Where We Stand with Wearables

Shawn DuBravac / March 16th, 2016

Oh, how far we’ve come from the Pulsar calculator watch 40 years ago. The now iconic gadget debuted in 1975 with tiny input buttons and limited functionality and can arguably be credited as the technology industry’s first “wearable.”

It wasn’t until the introduction of Bluetooth headsets and Apple’s iPhone in 2007 that wearable technology began the shift now underway from self-contained, single-issue devices towards a market of complex, interactive computers capable of virtually anything entrepreneurs can dream up. And only in the last 36 months have we seen the wearables era start to mature.

The wearables market topped $4.2 billion in 2015, up about 40 percent from the year before, according to research from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA). And sales are expected to jump another 30 percent in 2016 to more than $5 billion.

We’ve seen phenomenal growth in this market thanks to a pronounced diversity of innovation. In the early stages of wearables, devices could track basic data like the number of steps you took. But in the past year or two, the capabilities have grown well beyond just measuring walking.

Most of today’s wearables are focused on maximizing our health and fitness. Wearables can now track not just the number of steps you take but also your heart rate, how far you ride your bike, how fast you ran. Some products can isolate measurements around very specific muscle groups, so it’s not just looking at the body, but also looking at very specific parts of the body.

And wearables aren’t just for measuring physical activity. They can help you get a better night’s sleep, too. Using a significant array of sensors, some wearables aim to improve sleep quality by capturing biometric data on heart and breathing rate, movement, body temperature, respiration and even perspiration. CTA has been working with device manufacturers and app creators to develop important standards for measuring sleep quality.

For women, Tempdrop’s wearable basal body temperature sensor tracks ovulation cycles through an ear bud that monitors your temperature and syncs with a fertility app to predict when you’re most likely to become pregnant.

The wonders of wearables aren’t limited to humans, either. The pet wearables market took off in 2015. From a GPS-enabled collar to track Fido’s whereabouts to virtual fence and leash technology to keep your pup from straying too far afield, wearables are truly for the whole family. One pet collar, still in the pre-order stage, is set to include two-way audio for keeping in contact with your furry friend if he’s out of earshot.

Another pet collar serves as a health monitor, tracking your pet’s temperature, pulse, respiration, activity and more. The data can be accessed by a veterinarian to help keep pets healthy.

We’re in an interesting experimental period, where our technological capabilities can capture and measure a wide array of personal data, analyze this information and then suggest an array of services based on this information.

The challenge for today’s wearables innovators is not in how to collect and analyze data; in many respects, we’re already there. Instead, innovators must prioritize meaningful data curation that results in actionable, customized advice to consumers. With wearables and their accompanying software deciphering the answers hidden in a sea of our personal data for us, we are empowered to make more meaningful decisions about our lifestyle, health and work.

Shawn DuBravac

Shawn DuBravac is chief economist of the Consumer Technology Association and the author of “Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Communicate.”
  • obarthelemy

    Is the usage rate for wearables going up ? I seem to remember reading last year that 30-50% of them end up disused after a short honeymoon ?

    • longboard

      “I seem to remember reading last year that 30-50% of them end up disused after a short honeymoon ?”

      I would bet that is viewed as being successful.

  • observer

    The challenge for today’s wearables innovators is to create devices that the buyers will actually KEEP USING, instead of wearing them for 3 weeks, and then sticking them in a drawer and forgetting about them. Even Ben Bajarin (who says he buys practically every wearable that comes out) does that. Clearly, there’s something very wrong with the concept of wearables.

    • longboard

      “Even Ben Bajarin (who says he buys practically every wearable that comes out) does that”.

      It could be that Ben is the typical consumer… oh look, a squirrel.

      “Clearly, there’s something very wrong with the concept of wearables.”

      Agree. It’s probably very challenging to change a world where analog living dominates… For example, smart homes are not dominating the entire real estate industry, it’s just a tiny part of it. “Smart” is now including network wiring in homes that was implemented many, many, many years ago…

      • observer

        I always thought that wearables were a concept in search of a need, and I still think that. If the market genuinely wants wearables, why are they put in a drawer after a short period of use?

        • obarthelemy

          From looking around me, there are 2 use cases:

          – sports tracking. That’s wildly overhyped: most people around me don’t formally exercise, or do sports for fun or relaxation (what a concept !), very few do quantified training/fitness. Many bought sports wearables… then realized they don’t have shorts nor shoes to use them with (true story, well not “many”, I got 2 of those)

          – notifications handling + messaging: very popular around me as a way to not let the boss/parents see you dicking around on your phone all the time. Lots of complaints about typing though. Get alert -> pull out phone to read it and react is morphing into get alert -> check it on watch -> pull out phone to react, which is actually more cumbersome.

          I’m sure medical tracking will come up soon, not there yet as far as I can tell.

    • Glaurung-Quena

      “to create devices that the buyers will actually KEEP USING, instead of wearing them for 3 weeks, and then sticking them in a drawer and
      forgetting about them”

      The chief takeaway I’ve gotten over the woes of various smartwatches and google glasses and other wearable tech devices the past few years is that programmers and technology industry insiders have a hard time grokking just how incredibly picky most people are about what objects they put on their bodies. There are a thousand reasons to *not* wear something, from “makes me look like a dork” to “it’s sweaty and uncomfortable” to “doesn’t go with this outfit.”

      And really the only reasons the tech industry has been able to come up with *to* wear something are a combination of “helps you stay healthier” and “lets you know who sent you a message without taking out your phone.”

      The first really only appeals to fitness junkies. Yeah, you can sell a lot of them to regular people, just like you can sell a lot of gym memberships, but once the new year’s resolutions start to fade in urgency, it’s not going to be worth the trouble to keep it charged and on your wrist, so in the junk drawer it goes.

      The second, well, it’s very much a “first world problem” and I suspect most people find it easier, cheaper, and more sartorially elegant to deal with it by turning off beeps and vibrations for low priority incoming messages. Just stick your boss and your spouse on your VIP list and you can ignore all the rest of your inbox until it’s convenient for you to do so. A concept which makes former crackberry addicts like the typical columnist on this site break out in hives, I am sure, but, protip – not everyone has an intense need to be connected at all times to their twitter feed.

      • obarthelemy

        Don’t knock Twitter: they email me a weekly digest (to keep me in their MAUs I’m sure) that’s only about 2/3 junk ^^

  • Glaurung-Quena

    “With wearables and their accompanying software deciphering the answers
    hidden in a sea of our personal data for us, we are empowered to make
    more meaningful decisions about our lifestyle, health and work.”

    That was a very nice advertorial for the wearables industry. It used a lot of words to say virtually nothing substantive. Not the sort of column I come to this site to read.

    • observer

      Right, I did get the feeling that Shawn DuBravac was trying to push sales of wearables, and this was more of a pitch than an objective tech analysis. (His association with the Consumer Electronics Association reinforces my impression.) And I agree with you, that stuff should be taken somewhere else, not here.

    • PhilipGBaker

      The problem with the many wearables I’ve tested is that they do collect a lot of information, but they rarely provide meaningful advice. That was particularly true with sleep trackers. At the end of a week I’d get a report on my sleeping patterns including how many times I woke up, the different states of sleep and lots more. But it would never tell me what it meant, whether the results were good or bad, or what I should do about them. All that work for no actionable advice.

  • tech-savvy girl

    Just a slight correction:Tempdrop is not an earbud, it’s a wearable sensor that connects to an armband and is worn under-arm during night time. Tempdrops’ fertility tracking wearable collects millions of data points throughout the night and syncs the data to various fertility apps providing women with accurate information about their cycle and fertile window.

    • observer

      That sounds like the first wearable I’ve heard of, that someone would continue using for a long time.

      • jamesdbailey

        Or maybe only for a month or 2.

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