What’s stopping wearable tech?


The future of wearable technology is characterized 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?”

At element14, we think we’ve identified the four biggest roadblocks standing in the way of widespread wearables.

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.

Originally published on Tech.co

Beyond the Internet of Silly Things

samsung ceo bk moon

When Samsung CEO BK Yoon delivered the keynote speech at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, he pronounced a grandiose vision of the Internet of Things (IoT):

IOT technology is not about things. Instead, it is about people… Each of us will be at the center of our very own technology universe… We are bringing the physical and digital worlds together. This will revolutionize our lives. It will unlock infinite possibilities.

Yoon was criticized by several observers for promulgating his lofty vision while remaining vague on specifics, like how to ensure true data security and provide users with an intuitive, truly useful improvement over the way they currently do things. One of the examples he described of how exactly IoT will revolutionize the world is that a device can be built to alert users when their wine cellar runs low.

Clearly, something is amiss.

Gold rush

While attending the tradeshow in 2013, I happen to pass the booth of a large, well-recognized company that had been operating in the electronics industry for many years. To my surprise, it had modified its standard event signage by adding a number of IoT buzzwords. That evening, I bumped into a friend who works for said company.

“So,” I ventured. “Powering the Internet of Things?” He threw me a wry expression.

“Don’t even start,” he began. “Ever since Google bought Nest, we’ve been getting all kinds of pressure from corporate to ‘define our IoT strategy’ lest we get left behind.”

Indeed, Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition of the Internet-connected thermostat company was a shot heard ’round the tech world. Wall Street suddenly began paying attention to IoT, and companies like my friend’s began receiving pointed inquiries as to whether they, too, had an IoT strategy.

That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of useful applications for connecting everyday objects to the Internet. At element14, we have seen some incredibly useful concepts come to life, ranging from a device that sends a message to your phone whenever someone approaches your front door, to a lawn monitoring device that alerts you when it’s time to cut the grass, to athletic uniforms that alert coaches when a player has received a strong impact and should be checked on.

These are examples of truly useful IoT, but they are also swimming against a tide of devices that bear the appellation of “smart” simply because someone slapped a chip in them. Do you really need a refrigerator that connects to the Internet? Do you need to measure every footfall with Wi-Fi-enabled running shoes? Even Nest had difficulty in building a successor to its famous Wi-Fi-connected thermostat: Critics largely panned its Internet-connected smoke alarm as being of little practical value, and its subsequent recall and price cut suggests it may have been rushed to market without considering the actual needs of users. And then there’s Samsung’s IoT-based wine cellar alert system.

Meet the Internet of Silly Things.

You say you want a revolution?

The gold rush heralded by Google’s acquisition of Nest has created a flood of new Internet-connected products all promising to revolutionize the way we do things. But consumers might not need a revolution – they may, however, respond to products that actually make their lives easier.

Design engineers need to look beyond hardware when formulating IoT devices to make them truly useful. More than ever, they must put themselves in the user’s shoes and ask basic questions about whether the product in question actually serves any useful purpose.

Forget refrigerators with built-in LCD screens: why not design a fridge with an internal camera that can move on tracks and stream video to your phone? That way, you’d know whether or not to buy that carton of eggs when you’re at the grocery store. Or what about adding geolocation sensors to your car? Then it can tell you where it is if you can’t remember where you parked.

There are plenty of good ideas out there. It’s time to move beyond the Internet of Silly Things and build them.



Originally published on Embedded Computing.