Almost out of nowhere, the term “wearables” has become the technology buzzword of the year. Whether you’re talking about fitness trackers, smartwatches, or Internet-connected glasses, it’s become some sort of obvious cultural conclusion that these devices are “the next big thing”.
I’ve actually been interested in wearables since the release of the first Jawbone UP in 2011. I thought it was the coolest, so I bought one. It was great for a little while, but it turned out to be rather boring in the end. Insights weren’t all that insightful, and whenever it came time to charge the thing, I would more often than not procrastinate in doing so, leaving it to be nothing more than a $140 orange-coloured fashion accessory.
I found that the UP was more of a pattern recognizer for me than anything else. After about 30 days, I was so used to seeing that I take 9,000 steps every day and that I sleep for 5 and a half hours every night that I ultimately stopped syncing it to my phone. I’d wished that this information about my body would be taken to a further degree, but that never really happened. I wanted the device and its software to do a better job with telling me how and what I should or shouldn’t change. I realize that it would’ve taken some real software breakthroughs to make that happen, but it’s something that I want to see from these devices going forward.
Since 2011, so many companies—both big and small—have set out to tackle the future of wearable computing, and I feel that all have failed to achieve greatness in any significant form. It turns out, though, that fitness tracking devices like the UP, the FitBit, and the Nike Fuelband, are actually my favorite wearables. They are the closest of any devices I’ve seen to an awesome future of wearable computers, mostly because they don’t try to do a million different things poorly, they try to do one or two things greatly. They’re close, but not truly great yet.
Other more complex devices like the Samsung Galaxy Gear, which is so terrible that I refuse to even link to it, are even further away from making a truly great wearable. I’m going to attribute this mostly to sheer laziness, because while it is a huge challenge, it’s something that will eventually be solvable.
Companies like Samsung have rushed to get a product with a shitload of features to the market before anybody else (Apple?), and they’ve ended up making a product that is not only incredibly unenjoyable to use, but is also rather pointless. Devices like the Jawbone UP have a purpose, and that is to help you be more aware of your body. I don’t know what the purpose of the Galaxy Gear is. To make the ugliest watch/camera/video-call device ever to be strapped onto the human wrist, maybe?
If Samsung had focused on tackling the structural pieces of making a good wearable instead of making a feature-packed computer that happens to sit on your wrist, these products would be much, much better. The sad truth is that they haven’t tackled the basics, and neither has anybody else so far. There are several structural pieces to making a good wearable that I feel have been overlooked by these companies.
Instead of making computers that happen to attach to our bodies, we should be trying to make devices that we actually want attached to our bodies all the time. We have a unique opportunity here to look at a long history of clothing, accessories, and jewelry to build on. I wish that people would realize this instead of jumping head first into a product that, at its core, doesn’t want to be strapped to a human being.
So how do we go about making something that does?
Before anything else, somebody needs to tackle charging, because charging a wearable simply isn’t natural, especially for things that claim to be “24/7” devices. These things are, ideally, tracking our health and providing information to us. As soon as something that we rely on is taken away from its usual home, whatever convenience-factor that was there is now essentially gone.
Not only is it unnatural from an information standpoint, but it’s unnatural from a traditional standpoint, as well. When do we ever think, "oh no, I really have to charge my bracelet!? The answer is never.
I don’t know whether it will be a clever use of solar power, wireless charging, or a combination of the two, but something has to be done so that people don’t have to think about babysitting these things.
The next big piece in the puzzle is fashion. I quite like how the Jawbone UP looks, or at least before the UP24 came out and flushed its beauty down the toilet. However, pretty much every smartwatch that I’ve seen so far is really, really ugly. And I mean really, really, really ugly.
Whenever I see a modern smartwatch, the first conclusion that I come to is that a technologist designed it. One of the things about these devices that is so fundamentally different from other computing experiences is that design not only affects the fashion of the product, it affects the fashion of the customer.
People rarely even wear watches anymore, but when they do it’s mostly because they like the way it looks. Or more importantly, they like the way it looks on them. If we’re going to convince people that they should want to buy these types of products, we’re going to have to make them physically appealing.
The third piece of my smartwatch puzzle is software. This thing is going to need software that is fundamentally different for it to be any good. It can’t just be a grid of icons, and it can’t just mimic the interface of the phone because it is such a different kind of device.
Personally, I’m hoping for an interface that focuses on providing subtle contextual information, like weather forecasts and health-related tips. I think that Google Now with fitness tie-ins and optimization for really small displays would make for a really interesting software experience on a watch, but that’s up for debate.
Whatever it is, it’s going to have to be simple. People shouldn’t have to manage their watch or spend tons of time and energy setting it up. The smartwatch should be a rethinking of the traditional watch. It should build upon the elements that made watches such a great idea in the first place, and a large portion of that weight will be put on how good the software is.
I think that simplicity is really the key here, and I know that’s easier said than done, but it’s true. It’s going to take someone who is a little bit more conservative with the core function to really push things forward.
That means focusing on those core functions and how they work, so that we can make a wearable that people actually want to wear. It’s going to take someone who has really thought about how and why somebody should want to wear one of these things on their bodies at all times, and that’s not an easy thing to do, either.
Until someone gets that right, there is nothing appealing about this category. It’s going to take great hardware, accessible design, and really smart software. I’m willing to bet that someone in the next two years will be able to strike that balance and make something really great. Guess who.