- July 10, 2014
In 1982, Calvin Klein’s iconic ad towering over Times Square revolutionized an industry by taking something utilitarian, men’s underwear, and turning it into a fashion statement. Bill Wasik’s Why Wearable Tech Will be as Big as the Smartphone does an excellent job exciting us with the here, the now and the possible with wearable technology as a tool, but ends the article posing the question that has every tech company in the wearable’s market holding their breath: will we wear it?
Back when I had just gotten married, my wife and I were sitting at my parent’s breakfast bar, faces glued to our smart phones. We were experiencing the lull that occurs while one waits for coffee to save you from an over-indulgence of pancakes on Sunday morning – checking our Facebook, checking our email. My dad mentioned how amusing he found modern day relationships. In those moments of pancake-induced serenity, instead of sharing conversation, we were sharing cat pictures, status updates, and syncing our schedules. It wasn’t an “in my day” slam or lecture against my generation; it was an observation on relationships in the present day. We balance our interactions between the people around us and with the screen in our hands.
Freedom is what wearables are promising us. Not freedom from information, or freedom from data, but freedom from interruption and freedom from distraction. Bill Wasik argues, “Wearables, in contrast, are a gateway to augmented reality, a more ubiquitous but less distracting data layer that gives us constant intelligence about the world around us.” The magic of the smartphone is that it can provide us with an overwhelming amount of data. What we need is the right data when we need it. As we become a society that is more and more connected through the Internet of Things, more and more “things” will demand our attention. I disagree with Mr. Wasik’s claim that wearable devices will push smartphones aside. Wearables won’t replace the smartphone. I believe wearables will become the filter that sits between whatever it is I am doing and the constant stream of alerts, notifications, and messages being fed to my mobile device.
A large part of the wearables market is targeted at niche hobbyists. Wasik’s article opens with the story of Dan Eisenhardt, founder of Recon and the Snow ski goggles. Recon’s goggles augment an experience by providing a heads-up display (HUD) for skiers, providing information on the track using GPS, and displaying notifications from your smartphone safely tucked away in your pocket, augmenting your skiing experience. Zepp, another wearable technology company, isn’t looking to digitally augment the golf, baseball, or tennis experience; instead Zepp provides in-depth data and analytics on your game, expanding sabremetrics to local country clubs and little leagues. The plethora of activity trackers are marketed at a wide demographic, but other wearables such as the fitbit or FuelBand do little good to a web developer like me, but become useful to athletes and weekend warriors (I call my Polar Loop an inactivity tracker, because it is constantly yelling at me for sitting too long).
There are tech companies that are trying to expand outside the niche market. Pebble, the current Kickstarter record holder for funding, demonstrated that there was a demand for a smart watch. It paved the way for Samsung, Motorola, and other tech giants. Google Glass hopes to turn everyone into an “explorer” (you can’t write a wearables article without mentioning Google Glass). As Will Wasik points out, Google Glass is driven by the Google Now – taking all the data Google has collected from you (a lot), and merging it with context. A modern twenty-first century oracle, sitting on your face, that knows what you want before you know you want it. Larry Page’s goal is, “reducing the time between intention and action.”
So why aren’t people lined up to experience this new age of screenless access to a world of immeasurable data and information? I believe one of the reasons not mentioned in the Wired article is society’s innate fear of technology. One too many Terminator movies combined with the recent outbreaks of data breaches makes people tech-shy. This is a problem that eventually solves itself; people trade personal security for digital freedom and simplicity all the time. Everyone bemoans Facebook’s collection of personal data, but sign-up rates continue to grow as people have yet to find an easier way to share ecards, pictures of their babies, and vacation photos with all three thousand of their friends. David Wong in his Cracked.com article simplifies what Bill Wasik, and I, believe to be causing a roadblock to a future of mind-reading eyeglasses, “People don’t want to have to wear a dorky thing on their head.”
It’s a little simplistic, but it approaches the hurdle tech companies are facing as they try and break through to that next level: wearable technology is not just about who can process ones and zeros faster, it’s about fashion. Fashion is an expression of one’s self. Fashion is about being “cool”. I agree with Mr. Wasik, “Wearable devices – technology that people will want to display on their bodies, for all to see – represents a new threshold in aesthetics.”
The way we dress, the clothes we wear, and the accessories we choose help define us. A sharp suit, studded cufflinks and a Rolex say, “I am a big shot business man.” A Pebble watch or Google Glass says, “I am a technophile,” and there are a lot of people who cannot identify or do not want to identify with that statement. Bill Wasik refers to the “Bluedouche Principle”, the insult thrown at people who walked around with little Bluetooth earpieces. Companies tried to make “cooler” models of earpieces, but sleeker, more stylish designs did not matter, people laughed at people wearing dorky things (on their head).
Solutions are already in progress. The tech industry is excellent at reacting rapidly to consumer response. The Agent watch is trying to become the first love child of fashion and technology by creating a true smart watch that is chic. Apple, who is regarded as a leader in technology aesthetics by showing us our smartphones didn’t have to look and function like Blackberries, has hired executives from Burberry, Levi Strauss and Yves Saint Laurent. Just as Zynga hired behavioral psychologists to exploit our love of farm based gaming, Apple is hoping that by leveraging experts in industries other than their own, they can reach across disciplines and find success.
The companies that have dominated the headlines for cutting edge and driving innovation have come across a problem that doesn’t exist with smartphones, apps and web applications. These are the companies that have harnessed data to map the stars to hooking up with people in bars, and they are facing a whole new level of quantitative data measurement: the consumer need for uniqueness scale used in fashion to measure consumers needs to feel unique. Wearables are forcing tech companies to expand into a new industry with a different set of rules. It doesn’t matter how fast a wearable is or how many features it has, as Mr. Wasik’s article demonstrates, to find universal success you need to make the leap from utilitarian to fashionable. Just like Calvin Klein and men’s underwear, the tech industry needs its Tom Hintnaus, in his sexy tighty-whities poised above Times Square like a modern day Colossus, to sell the next generation of smart watches.