The tech industry has a habit of getting carried away. The unrelenting hunger for new, innovative products has produced some of the most influential pieces of technology we rely on today. From the smartphone to the cloud, the tech industry is driven by its ability to find solutions to problems, even to ones users didn’t know they had. The notion of ‘disruptive’ product development has exploded in recent years, with high-profile examples - from the iPod to Uber - inspiring a plethora of would-be giant killers.
This is reflected in investment figures. Seemingly every new wearable device is funded by an overwhelmingly successful crowdfunding campaign, complete with promotional video and list of very specific benefits. We’ve seen smart jewelry, smart bags, smart glasses, smart watches, smart bras, and even smart shoes. A world in which almost every consumer device is connected doesn’t seem that far away, and what we wear is just another area begging to go digital. It’s probably fair to say that, on the hype cycle, wearable technology has hit a peak.
Occasionally, though, the enthusiasm for new products is misplaced. Probably the most high-profile example of 2016 was Skully, an augmented reality motorcycle helmet that raised a huge $2.4 million from an initial goal of $250k. The weight of expectation clearly pulled the company under, with Wareable reporting that the company tanked, leaving some 2,000 backers without a refund or the AR helmet they backed so generously years earlier. The elephant in the room when crowdfunding is that, if the company files for bankruptcy, it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever see your investment again.
Even when the product does ship, there’s no guarantee that it’ll fulfill the often lofty promises made in its crowdfunding pitch. One of the most comical examples of a product not meeting expectations is Ring, the Bluetooth remote control for your life that promised to ’shortcut everything.’ In theory, the product is a life changer, hence its $880,000 raise from a $250,000 goal. With small gestures, users were promised the ability to control the lighting in their home, transfer money to friends, write messages, turn on televisions - anything. In reality, the software was so faulty that Snazzy Labs estimate a 5-10% success rate on any given gesture. On top of this, the design was a far cry from what was promised, with the ring so clunky it made it uncomfortable to wear. At $269, the project has gone down as an example of why users should be wary when investing in crowdfunding campaigns early on.
At a glance, these products are all viable. It’s only when the realities of complications and, crucially, ergonomics are taken into account that their unworkability becomes apparent. Ergonomics and style are paramount. As much as users value functionality, if a product doesn’t look good or is cumbersome to wear, it won’t be worn. Ring fell down at both hurdles. Similarly, Google Glass was a misstep simply because it failed to take into account the undesirability of looking like a short-sighted robot. Glass probably worked more effectively than the calamitous Ring but, ultimately, its design was at best ‘ahead of its time’.
Glass’ failures are indicative of a wider problem within the wearables industry. The opportunities for data collection and connectivity within smaller devices are growing rapidly, but finding workable products requires so much more than an array of impressive features. Wearables becoming more common will probably create a world in which Glass could succeed but, as it stands, they’ll need to be almost indistinguishable from the conventional product they ape to see mass adoption.
Another problem is that of data collection for data collection’s sake. As the technology required to collect different metrics becomes smaller, there’s a temptation for manufacturers to squeeze them into devices that ultimately don’t need them. The aforementioned smart bra, for example, has a sensor which can detect when the wearer is slouching when seated, which then sends a gentle reminder to the user’s smartphone to straighten up. Useful? Maybe. But is it why people are wearing a sports smart bra in the first instance? Probably not. What this all amounts to is an industry that is seemingly getting ahead of itself rather than honing a few core products.
Niche wearables may well have a place in sport - it’s an industry in which, for example, it may actually be useful to measure an athlete’s velocity - but it’s difficult to imagine them catching on with the majority of the public. The sports industry has long dealt with the issue of ensuring metrics are actionable, and the consumer market needs to solve the same problem. For every Ring or Skully, there will be a number of innovative wearables that service a very specific portion of the market but, for true widespread appeal, the industry should focus on proven hardware like smartwatches.