Promises and Pitfalls of Wearable Technology

Sales of wearable devices — such as smartwatches, fitness wristbands, smart glasses and smart jewelry — exceeded $2 billion in 2015. Experts project that sales will reach $5.8 billion in 2018.

Consumer demand continues to look promising for fitness wearables and smartwatches. In 2015, the number of adults using smartwatches and fitness devices increased almost 58% over 2014, according to eMarketer. Double-digit growth is expected to continue through 2017.

Businesses are looking for ways to enter and thrive in this market. However, consumer interactions with the most popular devices have revealed some challenging issues.

Here are some of the concerns that confront wearable tech:

  • Social acceptance and style/aesthetics
  • Limited usefulness
  • Data quality
  • Cost
  • Power demand
  • Abandonment rate

Lagging Social Acceptance: Wearables Are Not Yet Mainstream

A few people can be seen texting from their smartwatches or reading the “screen” of their computerized glasses. But not many, as of yet.

Smartwatches tend to look square and less in sync with all but early-adopters’ sense of style. Their chunky look may be partly to blame for stalling wider consumer demand, says Business Insider’s Lisa Eadicicco.

Is appearance a greater barrier than device makers realize? New ultra-thin, subtler designs have emerged since the Apple Watch. But their design must meet the challenge of a shape that cuts off the corner area of the screen.

Smart glasses have yet to overcome consumer desires to avoid eyewear, maintain privacy and fit in with peers. Plus, many consumers are not sure what problems the headset would solve.

In January of 2015 Google closed its Google Glass early adopter Explorer program and stopped selling prototypes. Some people felt wearers’ possible recording activities made them “creepy.” They have been banned in Las Vegas, and in some California bars due to privacy concerns and objections as to what wearers might be doing with their hands-free tech.

Still, a promising future could well emerge for such headsets. Google is re-focusing on business applications for Glass. In medicine or manufacturing for example, users could view data and interact with apps on Glass and free themselves from hand-held devices. Internet connectivity can make images and data from Glass useful to other staff and also improve other services. By making employees more productive and businesses more competitive, Google aims to open up new, more receptive markets for its smartglasses.

Limited Usefulness, “Plug and Play” Issues

Healthcare wearables were worth $5.1 billion in 2015, reported Forbes. However, experts have found several issues users have with health-related wearable devices.

According to a 2015 Accenture survey of users, “24 percent said that wearable health monitors are too complicated to use; 22 percent said they did not set up properly; and 21 percent said they don’t work as advertised,” reports Mobi Health News.

Users do not want to enter significant amounts of information to start using their devices. If they fail to perform certain actions, the device is much less useful. And sometimes the results can be difficult for users to interpret.

Plug-and-play capability is one way designers hope to get around the need to set up and enter data into a device. A possible downside is that users must invest in (or stick with) a proprietary platform. The current generation Apple Watch works best only when linked with an iPhone, for example. The 2016 Pebble watch will work with Android or iOS phones, but not Blackberry or Windows Phone 7. The future should allow us to leave our phones behind, as smartwatches with direct connectivity are in development.

Less Than Consistently Reliable Data

A class action lawsuit against Fitbit is one sign of the trouble that can come from disappointed expectations. Users complain that the device’s heart monitoring readings are significantly inaccurate. The problems tend to appear as the activity rate goes up. A study found that the sensor was off by “an average of about 19 beats per minute” for 43 subjects. This research by the California Polytechnic University was paid for by the plaintiff’s law firm and was not peer-reviewed.

Other efforts to settle the accuracy question have been inconclusive. CNET tested five fitness tracking devices (excluding Fitbit). The study found them mostly accurate for users at rest. However, after exercise, readings of wrist-worn devices had the highest error rates.

More promising opportunities may emerge for devices made for healthcare applications, especially for an aging population. Experts predict older users will become bigger growth drivers for health monitoring wearables in the US. While just under 10% of those 65 and older used wearable tech in 2015, eMarketer predicts about 36% of this age group will use wearables by 2018.

Cost Concerns

According to a survey by Kantar Worldpanel, cost is the top reason not to buy, say 41% of people who have decided against a smartwatch purchase in the next 12 months. The second most cited reason is usefulness: 33% say they get what they need from their phones.

A lack of stronger consumer demand has kept the cost of wearables high enough that they are still purchased mainly by early adopters. Manufacturers are still uncertain which features are most critical to consumers. Preferences should grow clearer as firms analyze more market data.

Time may ease some cost issues; consumer prices usually trend lower for electronics as manufacturing and technical improvements advance.

Power Demand: Battery Life

Battery life is a serious pain point for consumers. The Apple Watch lasts between 18 hours and two days, depending on the use. Other brands promise about five days for their activity trackers or watches. But extending time between charges comes at a price — such as turning off GPS (if you have one), stopping to configure power-saving settings, or using a dim screen.

Battery life is a difficult technology to improve. The challenge is for wearable makers to resolve power-saving and recharging hassles in ways that feel worthwhile to users. So far this is proving a tough test to pass.

Abandonment Rate

End-user research shows a sobering abandonment rate for wearable devices. Between 33 to 50% of customers will stop using a wearable within six months of purchase, says Forbes.

Fitness tracker brands see the need to keep users engaged with their products. Motivating and rewarding users for reaching goals, and integrating more features are on the table as ways to raise engagement levels.

The fastest, most promising way to keep users engaged could be to add payment power. Fitbit is integrating mobile payment systems into its devices. Health tracker Jawbone, the Pebble smartwatch, and the Apple Watch already offer frictionless shopping with a wave or a tap at checkout.

The Future of Wearable Tech

While wearable tech is generating excitement and innovation, it is important to understand the challenges of this market. In addition to greater convenience and support for fitness, mobile payments via wearable devices is a promising emerging application.

Despite many great promises, a cautious consumer reception offers some valuable insights. Consumers care about privacy, usefulness, cost, and experiences that add genuine value. Consumers may be slower to adapt to wearable tech unless brands can overcome concerns about style, security, and the ongoing case for using them once the novelty wears off. Business applications may hold more promising opportunities for wearable technology, by enhancing employee performance and user experiences organizations can offer.



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