May 11, 2014 7:03 pm

Why wearable technology is a bad fit

Sergey Brin and designer Diane von Furstenberg launch Google Glass at her show©Reuters

A good look? Sergey Brin and designer Diane von Furstenberg launch Google Glass at her show

If you were travelling Upper Class with Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow this spring, you might have been checked in by staff wearing Google Glass. The airline says it was trialling Glass as an “innovative pilot scheme”. “Trial” may be an overstatement, as Glass is nowhere near ready to go mainstream: it is probably more accurate to say that this was a stunt to raise brand awareness – something Virgin is very good at.

Glass is probably the most visible and best-known of the current crop of “wearables” – which include smartwatches, biometrics monitoring devices and wearable cameras – which is quite an achievement for Google, given that it is available only to a small coterie of early adopters who have been prepared to shell out $1,500 for the privilege of being beta testers and walking adverts for Google.

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Glass has had a lot of coverage since it was launched last year – not all of it gushing. The most common epithet for the self-conscious tech pioneers who wear them in the wild is “Glasshole”.

While Glass has attracted attention, wearables are not taking off. They are a classic example of businesses trying to create a market where none exists. Apple got away with it by kick-starting the tablet market with the iPad, but whether anyone else will be able to pull off the same trick with wearables remains to be seen. There are two reasons for this: nobody seems to need them. As Carolina Milanesi, chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel, the research company, politely puts it: “The value proposition of wearables is unclear to consumers.”

So, wearables are really devices manufacturers hope we will purchase because they need us to buy more gadgets as smartphones cease to be cool and increasingly become unexciting commodity devices.

“Wearables started as a need for the vendors – not the consumers,” Milanesi says. “As with tablets, they’re pushing them to see if they can make up for lost revenue.”

Mike Bell, vice-president and general manager of new devices for Intel, echoes Milanesi when he says that “part of what we’re trying to do is help create the market”. Intel of course has a very big interest in wearables if their developers can be persuaded to use Intel’s chips. To that end, Intel is busy hooking up with unlikely bedfellows in the fashion industry. Which brings me to the second reason: most look dire, others ridiculous.

“Most are really ugly,” says Bell. Milanesi concurs, adding: “Design is absolutely crucial.”

It is striking that the only wearables that have found a foothold are unobtrusive fitness wristbands such as the Fitbit, Nike’s Fuelband and the Sony Smartband. A report from consultancy Endeavour Partners this year said that one in 10 US consumers over 18 now owns a fitness-tracking device.

Such devices are at least useful and low-key. By contrast, smartwatches are chunky, prone to run out of juice and tethered to your smartphone.

Samsung, which dominates the smartphone market, stumbled badly with its first attempt at a smartwatch, the Galaxy Gear, eventually given away for free with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Even this could not entice people to wear them – eBay has seen a surge in the devices being offered for sale.

For a device to win hearts – and wallets – it must find a place in people’s lives and cultures. At present, wearables are jarring rather than something people want to embrace. You do not have to look hard to find stories of bars banning Glass and concerns about privacy. Milanesi puts her finger on that unease when she says that “you are subjecting others to something you’ve chosen” with Glass and similar devices.

Will.i.am uses his smartwatch on 'The Voice' television show©Guy Levy/BBC

Calling time: Will.i.am uses his smartwatch on 'The Voice' television show

And in many cases, wearables are just plain flaky. At the end of March, owners of Pebble smartwatches found themselves wearing just a rather expensive watch when an update temporarily robbed the devices of all functionality except telling the time. The following weekend, the musician Will.i.am – who moonlights as Intel’s “director of creative innovation” – demonstrated to a live audience that a smartwatch can make you look daft when his attempt to call Cheryl Cole during the final of the BBC’s The Voice talent show using his own self-branded smartwatch did not go as planned.

Wearables need to be useful, beautiful, reliable and not make their user look like an idiot. But for now, they mostly seem to be about manufacturers trying to wring more money out of bored consumers who have yet to be convinced that a wearable is a must-have.

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