The Challenge of Wearable Computing

on July 12, 2013

I’d like to start out with a question I have been asking myself. Why does Google Glass need to be on my face? More importantly, to get the benefits of Google Glass (whatever one deems that to be) why does it need to come in a form factor that goes on my face? The answer is that it likely does not.

The same question will need to be answered by any potential existence of Apple’s iWatch or any smart watch. My favorite line of critics of the iWatch, or smart watches in general for that matter, is that no one wears watches these days. My standard response is: and those that do don’t wear them to keep time.

I absolutely agree that the wrist is prime real estate, but I’d add that it is also highly valuable real estate. Therefore for a consumer to put something on their wrist, their face, or any other part of their person, there must be a clear value proposition.

In Search of a Value Proposition

This is why to date the only real wearable success stories we have are devices like the Fitbit, Nike Fuelband, Jawbone Up, and others in the wearable health segment. The industry term for this segment is “Quantified Self.” These devices track our activity and give us insight into how many steps we have taken, calories, burned, quality and quantity of sleep, etc.

For many this is a clear value proposition and a compelling reason to place an additional object on their body. The value proposition is also a simple one: wear this object and it will give you details about your activity and general health which for many is valuable information. When a segment like wearable computing is in the early stages of adoption, as we are in now, simple value propositions are key to getting initial consumer adoption.

Google’s Glasses challenge lies both in the value proposition and the form factor. Google hopes to flesh out the value proposition with the public research and developing happening with its early adopters. The form factor however, is a larger question. While its true that many people wear sunglasses, or eyeglasses, most would tell you they do not always want to or even enjoying having glasses on their face. There is eye surgery for those who need glasses so that they no longer have to wear glasses. Given behavioral observations around glasses, one would need to conclude that to keep an object on ones face, there must be a good reason.

Whatever the longer term benefits of something like Google Glass turn out to be, it is likely that they will show up in other objects not necessarily glasses. Like displays in our cars, or more intelligent screens on our person like our phones, or perhaps even a smart watch.

Similarly, any smart watch will also have to make its case for existence beyond the techno-geek crowd. Here we come back to my earlier point that those who wear a watch don’t do so to keep time. I wear a watch. I like my watch and besides my wedding ring it’s the only piece of jewelry I wear. I intentionally selected this watch for a variety of reasons. It is not on my wrist because I need it to keep time. It is a fashion accessory for me. I’d argue that for most watch wearers this is the case as well. This is exactly my point on why the wrist is valuable real estate. It is valuable because those who place it there do so for more than just its functionality.

Why Should I Wear This?

Objects we choose to put on our person and go out in public with are highly personal and intentionally selected. The personal and intentional reasons that we wear objects are the things that wearable computing devices don’t just need to overcome they need to add to as well.

A smart watch needs to add to the reasons I wear a watch. Smart glasses need to add to the reasons I put glasses on my face. Addressing these things are the challenges of those who aspire to create wearable computers that are worn by the masses. I am also confident it is where much innovation will happen over the next 10 years.

We have ideas on how this shakes out. Things like relevant, contextual information at a glance, or notifications for example. All the exact value propositions of wearable computing are not yet fully known. Even with so much ambiguity around wearable computing, I am optimistic and looking forward to the innovations that will take place to create wearable computers that add value to our lives.