Wearables have come a long way from the simple fitness trackers of a decade ago. Not only are they lighter, smaller, more powerful and more capable, they’re finding new homes beyond the wrist. But are we really ready to wear so much tech?
To understand how dramatically the wearables landscape has changed, just flash back to 2009, when Fitbit launched the original Tracker. The tiny clip-on device could report how many steps you’d taken, calories burned, your sleep patterns and — well, not much else, actually. Still, it was a revelation at the time. Now it seems quaint.
The technology’s watershed moment came in 2015, with the release of the Apple Watch, which showed not only that people were willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for a sophisticated wearable, but also that the balance of power in the category had shifted from fitness and outdoors manufacturers like Fitbit and Garmin to tech behemoths like Apple. Today, many of the major players in the wearables industry are smartphone makers. Apple, now with AirPods to sell alongside its Apple Watch, still leads the way by a large margin.
“According to my estimates. Apple is selling approximately 45 million wearable devices per year, bringing in nearly $15 billion of revenue,” says Neil Cybart, an industry expert for Above Avalon, an Apple analysis website. “No other company comes close to these numbers.”
But wearables in 2019 aren’t limited to the wrist, or the ears. As innovation continues apace, companies are starting to compete for other real estate on the body. Many of today’s wearables perform similar tasks — fitness tracking and health monitoring, notifications for phone, email and text, quick access to select apps — so design and marketing play a major role in a product’s success. But no matter where a wearable is designed to live, in order to survive it needs to strike a particular balance between innovation and everyday usability.
That’s easier said than done, especially when you venture beyond the wrist. Here, the challenges facing a category that’s trying to lure you in head to toe.
Wristband Wearables: Differentiate or Die
The wrist remains the most coveted spot on the body for wearables makers, and for good reason. It’s where we’re most accustomed to wearing accessories (thank the prevalence of the wristwatch for that), easy to access but also easy to ignore. That makes it an ideal spot for a fitness tracker and also, now, for potentially life-saving activity-monitoring devices. In a sign of Apple’s ambition, the Series 4, the first Apple Watch to offer fall detection and heart screening, expands the potential market for a $400 health-screening smartwatch beyond fitness freaks, into a massive (if decidedly less sexy) market: the elderly. Apple wants to make a tracker for everyone.
Other brands, those without a billion or so consumers with an iPhone already in their pocket, have gone in the opposite direction with more specialized products. Garmin focuses on durable, purpose-built wearables designed to help specific athletes — cyclists, swimmers, hikers, golfers and others — train and perform better. The company’s lightweight Forerunner series of smartwatches, for example, is packed with features for the serious road racer, from lactate threshold and V02 max estimates to ground-contact time balance, stride length, vertical ratio and more. For hikers and trail runners, the company offers a still-more-targeted wearable option with its rugged Fenix series.
Even the OG name in fitness trackers, Fitbit, diversified after sales began to soften a few years ago. In addition to its signature Charge, currently in its third generation, the company now trumpets low-cost smartwatches starting at just $160, a training app, a smart scale and the Ace 2, a tracker for kids aged six and up.
But the market for wrist wearables has outgrown the arm. Garmin, Suunto and other smartwatch makers also manufacture chest straps, power meters, eyewear and more — a new product ecosystem offering more accurate data tracking (the wrist isn’t the best place to monitor heart rate, after all) for more dialed-in training. Even companies without a smartwatch, like Wahoo, are all-in on the accessories game.
But no matter the product strategy, the goal is the same: to create products the consumer integrates into daily life. “We want our products to be increasingly indispensable to the customer, where literally the more they wear it, the value multiplies,” says Phil McClendon, who leads Garmin’s consumer product manager team. For this reason, when it comes to valuable wearable real estate, it’s going to be hard to beat the wrist: convenient, articulate and fashion-ready.
Face: The Next Frontier
Smart eyewear is a fascinating niche within wearables, defined in equal part by huge hype and public failure. Google Glass, Magic Leap, Microsoft HoloLens, Snap Spectacles: all busts. But that hasn’t stopped companies both new and established, including North, Vue, Vuzix and even Intel, from throwing their products against the wall — or, rather, the face.
But even with all that attention, it’s clear neither companies nor consumers have nailed down exactly what the category should be. Entertainment? Gaming? Education? Or maybe some combination of all three? Whatever it is, the consensus is that it needs to wear easily.
“Eyewear is a medical device and a fashion accessory,” says Jay Sales, director of Advanced Technology at VSP Global. “You wear it on your face. So anything that is too clunky, too heavy or too difficult to wear will of course affect the adoption rate.”
VSP Global recently released Level, a pair of eyeglasses much like any other but with activity-tracking functionality built into the temple via several sensors and a battery. For those who wear glasses every day, it makes the adoption of a health tracker essentially frictionless.
The future of facial wearables seems to be devices that provide defined value and look very much like glasses — not like “facial wearables.”
“Smart eyewear has slowly reached a maturation point from the days of explosive hope and hype to more of a focus on users’ true needs,” Sales says. The category is trying to outgrow the realm of tech geeks and early adopters, into the mainstream; as these devices become less dorky and conspicuous, and more streamlined, focused and fashionable, that might finally become a possibility.
Smart Clothing: Still an Awkward Fit
Despite the attention of seasoned professionals, wearable technology just doesn’t hang right with the apparel industry. Perhaps the highest-profile example so far is the Project Jacquard collaboration, in 2017, between Levi’s and Google, which delivered a denim jacket with one sleeve woven with capacitive threads that can respond to simple smartphone commands — swipe up or down on the sleeve to play or pause music, or read a text message. It’s basically a $350 jean jacket with a smart sleeve that can survive up to 10 washes.
There are other, perhaps more practical applications. Wearable X, in New York, makes smart yoga pants with haptic sensors that lightly vibrate, to encourage wearers to either keep moving or to hold a position; other, more granular feedback comes via the companion app. Ambiotex offers sports shirts woven with sensors to provide athletes with real-time data.
Wearable tech hasn’t had the impact on the apparel industry that it’s had elsewhere, because the use case for most garments doesn’t lend itself to wearables’ purpose of adding value while becoming indispensable; civilian clothing, whether it’s a jacket, a shirt or a pair of shoes, isn’t worn every day, let alone 24-7. Without the ability to continually collect data and offer ever-more-specific feedback, smart clothing will always face limited utility (the possible exception: uniforms of all types).
It’s hard to say right now whether the next few years will unveil the innovations that overcome those obstacles or if the category will simply up and die. When it comes to the potential for wearables, it may be that the eyes are truly bigger than the torso.