Wearable tech no longer the Next Big Thing? Be patient

Wearable technologyWe live in an age of wearable technology and it won’t be long before everyone has at least one wearable. Right? Wrong actually. Apparently wearables (in the US at least) aren’t living up to expectations.

Growth in 2017 is expected to be lower than previously predicted with research firm eMarketer saying usage is likely to have grown just under 25% this year, way down on the 60% it predicted a year ago.

Now, 25% isn’t a figure to be easily dismissed. But it does sum up the conundrum surrounding wearables as actual functionality lags brand ambitions and as consumers wait for some better tech to come along.

So why was everyone so very optimistic just 12 months ago? Well, analysts expected consumers to go mad for smartwatches. Although those of us with just a tiny bit of sense realised that wasn’t going to happen just by looking at the low-battery-life, limited-functionality and unattractive designs (for ‘unattractive’ read ‘spectacularly ugly’) out there.

Safilo's Smith brand

Safilo’s Smith brand

For me, the Apple Watch summed that up. I remember editing a piece about it on launch day and having to edit out all the references to how “gorgeous” it was, how it “oozes style” and how it would “change lives”. The writer clearly felt for the hype.

Consumers have since voted with their wallets and while Apple has sold many millions, it’s believed to be way below the sales level we expect from Apple and the company’s reluctance to issue figures speaks volume.

Which is why Safilo’s announcement yesterday about a new wearable tech deal is really interesting. Learning lessons from the unattractive (yeah, that still means spectacularly ugly) look of Google Glass, Safilo was at pains to point out that its nee products will be as much about style as functionality.

It’s linked up with Canada’s Interaxon for the “first ever brain-sensing eyewear platform” and will market products (initially for its Smith performance brand) under the name of Safilox. We’ll get a first look at CES in Las Vegas next month.

Smartwatch

We don’t have many details so far, but we do know that it won’t look nerdy.  Safilo CEO Luisa Delgado said: “[This] is neither another example of technology mounted on frames, nor technology for its own sake. With Safilox our group [offers] a wearable eyewear proposition of unparalleled fit and comfort, aspirational design and style, and compelling consumer relevance.”

Safiilo’s style-as-much-as-functionality approach makes sense. Not only has the take-up of wearables been lower than expected but the abandonment rate is high. That means people are buying them and giving up, either finding them too complicated or deciding they don’t do enough to make it worth their while putting in the effort and wearing something that really doesn’t look great.

It had been predicted that by now, nearly 64m people in the US would use wearables with web connectivity daily. But the actual figure is just shy of 40m. Again, that’s a lot of people, but not necessarily enough to (yet) justify some of the investment being poured in and certainly not enough to guarantee that many start-ups will survive. The big names do at least have deep enough pockets to hang on until wearables hit the big time (which, of course, they will), but smaller firms don’t – as Pebble’s recent demise proves.

“Before Apple launched its iWatch, fitness trackers dominated the wearables space, and consumer surveys consistently found that tracking health and fitness was the main reason people were interested in wearables,” eMarketer analyst Cathy Boyle said. She added that “without a clear use case for smart watches – which have more features than fitness trackers, but significantly overlap with smartphone functionality – the more sophisticated, expensive devices have not caught on as quickly as expected.”

That all means around 17.6% of the population will be wearable users next year, falling short of the magic 20% as which they could genuinely said to be mainstream. But around 30% of Millennials will be wearables users, which offers hope for the future but also suggests that their presence is skewing the overall figure upwards so take-up among older age groups is way below that 17.6% figure.

And while women are buying more wearables (eMarketer says more users will be women by 2018 rather than early adopter men), they’re largely buying fitness trackers, so again, smartwatches and other wearables are lagging.

All in all, not great news for the wearables sector. But that’s not to say things won’t change fast. All it needs is a breakthrough product. The fitness tracker was one. Apple’s smartwatch wasn’t quite one but did go some way towards interesting people in the category. Google Glass wasn’t one. Maybe Safilox will be. We’ll just have to wait and see…. although personally, I’m more fired up by robotics. Now that’s tech that really can change my life.

Robot

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