2014 has been the year that has introduced the concept of ‘wearables’ to a wide audience. Until now, wearables have been confined to the medical profession and the military. But now, and primarily thanks to two things – fitness bands and Google Glass – the public are getting behind the idea of incorporating wearables into their everyday lives.
So what do the people in the industry think? As 2014 draws to a close, we take a quick look at the future of wearables, and some insider predictions.
Back at the beginning of the year, Indro Mukerjee, CEO of R&D specialists Plastic Logic said: “Flexible electronics is a reality, already proven through the development and manufacture of plastic, bendable displays and sensors. For the first time a fully organic, plastic, flexible AMOLED demonstration has been achieved with a real industrial fabrication process. This marks the start of a revolution in wearable products, the next frontier in consumer electronics – 2014 will be the year that wearable technology starts to go mainstream.”
Looking back over the year it seems that his prediction was right on the mark, and now we’re all becoming increasingly familiar with wearables. Estimates are that in the UK alone we’ll spend £100million on wearables this Christmas, a massive increase on last year’s figures. It seems that wearables really have become mainstream.
Expect a lot more new entrants
Designing a piece of smart tech such as a fitness band or a wearable watch like the Pebble isn’t as costly or as difficult as designing a new laptop or tablet. And thanks to crowd-funding like Kickstarter, more innovative people are going to be able to take advantage of the existing technology and develop their own wearables. The result? A market that is driven not by the multinational corporations, but by Joe Blow and his buddies working out of a garage. Flexible screen technology, organic electronics and even bendable batteries will mean invention, a business that has been relatively static in recent years, will start to explode again.
“Because it is inexpensive to put some of these products together, it does open the door for new companies,” said ARM Holdings CEO Simon Segars.
Thinking outside of the (square) box
But one thing that cannot be overlooked in this technological stampede is aesthetics. Consumers won’t buy something they don’t like the look of, so it’s time for designers to think outside the square box. “They have to look like something you really want to wear before they get mass adoption,” said Mike Bell, head of Intel’s mobile business. “A problem they have is everything is a square touch screen. I’m pretty sure long term that’s not what people are going to want to wear all the time.”
Cutting ties with ‘smart’
We’ve become enamored with our smartphones, but the wearable of the future may well be a standalone piece of kit that cuts those ties. At the moment if you wear a Galaxy Gear smartwatch and it alerts you that you have an email, you still need to access a smart device like a phone or laptop to access the email itself.
“Smart devices, until they become un-tethered or do something interesting on their own, will be too complicated and not really fulfill the promise of what smart devices can do,” Intel’s Bell said. “These devices have to be standalone and do something great on their own to get mass adoption. Then if they can do something else once you pair it, that’s fine.”
Finally, that all-important factor – cost. Wearables are currently at a premium, so that generates a premium price. For the mass market to adopt wearables fully, they need to come down in price. The number of competitors entering the market through crowd-funded businesses may drive that downward price point and force the larger retailers to drop their own prices to compete with the little guys – a consumer first!
Pricing will, however, depend very much on what the product can actually do. If it’s multifunctional and has severed that smartphone tether we talked about earlier, then costs may still be higher. “We see it more as an accessory or companion device,” said Mediatek Chief Marketing Officer Johan Lodenius. “Therefore, price points have to be very low, like $50 or less.”