Wearable tech: Between awkward intrusiveness and useful value exchange

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As relatively new additions to our arsenal of tech gadgets, the current state of debate around wearable tech has to date focused almost exclusively around the nuts and bolts: the coolness of the device and features, the accuracy of the data points being tracked and the originality of how this is presented. The unspoken assumption is therefore that the features are the main driver of our decision to purchase and wear one of these devices.

Brushing aside the pomp and pageantry surrounding the launch of each new device, the undeniable truth is that each of these devices needs to be anchored to another device - a smartphone or a laptop. How many of us are actually attracted to the idea of accessorising ourselves with gadgets that are merely an extension of our phones? Unlike other types of tech out there, you have to physically and visibly display them on your body. Unlike other types of tech, they require continued commitment so that the data being collected every second ends up providing a tangible benefit to you.

As most of these devices are expensive gadgets with a shelf life, status, style and fashion alone will not ultimately guarantee their long-term success. What is, however, most likely to make or break the wearable technology market will depend on the ability of any single device to strike the perfect balance between their awkward intrusiveness and their arguably incommensurable value.

Let’s face it: most wearables are intrusive

For a generation that grew up with mobile phones, the idea of wearing something around one’s wrist to tell time is probably just as alien as that of wearing a fedora hat. It doesn’t matter that wearables today are more sophisticated than mere watches and do much more than tell time; for those of us who are not used to them they are undoubtedly intrusive. This means that getting ourselves to wear them regularly requires us to overcome quite a bit of initial resistance and undergo a (longer or shorter) period of habit formation.

The same applies to most fitness bands, wearable jewellery, or pretty much any device out there that has in-built sensors that track your heart rate or sync with your mobile phone to deliver select notifications. What they all have in common is that they are all adding something foreign to your current/preferred way of going about your life. So when does being 'intrusive' tip over into being ‘intrusive-but useful’?

Maybe Apple’s new smartwatch will manage to do for wearables what Knight Rider’s Communicator Watch did for kids growing up in the 80s. The positive emotional associations with the Apple brand might lead to larger scale adoption, in spite of the intrusiveness of the device. But is that enough to sustain growth and secure ongoing engagement?

Let’s admit it: most wearables CAN make our lives easier

Outside the magic aura exuded by the Apple brand, however, few wearables have managed to sustain consistent usage. In fact, recent reports suggest that a third of wearable owners stop using them after six months.  Part of the reason has to do with the simple fact that the value proposition of most activity trackers is simple, but (as of yet) insufficiently persuasive: they track activity, but do little to motivate us to improve our fitness. If you are not active already, fitness trackers are not likely to change that. If you are active already, you don’t really need trackers to tell you that you are. If the growing movement of quantifying oneself is to survive beyond the realm of a few tech fanatics, it might need to offer more than just a self-indulgent mechanism of collecting largely useless chunks of personal data.

Perhaps the key for wider adoption of wearable tech is venturing outside the current territory, so that a wider range of capabilities are built on top of the basic ‘fitness tracking’ ones. As most wearables contain biometric capabilities that uniquely identify us, they can be used to feed in personal data into other systems that might be incredibly useful and life-enhancing. For instance, the unique personal signature generated via pulse and heart rate data can feed into Internet of Things networks instructing them to behave in certain ways.

Your wearable could, for instance, seamlessly open doors for you (as the Nymiband now promises to do), or activate the heating in your home as you approach your house. Beyond the mere benefit of tracking your pulse or your steps, wearables will then intermediate your interaction with a host of devices from those that make your home truly smart to those that currently require personal IDs, such as bank cards or key fobs.

Can you justify that piece of plastic?

If you bury a Swatch in your back garden for 100 years, when someone discovers it in 2115, it will still tell the time. Today’s smartwatch might sit in a museum display case in 2115, but will be functionally obsolete. If you care about more than the short term gratification of unwrapping the new gadget, you will want a story to justify the spend when you are seen with this new accessory. These gadgets range from frivolous to life-critical; from covert to, frankly, obnoxious. It’s easy to justify if it prevents your kids and pets getting lost, or if it alerts you when your grandmother has fallen over. Some health insurance providers have incentivised wearing a health-tracker for a lower premium.

Justifications beyond these examples are currently varied. Aside from biometric authentication, the more notable, less faddish raisons d’etre for wearables are around improving physical safety for bikers and cyclists (where haptic feedback is being used to signal something in your blind spot), and to detach from your device by wearing stylish smart jewellery instead: Kovert, for example, filters incoming calls and messages to only notify you if someone important is calling.

The sector will grow, as people will want different things for different purposes and different styles. The proliferation will be messy, and at some point, digital darwinism will prevail, and the hardiest wearables will not be made of the toughest metal or plastic, but will be those with the strongest demonstrable benefits to their wearers.

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