How smart can a watch really be? And do we really need to count steps if we’re already running and swimming?
It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock the world. And there are many ups and downs along that journey.
For the non tech-geek segment of the population, wearable technology means a Fitbit or an Apple Watch. Some of us may remember Google Glass.
Whatever wearable we have in mind today, chances are you’re a little underwhelmed by your personal experience or you haven’t even bothered to put such a gadget on your body.
But let’s borrow from Winston Churchill’s contextualization of the Allied victory in the Battle of El Alamein in 1942 for some perspective on wearable tech’s development: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
It’s silly to compare the September 1939 to November 1942 period to any other stretch of time. But it has been a dramatic three years since December 2013, when Wired published an article headlined “Why Wearable Tech Will Be as Big as the Smartphone.”
The bottom line was simple and compelling: Wearables get you the data you need, right when you need it.
Thad Starner, the founder and director of the Contextual Computing Group at Georgia Tech’s College of Computing and leader of Alphabet Inc.’s Google Glass project, reduced it to a “magic two-second rule.”
According to Starner, “If you can’t get to a tool within two seconds, your use of it goes down exponentially.”
By June 2015, the “Wearables” category had just slid onto the long downslope from the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” phase toward the “Trough of Disillusionment” phase on Gartner’s Emerging Technologies Hype Cycle.
Nine months later, mainstream media outlets like Newsweek were wondering whether wearable technology was just a fad.
Yet according to the International Data Corp.’s Worldwide Quarterly Wearable Device Tracker, 22.5 million wearables were shipped during the second quarter of 2016. That’s a 26.1% year-over-year increase.
There is, however, some differentiation within the category as currently defined.
“Basic” wearables — such as fitness trackers that don’t support third-party applications — grew by 48.8% from the second quarter of 2015. Shipments of “smart” wearables — devices that do support third-party apps — were down by 27.2%.
Fitness trackers are easy to use, with well-understood metrics for walkers, hikers, joggers, runners — step-counters of any stripe.
Smartwatches such as the Apple Watch hit the scene with lots of hype — adequate to the occasion of a new product launch from that font of industrial-design genius — but have suffered from users’ underwhelming experience.
Indeed, although it remains the best-selling smartwatch in the world, sales of the Apple Watch crashed last summer, by about 72%.
Meanwhile, Apple reported fiscal 2016 fourth-quarter revenue of $46.852 billion. Apple Watch is part of the “Other Products” segment, which generated sales of $2.373 billion. So along with Apple TV, Beats products, iPod, and Apple-branded accessories, it accounted for about 5% of overall sales.
And sure, fitness trackers made up 82.8% of all wearable devices shipped during the second quarter of 2016. But on November 2, Fitbit forecast fourth-quarter revenue of $725million to $750 million — 25% below (at the midpoint) an average analyst estimate of $985.1 million.
According to Reuters, “The forecast implies revenue growth of 5.4% at the top end. Analysts were expecting growth to pick up to 38.4% from the 23.1% in the latest third quarter, which is the smallest rise since the company went public, in June 2015.”
Smartwatches — as represented by the Apple Watch — probably aren’t satisfying the latency mandate articulated by Thad Starner. And the interface is probably too small, creating more frustration.
Fitness trackers like the Fitbit my better half wears remain a mystery to me: Why, I ask, if you’re swimming three mornings a week for an hour at a time and regularly running two–three times a week must you count steps?
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You’re already doing a lot to keep fit, tracker or not.
Right now, the tech just hasn’t lived up to the hype.
But it will.
In July 2016, Gartner spun the “Wearables” category into its own, publishing a separate Hype Cycle for Wearable Devices.
At the top of its report, the IT research and advisory firm noted: “Most wearables are still exploratory products.”
We may be another seven–10 years from experiencing the real benefits of such devices. But the wearables that will change the world will be those that help us monitor and improve health and livelihood in real-time, with capabilities such as perspiration analysis patches, exoskeletons, electromyography, and wearable blood pressure monitors.
“For example,” as Jeremy Schroetter put it in Medical Design Technology magazine, “in an emergency room, an incoming patient would receive a wearable device upon admission, tracking a variety of vital signs that would assist the caregiver by providing automated triage to determine levels of urgency and types of care needed.”
We’ll also see use of “augmented reality” head-up displays that help surgeons gather and process crucial information in real-time, high-stress situations.
Three years ago, Wired’s Bill Wasik framed wearables’ biggest hurdle purely in terms of consumer gratification:
Unlike with mobile, the barrier to the wearable future isn’t technological innovation; it’s the unique challenge of creating something that is not just functional or even beautiful but deeply personal. The wearable future will be here someday. The only question is how soon you’ll be willing to put it on.
There’s still a lot of room for wearables that “replace” smartphones as the device of choice for enjoying music, video, and communication with friends.
Designers may also solve the problem of merging utility and style so people will want to wear a smartwatch, smartclothes, or smartshoes.
At the same time, the real impact probably lies beyond a personal experience.
And it’s probably a decade away.
Cullen Roche, proprietor of Pragmatic Capitalism, writes of “The Failing Pursuit of the Truth“:
It’s now become clear that people don’t really care that much about the facts or the truth. A Rutgers University survey recently found:
“The general public has extremely little factual knowledge of the contours of the American labor market or the relative presence of immigrants in the United States. They vastly overestimate the size of union membership in the nation, the current unemployment rate, and the number of foreign-born individuals that make up the U.S. population.”
A University of Chicago research paper recently found that 50% of Americans believe in conspiracy theories. I see it every day in financial circles. But how is this possible? How do the conspiracy theories about hyperinflation, crashing dollar, the unemployment rate, etc. persist when we have almost a decade of real-time data showing us that these theories and myths were totally and completely wrong?
This is crazy stuff. Especially when it comes to the economic data. Americans are distrustful of government data, but the USA has the most transparent and expansive government data sources of any government anywhere. I know because I’ve tried to compile economic data all over the world and no government comes close to the degree of transparency and sheer quantity of data. Is it perfect? Of course not. But it’s abundant and much of it is confirmed by private sources. Still, the post-factual world persists.
Editorial Director, Wall Street Daily