Even though 2014 is poised to be the year of the wearable, everyone’s talking about the glassholes who wear them. That’s the writes-itself pejorative for the 10,000 or so people who’ve coughed up $1,500 to beta-test a pair of Glass, the awkwardly singular brand name Google has given its interactive spectacles, which lets wearers take photos, shoot video, get driving directions, and perform any number of verbal searches on Google, all while staring into space like a data-drugged zombie.
“If the battery went dead, would you still want to wear it on your body?”
Google Glass, which will be available to the public for one day only on April 15, has apparently been embraced by the creepy-guy demographic, or so an admonishing post on the official Google Glass website to its “Explorers” would suggest: “Standing alone in the corner of a room staring at people while recording them through Glass is not going to win you any friends,” it reads at one point, followed later by “… being rude will not get businesses excited about Glass and will ruin it for other Explorers.” Way to “Don’t be evil,” Google!
Selling products like Google Glass to a world that doesn’t need them is tricky, which is why the marketing for glasses, smartwatches, wristbands, and other forms of wearables is long on functional attributes to convince us of their value. Amid these laundry lists are images of target users, mostly looking cool while wearing one of these devices and cooking, taking a bike ride, or performing surgery. The message is that wearables provide lots of tangible functionality but are also fashionable. The question remains, though, whether one perceived benefit will prove more important than the other. The answer may lie in the past rather than the future because when it comes to wearable technology, we’ve been down the function-versus-fashion road a few times before.
While Google Glass may be the most recognized, vilified, and expensive wearable on the market today, it is hardly the only player in what’s variously called the heads-up display (HUD) or optical head-mounted display (OHMD) space. Its most promising competitor is the Recon Jet, a pair of sunglasses that costs less than half the price of Glass, is designed for active-outdoors types, and is funded by Intel (for now, the Jet remains powered by a chip designed by Intel competitor ARM, though for how long is a fair question).
With Google Glass, you look up and to your right to get information beyond the world in front of you, which may be one reason why people who are using Google Glass appear so weirdly detached from their surroundings. With the Recon Jet, you look down and to your right, which is closer to the way many people use reading glasses. Google Glass works with prescription lenses; the Recon Jet does not. Both support in-screen text delivery but only Glass allows voice-activated outbound texting. And while each is packed with motion sensors so they can also inform a user of his or her speed, rate of ascent, and other fitness-oriented data, the Recon Jet’s motion-detecting technology appears to be more robust.
That’s the functionality comparison, but what about the fashion? Who will be drawn to these products on an emotional level? Well, let’s just say that if the power user for Google Glass is the hipster in black taking surreptitious videos of the hot girls at a cocktail party, the key demographic for the Recon Jet appears to be a cyclist training for the Tour de France.
Wearable technology for the rest of us is on its way, and some of it’s already here. Chief among these are a number of products that resemble wristwatches, from the disastrous Samsung Gear (in 2013, consumers returned fully a third of all Gears sold) to the darling of all wearables, the Pebble (enthusiastic potential customers raised more than $10 million for the device on Kickstarter). Unlike the Gear, which promised smartphone features it couldn’t deliver without requiring wearers to also purchase a smartphone, the Pebble has positioned itself primarily as a hip-looking alerts device.
Another category of wrist-worn wearables includes a host of wirelessly connected fitness gadgets, from Nike’s FuelBand (Update: On 4/18/14, Nike decided to get out of the FuelBand hardware business) to Jawbone’s UP24 to Fitbit’s Flex. Fitbit recently turned to fashion-accessories designer Tory Burch to create a collection of “pendants, bracelets, and wristbands” for a new wave of Fitbit products.
The second half of the year promises to be even more consumer-friendly. Apple, which has yet to enter the wearables fray, is expected to do so just in time for Christmas. Intel, which was extremely late to the cell-phone party and seems determined not to make the same mistake with wearables, has lent one of its latest chips to a “smart bracelet” for women. Designed by Opening Ceremony, it will be sold at upscale retailer Barneys. In the meantime, look for the Moto 360 from Motorola, whose first smart wristwatch also happens to be a very handsome one.
While the designs of some of these devices are reasonably stylish (the overly long, wraparound UP24 has a modernist, sculptural quality to it; some of the more colorful Pebble models exude a Swatch-like sense of fun), the Burch-designed devices will be among the first wearables explicitly targeted to fashion-conscious female customers. The Intel/Opening Ceremony/Barneys bracelet is also aiming at the women’s-fashion-accessories market, and while the final design for that device is not yet available, the expectations for it are.
“If the battery went dead,” asks Matthew Woolsey, senior vice president of digital for Barneys, “would you still want to wear it on your body? That’s our standard for a wearable. If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to that question, then you’re making a technical curiosity rather than something that’s part of a customer’s outward clothing expression and sense of fashion and style.”
By that measure, Google Glass, Recon Jet, FuelBand, and most of the rest of the wearables on the market today are unequivocal, dorky failures. More broadly, Woolsey’s statement pokes at that essential philosophical question about wearables—will the acceptance of these devices be driven by their fashion or functionality?
Naturally, people on the forefront of the wearables-technology revolution have different answers, depending on where they sit in the consumer food chain. In general, and not surprisingly, those in charge of a wearable’s performance tend to stress functionality.
David Maidment is the Mobile Segment Marketing Manager for U.K.-based microprocessor designer ARM, whose tiny chips (manufactured by Qualcomm, Samsung, Nvidia, and others) are packed into Pebbles, cell phones, and numerous smart devices, totaling at last count some 80 different products, including the Recon Jet. “A wearable device is a fashion item because it’s worn, it’s on display,” Maidment allows. “People won’t wear these things if they don’t look good. But it’s got to do more than what a watch does, and if people are going to have to plug them in every day to keep them charged, that’s probably not going to work, either. So it’s really about bringing together what’s innovative and cool about the technology, coupled with meaningful services for the consumer.”
In the Pebble’s case, that translates into alerts for incoming texts, email, and phone calls; the same sort of fitness feedback found on FuelBands and Fitbits; the ability to control music on remote devices; and yes, the time. If you don’t mind sleeping with a Pebble wrapped around your wrist, you can put the device on vibrate and use it as a private alarm clock, waking you but not the person sleeping next to you. All of this technology is available right now, online or at your local Best Buy, for as little as $150.
“If you look at the wearable space today,” says Maidment, “some of these devices are just a second screen for your smartphone. You can read your SMS message, your email, but really it’s just acting as a second screen. What we’re seeing more and more of, though, are wearable devices that are actually harvesting and analyzing sensor data. Some of the sports and fitness products are doing that, where you log in to check your guilt chart, showing you how badly you’re missing your targets, or to see how many kilometers you’ve run. In the future, we expect more devices to give you feedback on your lifestyle. They could even begin to merge with some of the medical applications we’re seeing, giving you information about your heart rate, blood-glucose level, and the like.”
That’s where the microprocessor comes in, and why ARM has managed to eat Intel’s lunch when it comes to cell phones and smart devices. Unlike Intel, which had an enormous infrastructure devoted to chips designed for computers, ARM had no such legacy business, which meant it could design microprocessors for the world cell-phone market without worrying about retooling or repurposing existing computer-chip technologies. It also meant that while ARM works closely with some of the biggest electronics manufacturers on the planet, it could pay attention to the needs of a scrappy upstart like Pebble.
“Some of these devices are just a second screen for your smartphone.”
“They recognized that having something that consumes very little power would be at the heart of the Pebble product,” says Maidment of Pebble’s product team. “They wanted something that would be comfortable on the wrist, that would connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth, and that wouldn’t need a charge more than once a week on average. That led them to the ARM Cortex-M3, which is a low-power 32-bit microprocessor. That 32-bit architecture is very important to wearable devices—you need the ability to run sophisticated algorithms while keeping the power consumption low.”
For wearables like the Jawbone UP24—whose overlapping-wrap design features medical-grade, hypoallergenic rubber on the outside and a sausage of hardware inside—data is gathered and processed 24/7. “The sensor is always on,” Maidment says. “It’s always monitoring behavior, not just to track a wearer’s exercise habits but also to analyze and give meaning to their daily living and sleep patterns through a technique called sensor fusion.” All of this monitoring and processing can suck a battery dry, which is why Maidment puts so much emphasis on microprocessors with low-power demands.
Woolsey agrees, but only to a point. “For wearables to succeed,” he says, “obviously the features have to be there and things like battery life have to be incredible. But in order to get people to even experiment with wearables, the first hurdle you must clear is the aesthetic and emotional engagement on the part of the consumers. That’s mandatory.” Without that, Woolsey suggests, you’re stuck in gadget-land.
In addition, he argues, though wearables are connected devices, people are still getting used to thinking of them that way. “People largely associate their online social-media lives with their computers and smartphones,” Woolsey says. “They still think of wearables as being objects first and communications devices second.”
Somewhere in the middle of this debate is Steve Brown, an erudite Englishman who now lives in Portland, Oregon, and whose job description at Intel lists him as the company’s “Chief Evangelist.” “I work in the Experience Research Labs at Intel, which is part of Intel Labs,” he says. “The goal is to understand how people live their lives and what experiences they will want. From that, you can figure out the technology you need to build to achieve it.”
A self-described futurist, Brown looks backward when tackling the fashion-versus-function question. “Wearables are not new,” he says flatly. “What is new is that wearables are now smart and connected. That’s what’s different about them. But people have worn wearable technology—whether it was a sword and shield, a suit of armor, a chatelaine, or a crucifix—for millennia. And they have always been about more than just the utility they provide. A piece of armor, for example, doesn’t just protect you in battle. It also conveys something about your status and who you are. They were fairly ornate pieces of art.”
More recently, in the late 19th century, another ornate wearable technology emerged in the form of the wristwatch. “The first target audience for wristwatches in the late 19th century was women,” says Jim Wolf, who is the director of Watches and Fine Timepieces at Heritage Auctions. The first wristwatch was a Patek Philippe, made in 1868 and sold to Countess Koscowicz of Hungary in 1876. Soon, women of means across Europe wanted a wristwatch of their own. “The reason behind its popularity was fashion,” Wolf says. “Ladies wristwatches were small, delicate, and could be worn on the wrist without a problem. It was really a dress piece of jewelry, like a bracelet.”
Men favored pocket watches. “In the early 1900s, there was a stigma in the eyes of men about wristwatches. They didn’t believe the small timepiece in a wristwatch could be as accurate as a large pocket watch, and the precision of a timekeeping device was important to them. The only reason to have a watch was to be punctual. Also, because of the popularity of ladies wristwatches, some men considered it effeminate to wear a watch on the wrist.”
Eventually, though, men came to favor wristwatches over pocket watches. Initially, the change of heart had to do with their functionality in three male-dominated arenas. “Military aviation personnel during World War I really got wristwatches into the male domain,” Wolf says. “The other thing that led to the acceptance of men wearing wristwatches was the automobile. It’s not practical to pull a watch out of your pocket when you’re flying an airplane or driving a car; it’s much safer and easier to have it on your wrist. On a smaller scale, equestrian sports also had an impact—the LeCoultre Reverso, which could be flipped over so the glass face would be protected, was originally designed in 1931 for polo players.”
As they are today, men in the early 20th century were fond of feature-driven products such as the Breitling Montbrillant chronograph of 1915 or the waterproof Rolex Oyster of 1926. Today, we look at such wristwatches and admire their clean designs, but men’s wristwatches, says Wolf, were purchased primarily as timekeepers. “They were not fashionable,” he says.
That all changed after World War II, when the fashion side of men’s wristwatches finally trumped their functionality. While wristwatches produced throughout the 1920s and ’30s were always handsomely designed, after the war, these devices were worn more explicitly to telegraph a man’s sense of style, as well as his wealth.
“From a gentleman’s standpoint,” says Wolf, “the romance of men’s wristwatches picked up steam post-World War II. That’s when companies like Rolex, for example, decided to sell their timepieces as prestige fashion items, things that signaled success. Sports figures like Arnold Palmer and racecar drivers became pitchmen for wristwatches—Steve McQueen wore a Heuer Monaco in the film ‘LeMans.’ It was marketing that made the wristwatch a status symbol and linked it to men’s fashion.”
Lest it go without saying, marketing is at work right now when it comes to wearables, although the adoption sequence among the sexes for wearables has been exactly opposite of wristwatches. Women may have been the early adopters of wristwatches, but it’s only recently that high-profile designers such as Tory Burch and Opening Ceremony have been enlisted to help the emerging wearables sector create fashion-forward products for women. Until now—Sarah Slocum notwithstanding—the dominant stereotype for wearables is that creepy glasshole guy at the cocktail party.
“If you can understand the context of an individual to know why something is happening, you can predict what might happen next.”
In some respects, though, it’s unfair to compare the adoption-evolution of wristwatches with that of wearables, primarily because of the latter’s game-changing connectivity. In fact, for Brown, the debate about wearables actually goes a good deal beyond the question of fashion versus function. “Fundamentally,” he says, “people want experiences that are personal. They want the world to be easier to navigate, and they want information delivered to them in a much more personal way than it is today. That requires technology that fills our lives and understands us much better than it does today.”
For example, a wristband like the just-released Samsung Gear 2, can tell you that your heart rate is elevated, but Brown’s wristband of the future would also know why. “That’s the really interesting question to answer,” he says. “What’s just happened? That requires an understanding of your daily calendar. If you just came out of a meeting with your boss, then that might be a reason for an elevated heart rate. Or, it could be something you ate. In this case, if the device can figure out that your elevated heart rate is because you’re in a good mood versus being scared or ill, then it is starting to understand your emotional state. At that point, it might decide whether or not to deliver a reminder, because it might be pointless to do so when you’re in a bad mood. So, it’s not just about being able to deliver a reminder like ‘Hey, you need to get milk’ when you’re driving past the grocery store, but to know when to do it based on your mood.”
In other words, says Brown, “if you can understand the context of an individual to know why something is happening, you can predict what might happen next. It’s anticipatory computing, using all of these data sources not just to report that you have an elevated heart rate, but to understand what’s really going on.”
Of course, if you were in a bad mood to begin with, and then you get home and you are still out of milk, your mood might get even worse, but no doubt someone is hard at work writing an algorithm for that eventuality. And just as obviously, the idea of wearing a lie-detector-like device that knows you better than you know yourself freaks a lot of people out.
“When you are talking about fusing massive amounts of data to enable these products and services to become more personal,” acknowledges Brown, “the question you eventually get to is, ‘Well, isn’t that a bit invasive?’ It could be, and that’s an important discussion to have. Which is why when we model the future at Intel, we’re looking at two important components. The first is that the future we want to build must be based on as deep an understanding of human beings as possible. That’s why we are conducting 250,000 interviews in 45 countries around the world. It’s an ongoing process to really understand cultures, people, and what they’re looking for, as well as the future they want to avoid, which is equally important. You need to know what people are concerned about in order to create appropriate safeguards.
“The second component,” Brown continues, “is figuring out how to build trust. In order to have a personalized service, which is what most people tell us they’re looking for from next-generation computing, you have to give up personal information. It’s the same level of trust you must have with a human personal assistant. You have to trust your personal assistant with personal information; otherwise they can’t really do much for you. You have to trust that the secrets you share with them are kept safe and secure. That’s why trust is the foundation of a lot of these future personal-assistant devices, too.”
David Maidment of ARM agrees that trust is an important issue for wearables, although his focus is more tactical than strategic. “We spend a lot of time working with our partners on that. Our TrustZone technology is already deployed in millions of smartphones. Securing the source of that data with your service provider is key, absolutely. That’s a very important part of what’s going on here. In the future, we expect that focus to increase, especially as you start to look at more medical-based data.”
Protecting your data from ill-intentioned hackers is one thing, but what if one day a future president or Congress decides that health-insurance companies should have access to the medical data your wearables have been collecting and be allowed to charge you for your health insurance accordingly? Whether that’s an insanely paranoid or perfectly logical future scenario, it’s probably something neither Intel nor ARM would be able to do anything about, which makes trust a particularly tough nut to crack.
On a more mundane level, it is also unlikely that anything other than the earliest wearable prototypes will ever be worth more than what the early adopters are paying for these devices today.
“Certain Rolex sports models made in the late ’60s, early ’70s, are worth 10 times more today than what they cost back then,” says Heritage’s Wolf. “Last year, a gentleman brought in a Rolex Cosmograph, which came out before they went to the Cosmograph Daytona. He was an aviator, and I think his purchase price was around $400; he had his original receipt. The watch sold at auction for more than $30,000.”
It’s not likely, Wolf says, that anyone will ever get that sort of return on their first-generation Pebble or Gear. “Wristwatches are viewed somewhat as investment objects,” he says. “If you buy a Rolex and keep it for 10 or 15 years, you’ll still be able to get some money out of the object if it’s kept in good condition. If you buy a Pebble and try to sell it in 15 years, the technology will be way outdated. Nobody’s going to want it.”
On the other hand, if you buy a Tory Burch or Opening Ceremony smart bracelet, and then one day in the not-too-distant future the battery will no longer take a charge, you may still want to wear it on your wrist.