Of the innovations jockeying for "the next big thing" nomenclature, wearable tech stands out--both literally and figuratively--as an arena with serious promise. But what often goes overlooked is the fact that wearable tech has been around for decades. Think of the infamous phrase, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," which was powered by a Plantronics headset. Or perhaps the release of Pulsar's Calculator Watch in 1975, Sony's Walkman in the late 1970s, Nicolet's digital hearing aid in the late 1980s, and GoPro's HERO Camera in the early 2000s. The first iPhone was released in 2007.
While Apple's first-generation iPhone is far from being a wearable tech contender, it marks the transition in mobile from feature to platform device. In 2007, there were 161 million smartphones globally; today there are 1.65 billion. Yankee Group forecasts there will be 3.1 billion by 2017. The wearable tech industry is on a similar trajectory.
Some of today's most frequently cited use cases for wearable gadgetry include glass-based or wrist-based applications, and with the release of Samsung's Galaxy Gear smart watch, Misfit's Shine and Fitbit's Force, it's pretty clear that wearable tech has taken to the runway. But before these devices can launch a paradigm shift in the larger mobile ecosystem, they must clear a few hurdles:
- Cellular connectivity. The majority of today's wearable tech solutions rely heavily on other devices, and Samsung's Galaxy Gear smart watch is a prime example. Making the leap from Bluetooth-enabled companion device to smart device requires cellular connectivity. While companies able to parlay this disconnect will remove the governor on wearable tech innovation, it will be up to operators to facilitate this.
- Stand-alone functionality. The Misfit Shine, a quarter-sized device that is perhaps best known for its aesthetics, is on track to make the "wearable" part of wearable tech somewhat less of a misnomer. However, for tracking devices such as this one to reach their full potential, they need to become more than just companion devices. This means evolving from feature-enablement to platform-rich ideation.
- Pricing and packaging. End-users only have a finite amount of personal real estate on which to fasten wearable tech devices. For this reason, pricing and packaging needs to be in tune with a solution's value proposition. Activity-tracking bands such as the Fitbit Force have already seen the benefit in this strategy by focusing on a specific target market (fitness, in this case). However, as device capabilities improve, the temptation to stray from this directive will challenge companies to keep the scope of their wearable tech initiatives in frame.
Companies hoping to pull ahead must be willing and able to leverage both hardware and software innovations from peripheral industries. We've already seen how big data analytics tools play a major role in the context of wearable tech, giving rise to "the quantified self," real-time tracking and remote monitoring capabilities. Wearable tech won't rise to the next level, however, until it puts these critical pieces in place. Only then will companies be able to deliver successful, affordable and platform-centric connected wearable tech solutions.
Ryan Martin is an Associate Analyst on Yankee Group's Mobile and Connected Device Strategies team. His research covers M2M and emerging technologies, including connected cars, usage-based insurance (UBI) and wearable devices. Prior to joining Yankee Group, Martin served as a consultant at Mobile Future Institute, a U.S.-based think tank focused on business strategies and marketing tactics for the mobile ecosystem. Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanMartin_1