Are wearables wearing thin?

Are wearables really a viable market, and will they come into the mainstream any time soon?

Are wearables wearing thin?
Credit: flickr/Keoni Cabral

I saw a startup wearable company give a presentation at a hacker space. They were starting production on shirts with sensors that relayed information to a website like heart rate, body temperature, and maybe sweat production (I don’t remember the details). They didn’t give out their numbers like production costs, pricing, revenues, or profits. I don’t believe they’d gone into production yet and were still raising investment. I began wondering if someone would really pay for a shirt embedded with sensors, processors, and software to get a continuous real-time readout of their workout. It sounds cool, but the costs would be high for all that technology woven into the material. And how long would the shirt last? I don’t think you could just throw it in the washing machine—in fact I’m not really sure how you clean it—but avid exercisers typically wear through clothes fairly frequently. And a small tear in workout clothes with sensitive electronics might render the entire shirt unusable -- or at least unusable to record or send information though it still might be a decent looking piece of clothing.

So are wearables really a viable market? I don’t know. I can see the potential utility in smart watches, but I still question the value. Does anyone else remember the calculator watches of the 1970s? My dad, a technology aficionado before it was cool, had one but he was a big man with big fingers who couldn’t press a single key without also pressing the surrounding eight keys. Still, that watch was meant to impress rather than be useful, so there could be a market for smart watches and smart shirts and all kinds of other wearables just to impress friends and coworkers, but how big?

I see smart glasses, like Google Glass, to be a wearable technology that really introduces unique functionality that can’t be duplicated with simpler or cheaper alternatives. Smart glasses create an all new user experience for virtual reality, augmented reality, and just a terrific immersive user interface that can allow the user to do much more than a touch screen or keyboard. However, smart glasses come with problems concerning safety and privacy that will need to be worked out. As seen in Google’s recent decision to terminate (or “indefinitely postpone”) development of Google Glass, the problems are obviously not easy to solve. Even for a company with Google’s resources.

So will wearables come into the mainstream any time soon? It’s hard to say. I believe that some wearable applications will eventually catch on, I’m just not sure when. Home automation was a great idea that was “around the corner” for several decades. It’s only now that it’s truly gaining traction though it has still doesn’t have widespread acceptance. But other wearable applications will go the way of the home robot and the calculator watch. My belief is that one or two great applications will survive, but many will be short lived.

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