having to take out one’s smartphones from one’s pocket every so often.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for wearable devices? How will designers, manufacturers and users overcome these challenges?