Wearable tech clearly has legs, and is projected to grow into a $19 billion market in the next four years, with consumer spending ballooning by more than 1200 percent by 2018. And my general feelings for wearables are warm and supportive. I'm jazzed by the prospect of strapping sensors and microchips to my temples and wrists. It's just so irresistibly gadgety.
Still, aside from a small collection of fitness products, currently available wearable offerings are difficult to use and aesthetically challenged. They confuse users (I'm looking at you, smart watches). They elicit contemptful stares (I'm looking at you, Google Glass). Bluntly speaking: They're not very good.
The situation evokes memories of 2011 when traditional laptop manufacturers reacted to the stunning success of the iPad with a throng of flawed Android tablets. But this time around there's not even an iPad to validate the concept. At least one industry analyst, however, is optimistic.
"The wearables market is experiencing a hype bubble right now, but so did the Internet in 1999, and that didn't make the Internet any less important," says J.P Gownder, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. "Still, wearables vendors need to make sure that they are solving unique problems for users. A smart watch that simply replicates the same activities you can do by pulling your smartphone out of your pocket won't find a huge market."
Activity trackers step to the front of the line
Activity trackers form the one wearables category that's somewhat mature, and not defined from top to bottom by flawed design. Certainly, a number of bottom-feeding fitness-tech companies will make a showing at CES 2014, if only because it's so easy to pack a simple wristband with an accelerometer, pair it with some off-the-shelf algorithms, and then go to market.
But a number of proven fit-tech players will also be at the show, and I'm excited to see how they'll evolve their gear. Basis, the company that trumpets the greatest array of body sensors in any wrist-worn activity tracker, promises interesting tricks up its sleeve, but is currently keeping mum on whether it will be showing off new hardware or extensions to its software platform.
Basis CEO Jef Holove did, however, tell me that he "anticipates a shift" in how manufacturers approach fitness-tracking hardware. "When Apple released the iPhone 5 with the M7 processor, it became even more clear that many of basic functionalities of trackers would be assumed by users' smartphones, creating a challenge for health trackers to do something more," Holove says. "For Basis, we've been taking this approach from the start with our multiple sensors getting at real bio signals. And we expect others will begin to look for ways to do more than apps can do on their own."
Then there's Fitbit, which has a large line of activity trackers, and will be at the show for the third year in a row. I don't expect any new wearables from this company, as it just released the Fitbit Force in October. But perhaps we'll see overall platform updates, or some kind of announcement that keeps one of the biggest names in activity tracking in the CES news mix.