News & Views

Wearing Thin

by Dan Southern

Mega-corps and startups alike have been rushing to announce and launch products that will sit in the emerging-but-blurred wearable technology category. In the past month alone at Contagious we've heard about Nissan's Nismo Smartwatch, heartbeat-sensing personal password authentication system Nymi, and a partnership between Google Glass and Mercedez Benz. Nike has also launched Fuel Map with the aim of getting more people in London using FuelBand.

That's all in addition to Samsung unveiling its Galaxy Gear smartwatch at the start of the month to much fanfare and awkward corporate executive wrist modelling. But in spite of what the above avalanche of enthusiasm might suggest, there could be some way to go before we all have phones on our arms, heart monitors in our T-shirts and geo-location shoes. Call me a laggard or a luddite, but I'm not entirely convinced - yet - that I need an even smaller smartphone, or that monitoring my habits or physiological responses looks anything other than neurotic.

That said, most projections for the growth of wearable tech appear optimistic, but they also vary wildly. Some estimates put total global shipments in 2018 at 485m units (ABI), whilst others are far more conservative at 70m by 2017 (Juniper). 

Meanwhile, research from TNS Global in the US this month revealed that whilst three quarters of consumers were aware of wearable devices, only 9% are actually interested in using them, with price and privacy  reported as being the main reasons for hesitancy.

But could it also be that people simply aren't being effectively sold to in the first place? The best raison d'etre that Samsung's chief executive JK Shin could seem to muster for his master creation at the launch of Galaxy Gear was blandly that 'consumers want their daily lives to be easier and more enjoyable.' Even ever assertive Nike seemed to struggle articulating FuelBand's purpose in its 2012 launch ad, when it handily reminded everyone that doing any type of movement counted as, well, movement in its Fuel ecosystem.

Of course, these are devices with rather different functionalities and purpose. And the adoption of any new technology is bound to take time. Indeed, Gartner's annual 'Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies' this year estimates that most wearable technologies are 5-10 years from the mainstream 'plateau of productivity'. But wearable technology manufacturers are going to have come up with a better story to help it get there.

As Genevieve Bell, director of Intel's User Experience Research, told MIT Technology Review recently when discussing wearables, 'The technologies that we have put on our bodies over the last multiple thousand years tend to have two functions. One of them is literal. They're doing some kind of work to extend our physicality, or reach. The other is always symbolic, what they say to others.'

That symbolism seems to be what brands, surprisingly, are struggling to discover and communicate at present. So in the vacuum, society's natural inclination for caution quickly created the term 'Glasshole', a derisory term for wearers of Google Glass.  And as Ben Lee, a product designer at Crunchyroll explained on his post on Medium a few days ago, 'Sorry, it's not enough to stick a computer to a strap and call it a day.'

Deep down, I know that wearable tech is going to bring new behaviours and could herald a more enlightened understanding of what it means to be 'us', if the Quantified Self movement is right. But marketers still need to figure out how to, quite rightly, get people excited about that.

Dan Southern is a consultant for Contagious Insider