Wearable Electronics: 2014’s First Overhyped Category?

Fitbits could face a lot of competition this year.

Every January at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, technology manufacturers roll out what they hope will become the Next Big Thing. One year, they introduce netbooks (remember those?); the next, smartphones; and after that, tablets. Of the prototypes and first-gen devices on display, maybe one or two will prove a hit on the open market; many of the rest won’t even make it onto store shelves, victims of funding cuts or corporate reshuffling.

In 2014, wearable electronics could constitute the Next Big Hype, and it’s easy to see why. The mobile-device market, once considered a relatively wide-open field, has evolved into a duopoly of Google Android and Apple’s iOS, with BlackBerry and Windows Phone battling for the market-share scraps. The PC market is anemic, to say the least, with manufacturers scrambling to produce a new generation of laptops and desktops that will slow that sales decline. By contrast, wearable electronics offer the tantalizing prospect of a market not dominated by any single tech behemoth, where any startup with a little moxie and a whole lot of VC dollars can potentially become the next Google or Apple.

Actually, Google has a bit of an early start, having released beta versions of its Google Glass augmented-reality headwear (or headware, to coin a term). But Glass remains in limited release, and questions remain about its viability in the larger market—will it be priced low enough to draw consumers in? Will developers manage to create a “killer app” that makes the hardware a must-have? Or will the movement peter out and die, a casualty of the Borg-like strangeness of having a camera-and-screen rig attached to one’s head?

Less-obtrusive wearable electronics could prove a surer bet—at least, that’s the hope of Apple and other companies developing “smartwatches” and “smart-bracelets” for release over the next two years. Nike’s FuelBand and the FitBit offer an early glimpse at that emerging subcategory: the bracelets can track everything from steps taken to calories burned, offering insight into the user’s athletic activity (and sleeping patterns) throughout the day. But again, will large numbers of people—especially those already wearing a watch—opt to strap another device to their arms, when their bags and pockets are already loaded up with gizmos?

Whether or not wearable electronics transforms into a market on the scale of smartphones and tablets, two groups will clearly benefit from any rising interest in the category: software developers and data scientists. The hardware and sensors are there; but as anyone who owns Glass or a FuelBand already knows, the devices remain somewhat limited in the data they can present, and the functionality on offer. Software developers could change that by creating new apps—and spark some unit-selling hype in the process.

Data scientists are the other part of that equation. The lure of wearable electronics is how they quantify (and amplify) the subjective nature of the user’s existence: it’s video and photos shot from your point of view, your calories and footsteps and miles recorded, your voice and winks and hand gestures that activate the various features. That’s a whole lot of personal data generated every minute; a data scientist with access to all that information (whether from an individual, or even the entirety of a device’s user community) could use it to create better apps, deliver insights into everything from exercise to sleeping habits, and even—this is where things turn to the dark side—figure out how to best use wearable electronics as an advertising medium.

So even if wearable electronics remain a niche industry, data scientists could profit enormously from the increased interest. The question is which—if any—of the coming devices will prove a breakout hit.


Image: Fitbit