The Challenge of Wearable Computing

Ben Bajarin / July 12th, 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.

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio
  • stevesup

    Watches? What we need is a wallet replacement, an iWallet or Wall-i, me being from Minnesota. Everybody carries a wallet; hardly anyone wears a watch. Every wallet is full of essential ID; we all need finger and eye printing safeguards. And every wallet is a fabulous financial and shopping depot, including cash, debit cards, credit cards, etc. Dunno about the wallet as real estate but as Willy Sutton said, it’s where the money is.

    • steve_wildstrom

      For the wallet, we already have the device: a mobile phone. The problem has been to get the backend payment systems to align, and that’s a touch issue, more business than technology. But it is starting to happen with software like Google Wallet and Apple Passbook.

  • James King

    I wear a watch primarily as an accessory, one that is very personalized. If others wear them mostly for the same reason, then that could provide a clue as to why Apple hired Paul Deneve. While current smartwatches are being marketed as technology devices, it would be very much like Apple to focus on positioning a smartwatch in a way that is already socially acceptable. Treating a smartwatch as an accessory could substantially lower the barrier for social acceptance. I’m going to go out on a limb and state that an “iWatch” will also integrate Apple’s long-waited wallet and payment functionality, likely an extension of Passbook.

    As for Google Glass, the ergonomics are all wrong. A wrap-around system with dual cameras would provide the level of functionality necessary to overcome the inconvenience of wearing them. Such a device could provide binocular or “zoom” capabilities, real-time glare reduction, night and/or thermal vision, and active vision correction. People wearing Glass are already encountering numerous issues related to general use and people who own Glass seem to still pull out their mobile phones on a regular basis which defeats the purpose. Glass is like Microsoft’s early tablet efforts, a good idea that another company will turn into a great idea.

    • aardman

      Concur with the iWatch-Paul Deneve connection. Apple Wearables will be a high fashion accesory. Tech chic. This is one arena where Samsung, Google, Microsoft, etc. cannot imitate Apple. Only Apple has the brand cachet to get away with it. The big fashion houses will gladly associate their brands with the Apple brand. But with Samsung, Google or Microsoft? ‘Course not!

  • This article is a bit of a stretch.

    First, Google Glass, a badly flawed concept, goes on the face for a very good reason. That’s where your eyeballs are! And that’s the point of Google Glass, no? To be an overlay on your view of the world? IBM had something similar years ago. It’s not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination. My problem with it is it’s from Google, who wants to sell my eyes to advertisers. That and I already have glasses.

    As for the idea that nobody wears watches to tell time, that it’s a fashion accessory is too binary a thought to be accurate. Plenty of people buy watches to tell time. Most watches are too cheap or too ugly to qualify as fashion accessories. But then watches do all sorts of things already besides telling time.

    They tell you how fast someone is running, compass directions, when high tide is happening. The list is almost infinite. A Smartwatch will only add to the features available and will simplify the physical nature of a watch. Make it more versatile at a much lower cost. But what it won’t do is compete with a $15,000 IWC watch, or a $5,000,000 Patek Philippe Reference 1527.

  • lucascott

    My real issue with projects like Google Glas is why do they have to be shooting into my eyes and why does the hardware have to be on my face.

    The notion of a heads up display receiving info from my phone and projecting it onto the back side of a glasses/sunglasses like display I’m fine with. Even including earpieces for wireless audio I’m fine with.

    And yes the video and photo stuff is rather cute and kind of cool.

    It is the constant flow of output that bothers me. And the dorky tapping of the glasses or having to take out loud. The idea of a wrist band control I can tap instead, or even use that as my display if I don’t need things in my eyes, appeals to me

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