Few ‘wearables’ balance fashion, function
LAS VEGAS – Gadget lovers are slipping on fitness bands that track movement and buckling on smartwatches that let them check phone messages.
Some brave souls are even donning Google’s geeky-looking Glass eyewear.
For the technology industry, this is exciting time, but also a risky one. No one really knows whether the average consumer can be enticed to make gadgets part of their everyday attire.
The question is: Can tech companies create wearables with the right mix of function and fashion?
Wearable computing devices are igniting an explosion of hope and creativity that’s engaged both startups and big companies including Samsung, Sony, LG and others. At the International Consumer Electronics Show this week, companies are showing off hundreds of new watches, wristbands and eyeglasses with built-in video screens or cameras.
The industry is encouraged by the attention Google’s Glass is getting. The device is worn like a pair of glasses and projects a small video screen into the wearer’s field of vision. Companies are also encouraged by the success -albeit on a small scale- of the Pebble and Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatches.
Intel Corp., the world’s largest maker of computer processors, is on the wearable computing bandwagon, too. Its CEO, Brian Krzanich, demonstrated a onesie that can measure a baby’s temperature, pulse and breathing rate. It sends a wireless signal to a parent’s “smart” coffee cup, which shows a smiley face in lights if the baby is sleeping well and a worried face if the child is too hot or close to waking up. The outfit can also send a signal to a smart bottle warmer, so it can be ready with warm formula when the baby wakes.
“We want to make everything smart,” Krzanich said, showing off the brains of the onesie -a computer the size of a stamp.
The smart onesie is one example of the many gadgets at the show that are designed to demonstrate what technology can do. What’s less clear is whether they tackle real problems, and improve life so much that people will care to buy them.
The wearables industry is haunted by an earlier false start: Bluetooth headsets, which were commonplace a few years ago, fell out of favor. The shift away from phone calls and towards texting was one factor, but many say it simply became uncool to walk around in public with a listening device protruding from one’s ear.
It’s easier to convince consumers to wear gadgets on their wrists, and that’s where most of the industry’s energy is focused.
“The wrist is one of the few places where it’s socially acceptable and technologically feasible to wear a gadget,” says David Rosales, the chief technology officer of Meta Watch Ltd., a spin-off of watchmaker Fossil. Rosales has been making smartwatches for years, but only now does he believe they can break into the mainstream. It’s not so much a matter of technology – smartwatches worked fine in 2006, as one of social acceptance, he says.
Smartwatches are still a small market: the Consumer Electronics Association estimates that just under a million of them will be sold in the U.S. this year, up from 600,000 last year.
“I don’t think consumers get the idea of smartwatches,” says Russ Crupnick, senior vice president of industry analysis at research firm NPD Group. In a survey, the group found that the feature U.S. consumers most desire in a smartwatch is the ability to make and receive calls – something the watches generally don’t do. He thinks the image a smartwatch projects of the owner is a more important driver.
“I think this is about jewelry … I think at least in the near term, it’s about what having one of these things says about me and my personal brand,” Crupnick says. “It’s human nature to brand ourselves.”