4 Obstacles Standing in the Way of a Wearable Revolution

August 3, 2015

10:00 am

The future of wearable technology has long been defined by expectations of widespread adoption and uninterrupted growth. In fact, by some estimates the wearable device market in the U.S. alone will be valued at $12.6 billion by 2018. The start of a new year brought about a renewed sense of optimism, with advancements in fitness trackers and smart clothing and the launch of the Apple Watch prompting some to declare 2015 as the year of wearable technology.

Those bold predictions, however, have failed reach their full potential. Google’s early foray into wearables floundered, leading to the closing of Google Glass Basecamp stores worldwide in addition to the abrupt end of the Glass Explorer program. Even the Apple Watch, which many expected would finally spur the growth of the wearable tech market, has experienced slow sales following the April launch, and CEO Tim Cook remained tight-lipped about specific numbers in their newest earnings report.

Despite these setbacks, confidence in the eventual success of wearable tech has not wavered. Analysts are instead shifting their timelines to allow wearable devices to work through its pain points and really break into the mainstream. Still, wearable devices have on more than one occasion fallen short of industry projections, begging the question, “What is standing in the way of wearable tech?”

Here at the element14 Community, we have identified the four biggest roadblocks preventing Wearable Technology 2015 from occurring:

Dependence on smartphones

Most major wearable devices have failed to truly free us from our smartphones. Unlike laptops, which have gone on to replace desktop computers, most wearable devices are strictly complimentary to smartphones. Just take a look at the Apple Watch. In order to accomplish many of the same tasks as a regular smartphone, such as making a call or sending messages, the Apple Watch must always be paired with an iPhone 5 or later through Bluetooth or a Wi-Fi network.

Even the value of many popular fitness trackers has been called into question after a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that free smartphone apps are capable of counting the number of steps a person takes each day nearly as accurately as the Jawbone UP24 and Fitbit Flex. And many of those devices still require access to a smartphone to analyze and display the data being collected.

As devices requiring a smartphone, tablet or related app connection continue to flood the wearables market, consumers must ask themselves whether the benefits introduced by such accessories are enough to warrant a purchase.

Privacy considerations

While the reliance on smartphones has left some consumers wondering what value wearable devices add to their daily lives, privacy concerns have also played a role in slowing the rate of adoption. Most notably, Google Glass had many legislators concerned such technology would enable users to easily and discreetly record others in public settings without their consent.

As Internet-connected sensors drive the design and development of wearable technology, the importance of securing sensitive user information continues to grow. For example, health-monitoring devices that track details regarding sleeping habits, physical activity and even blood glucose levels are not explicitly covered by HIPAA regulations, increasing the risk that such personal information might be obtained by third parties. Before more consumers can place their trust in wearable technology, privacy issues across all applications need to be addressed.

Low battery life

High performance demands from consumers have made the task of engineering wearable devices more difficult than ever before. Although smartphones have been plagued by limited battery life in the past, wearable tech presents a different type of problem. Consumers not only want extended battery life, but also a device that is both light and aesthetically appealing. Such a combination has rendered most traditional battery solutions impractical. Further complicating the problem is display. Consumers want high-resolution devices that can retain much of the same functionality as smartphones, including the ability to run multiple applications at once.

Despite the wide range of power issues with wearable tech, engineers have recently developed an energy saving system that could spell the end of depleted devices. Microsoft’s WearDrive project, for example, increases the battery life of wearable technology up to 3.69 times, in addition to improving performance by nearly nine times. By diverting energy-intensive tasks to a smartphone using Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, WearDrive is able to prolong the battery life of wearable tech. Even the element14 Community has challenged its members on multiple occasions to devise new power management solutions, such as energy harvesting, for electronic devices. Further testing and optimization, however, are required before these solutions can be implemented in wearable devices on a larger scale.

Combining fashion with function

Aside from comfort, design and fashion have proven to play an integral part in a person’s decision to buy a wearable device. Shortly after its launch, the appearance of Google Glass was heavily criticized by designers and consumers alike for its obtrusive design, highlighting the importance of blending style with substance.

Many wearable companies such as Netatmo’s, which makes the June, are calling in jewelry and fashion designers to address this problem head on and strike the right balance of form and function. Conversely, clothing and jewelry designers like Swarovski see an opportunity to address a unique problem in the wearables industry by getting in the game and design their own branded devices.

The challenges outlined above have stalled the widespread adoption of wearable technology for far too long. With help from engineers, security specialists and even fashion designers, these barriers will fall. The real question, however, is whether or not resistance from consumers –  not tech giants – to the growth of wearable technology will impact its place in society. Until then, when the year of wearable tech will finally arrive remains a mystery.

Image Credit: Flickr/Intel Free Press

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Sagar Jethani is the head of content for element14, the world’s largest online community for design engineers and technology enthusiasts – with more than 350,000 members. To learn more and connect with Sagar, visit www.element14.com.

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