Is wearable tech worth wearing?

Think Progress Team

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Is wearable technology the greatest invention since smartphones or the latest tech flunk? Wearables has delivered much promise about the possibility of things to come. But now with so many on the market, are we embracing wearables with open arms or have they been relegated to the gadget bin?

From glasses that help you find someone in a crowd, to jewellery that sends alerts to friends if you’re in need of help, or wristbands that measure fitness – examples of wearable technology are as wild and varied as our imagination.

But therein lies the problem. Left to our imagination, we can come up with all kinds of both quirky, yet cutting-edge technology. Though for many, it’s still a case of design over function.

For everyday use, wearables have found their audience lacking in enthusiasm and asking a simple question: why give up a good thing that already works? A smartphone that does pretty much everything we need.

Bucking the trend

The exception to the rule seems to be the fitness industry, with concepts like Nike+, Strava and Garmin all proving successful. Their popularity stems from being a mix of form and function – they are lightweight, inconspicuous and useful. Each device tracks a runner or cyclist during exercise and delivers details such as length of route and top speed, while allowing data to be compared against friends or internet strangers, as well as showing personal progress.

Of course, the fitness market has also delivered its fair share of questionable products. For around £83 you can buy a pair of socks infused with textile sensors, which show you how much pressure you put on different parts of your feet.

One of the most vaunted devices has been the mobile phone/wristwatch. Putting aside horrible design issues (a touch screen that’s too small to be effective and a box that’s too big to sit comfortably on the wrist), there’s a fundamental problem with the basic idea – it’s convoluted. And the concept is out of step with current trends. The ubiquity of smartphones means that for many consumers, watches are becoming a thing of the past. Who wants to trade their fully functional smartphone for a wristwatch that’s clunky and ugly and tricky to use?

A bigger jump towards cyborg is a voice-activated computer that sits on your glasses and projects images into your line of vision.

In 2013, there was huge hype around the device but even as prices have dropped dramatically, uptake remains low. And those interested in the technology can find more discreet devices in the making. Kiwi Moves is a small clip-on device that can hide in a shirt collar, under a cuff or on a belt. It can track your fitness schedule, record your daily routine, sync up with other technologies and be taught custom instructions.

Form over function

While futuristic and quirky, one of the biggest problems with these devices is they’re no better than what consumers already have and they do little to meet customer needs. A watch that measures your heart rate while you run is great for fitness buffs but a watch that is harder to use than your phone isn’t great for anyone.

Other duff products include jumpers that light up depending on your body heat – a 2014 version of the mood ring. Meanwhile, not content with the success of Bluetooth headsets (one of the most popular wearables to date), O2 has taken the view that people would prefer to wear Bluetooth gloves (one of the least popular wearables) and talk into their fingers. Sony may soon outdo O2, as it has a patent on a SmartWig.

Whether the technology and design will meet and deliver a product people want to actually wear remains hanging in the balance. But it definitely hasn’t stopped companies creating new products or scientists working the next step: implantable technology.