Commentary

The wearable devolution.

“What does society want?” asked cultural critic Bob Lefsetz. “Something new and different that not only titillates its fancy, but demonstrates extreme utility.” Industry titans, Henry Ford and Steve Jobs, two men known for their big egos and their big imaginations, knew this well: Each believed, quite famously, that customers didn’t know what they wanted until he invented it for them. One hundred years on, the car is still the most dominant mode of transportation by a considerable margin, which proves Ford knew what he was talking about, and the iPhone you’re likely now reading this on says everything about Jobs.

Upon unveiling, both inventions made immediate sense to us. They had obvious, practical use, and it was clear they were game changers. The Model T and the iPhone represented phenomenal feats of technology and the work of a special auteur––one brilliant person’s singular vision brought to life by outstanding supporting casts.

But things have changed. Mr. Jobs has been gone for five years, and true innovation from today’s tech giants seems to be on the wane. Now we find ourselves being force fed the wearable gadget, a curious creation that’s futuristic in a backwards-looking sense––something taken out an old sci-fi movie that sounds magical on paper, but falls flat in real life. Its usefulness and purpose are still yet to be determined, the objects themselves ambivalently received by the tech press, and tepidly desired by consumers. Sales have been weak, products have been uninspired, and most people seem to be watching from afar in anticipation of the latest bad quarterly showing for Apple’s Watch.

Few of us are tempted into springing for these gadgets, wrist-worn or otherwise, that replicate what our smartphones already do better. Yet here we are, trapped in a world where these devices rain from the silicon heavens like manna, landing with a thud and a beep at the feet consumers who aren’t quite sure what to make of this supposedly divine delivery. Wearables’ advocates––Apple, Samsung, Google, Motorola––have spoken, and by joint decree have announced that the wearable is here to stay, whether we like it or not. (It’s their world, you see; we just happen to be living in it.)

It’s hard to look at the wearable era with clear eyes at the moment, and consider it anything other than a glaring miscue. It’s been sharply underwhelming, fueled by novelty and marketing magic rather than true technical advancement.

When considering that the blue chip names responsible for these products are the ones we look to for innovation, the jarring list of flops is cause for concern. There’s been Google Glass, Motorola’s Moto 360, Samsung’s Gear line, Nike’s ill-fated Fuelband, the Apple Watch, Up by Jawbone, Fitbit, and the Pebble Watch, among others. But in rapid succession, Nike’s Fuelband was quickly abandoned; Up by Jawbone was a buggy failure (the company at last we checked had shut down the division altogether); Pebble’s watch, after a solid Kickstarter campaign, never matched the heavy hype; Fitbit teamed up with Tory Burch on a bracelet with little value proposition; and Google Glass, in its brief lifetime, was far better at grabbing headlines as a social scourge than as a sound product.

As for Apple, how does one measure the success of the Watch? If it’s purely by sales numbers and units sold, reportedly 12-13 million in its first year, then yes, it’s been a success. But if we are to judge it using Apple’s own high standards––by people’s reliance on its technology over the long term (the usefulness of the product, in other words)––then grading it becomes a lot more complicated. As subscriber Stephen Pulvirent once questioned at Bloomberg, these gadgets may be novel, but is there a groundswell demand for them as marketing heads would have us believe?

That’s highly doubtful, argued Michael Gorman of tech gadget site, Engadget, who had these words: “The Watch is the nicest smartwatch available, but it’s more status symbol than wearable revolutionary. Most of the Watch’s features can be categorized as nice to have (at best) or superfluous (at worst). As such, if you’re not enamored with the Watch’s appearance, it’s probably not compelling enough to buy one.” And over at The Economist’s 1843 magazine, Alexandra Suich gave us a sense of what owners themselves might be thinking about the product. “My Apple watch has the temperament of a chihuahua,” she wrote, “overreacting to the smallest things and needing my attention constantly.”

In short order, we’ve seen that these products’ lack of usefulness becomes their demise: After a few months, people simply stop using them. This is a big cause for concern among the geeks and executives in wearables’ corner, who appear baffled that consumers aren’t lining up with bated breath for half-baked smartphones for the wrist. Along the way, they’ve tried turning to luxury and fashion experts for answers. Apple hired former Burberry chief, Angela Ahrendts; Google tried teaming up with Luxottica and Diane von Furstenberg to make Glass palatable, to no avail; Intel joined forces with Opening Ceremony for yet another smart bracelet; ditto Fitbit and Tory Burch.

These were steps in the right direction, to a degree, but the results were still rather raw in the middle. Wearables are, in essence, accessible luxury products, but grafting superficial luxury and fashion frills as a quick fix, will only do so much.

The central problem lies not just with aesthetics (which could certainly use some rethinking), but with core functionality. We’ve noticed that wearables’ lack of success stems from three key failures right now.

The first is utility. As many critics like Mr. Lefsetz have pointed out, these products simply aren’t very useful. Pete Mortensen at Wired, to take another strong example, argued that in order for wearables to gain traction, they must be solve consumers’ problems. He’s on the right track. A wearable tech product should first and foremost function in a way that dramatically makes our lives easier, and in a way that keeps us coming back. We shouldn’t forget that this is the fundamental reason why wearable tech exists in the first place, and why we’re so excited about the possibilities. A connected pedometer, a wrist phone, or a buzzing ring that alerts you to texts aren’t what most people in the market for. We can do better.

Second, these products need to be discreet. They need to be out of sight––literally. Right now, wearables seem to be about attracting people’s attention to the fact that we’re wearing them. Some come in clunky shapes, some are colored brightly. It’s obvious that they’re designed to draw eyes––but that shouldn’t be the focus. Very simply, wearables must function discreetly without shouting that you have one on.

This ties directly into the third point: integration. Right now, the wearable market’s fixation on gadget-based products hinders full lifestyle integration. Wearable technology, if taken literally, should be technology integrated or weaved into something that people are already likely to wear––everyday clothes, in other words. “Why wear a wristband when you’re already wearing clothes?” asked Nick Bilton, former columnist for NYT’s Bits blog. “Weave some sensors into the fabric, and you have one accessory fewer to worry about.” Well put. Most of us already wear pants, shirts, shoes, shorts, socks, and gym clothes. Most are wardrobe essentials, and it’s odd that companies haven’t focused their efforts in tackling these items first, rather than obsessing over accessories. High-end watches and sunglasses are bought as expressions of personal taste. If you’re Samsung or Google, it’s extremely difficult, no matter how fashion-focused your product may be, to compete against––and ultimately replace––someone’s Rolex.

These observations lead us to believe the future of wearable technology is in weaving in useful functionality in clothing that most of us already are wearing daily––not in replacing sophisticated luxury goods.

The good news is that we’re already starting to see this happen.

OMsignal, a firm out of Montreal, produces a line of biometric clothing that uses smart textiles to monitor your vitals and your fitness levels in real time. After having a chance to witness the technology firsthand in 2014, former Pando writer, Michael Carney, wrote: “It’s not often I see a new product or service that I know in my bones will change the world, but I couldn’t help but feel that way last week when I sat down with Stephane Marceau, co-founder and CEO of OMsignal.” That’s high praise, and we completely understand his enthusiasm. A brand like OMsignal is what we should be looking to when we think of proper application of wearable technology.

There’s also Wearable Experiments, an Australia- and New York-based company that, like OMSignal, has taken a serious look at how we should be thinking about improving performance-based wearable technology in a more sophisticated way. Headed by Billie Whitehouse, their mission is to ensure that their products blend seamlessly into active lifestyles. Subscriber Noah Davis recently wrote at length at Racked about their haptic yoga pants that vibrate to correct your form.

Not everything that falls under the wearable category has to be augmented by connected technology, however. If utility, lifestyle integration, and discretion are what matter most here, then it’s also important to mention Mack Weldon, whose Silver Line men’s basics help curb odors. Low tech (in a digital sense), but no less effective, founder Brian Berger has weaved silver threads into T-shirts, boxers, and socks to make them antimicrobial and anti-odor (silver, by nature, kills bacteria instantly). And like a true wearable should be, the line does one simple thing flawlessly: It improves the life of the wearer––and, thankfully, in this case, those in his vicinity.

“Technology is at its best when it is invisible,” wrote Nassim Taleb in his book “Antifragile”. And indeed, one could argue that the technology of Mack Weldon, OMSignal, and Wearable Experiments are more advanced and more sophisticated than what tech giants have produced. This is the type of thoughtful, functional approach that we should be demanding from Nike, Google, Samsung, and whoever else decides to try their hand at wearables.

What’s important to remember is this: These products don’t have to be expensive. They don’t have to incorporate the most advanced digital technology. They can be as basic as silver threading that kills odors, or they can be as intuitive as recording your vitals in real time while you work out, and providing context for those readings to your overall health. It shouldn’t matter––just as long as the technology is invisible, does what we expect it to do, and adds real value to our lives without drawing attention to the fact that we’re wearing it.

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