This piece first appeared on The Telegraph
Every year Rachel Arthur, a technology and fashion writer, makes a pilgrimage to Las Vegas in the hope that the technology industry will have finally produced some stunning wearables to show off at CES. Why is she perennially disappointed?
Let me share my favourite fact about CES, the famous Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas every year: the amount of space dedicated to showing off technology is the equivalent of 38 football fields.
The vastness is overwhelming . Every January fear hits me anew, as I make my annual pilgrimage to this fizzing temple of innovation, alongside thousands of other eager beavers.
Wearable technology was firmly on CES 2015’s agenda, secured by the announcement of the Apple Watch, not to mention numerous other releases and collaborations from the industry during 2014. Duly – ‘wearables’ as they are known in the trade, were given pride of place at this year’s show.
However, despite the hype, these gizmos disappointingly failed to deliver for another year. Designs are still clunky and basic functionality of most attempts remain unchanged. In short, what we’ve got is a series of “me too” devices – items that match in both what they look like and do. Yes there are a handful of designs certainly more geared towards women than in 2014, which is perhaps the most positive takeaway from all this, but even those aren’t overly worth shouting about.
So why hasn’t the wearables sector made good on its early promise?
Tom Goodwin, SVP of strategy and innovation at Havas Media, says the issue comes down to the industry pushing out what it’s easily possible to produce, rather than looking to creative types to explore human needs and desires. “We’re seeing a lot of devices that look similar and perform similar functions,” he explained. “Wearables should be designed with consumer behaviour in mind, catering to an unmet human need and utilising a unique technology – but I haven’t seen many examples of this at CES this year. It feels companies are hurriedly jumping into the space quickly to steal a march on Apple.”
Indeed, nestled in the back corner of the trade show a Chinese business was spied selling a fake but functional version of the Apple Watch for just $27, according to tech site Mashable.
Fakes aside, the smart watch continued to dominate. As a category, there’s huge belief in this category. But does anyone want one?
Buoyed heavily by Apple’s pending release, they’re expected to see growth of 358 per cent to a total of 10.8m sales in the US from 2014 to 2015, according to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).
However, the overall feeling amongst the experts is that there’s little differentiation out there in terms of innovation between brands – whether it’s from Samsung, Motorola or Sony, or indeed some of the lesser-known names on show like Burg Wearables, Wellograph and MyKronoz. All of them offer clunky watches that frankly aren’t great to look at or grace the wrist.
Design should be an easy win these days – especially with sensors becoming smaller and more affordable, and battery life lasting longer. Yet, the floor at CES was still full of big ugly styles; styles at the worst end of the scale you couldn’t imagine many men wearing, let alone women.
Arguably there’s an expectation that a watch should look like a watch, therefore it’s inevitable many releases will be aesthetically similar. From a traditional watch perspective, subtle finishes are always the differentiators – but many of these “smart” variations still look like boxes housing technology, rather than specimens of high quality design.
This deficit leaves an enormous gap for the likes of Tag Heuer, rumoured to be considering working on its first wearable for release at the end of this year at the earliest, to swoop in. In a noteworthy move, interim chief executives Jean-Claude Biver, recently said: “We will only make smart watches if we are the best, different and unique.”
In the meantime, there were a handful of exceptions at CES this year beginning to prove there’s some hope for this section of the wearables market.
Guess for instance, has teamed up with Martian Watches to launch a smart watch for men and women, both of which look great. They alert wearers to calls and texts and enable voice command for replies.
Withings also released its new Activité Pop – a cheaper version of its original analogue-looking activity tracker with much of the same charm and a variety of different colourways to choose from (aka not just pink for women).
Also for women, comes the new collaboration between Swarovski and Misfit. Housing the Misfit Shine activity-tracking device within a faceted crystal, this one is accompanied by a nine-piece jewellery collection to alternate how it’s worn, including pendants, bracelets and watchstraps.
Fitness tracking and communications are the main two offerings of all smart wrist garb – regardless of design. So count your steps and measure your heart rate on the one hand, or receive text messages and make calls on the other.
To be fair, we are still very early on in the world of wearable technology. As Goodwin says, this means we are still waiting for a killer use case. For him wearables will need to step beyond these basic functions and integrate with the Internet of Things, a broader trend that dominated CES again this year, (based on everyday objects being digitally connected around us).
“When wearables allow us to pay for things, control the lighting in our homes, get into our cars, locate where our kids are, that’s when things get more interesting,” he notes.
In short, the industry needs to stop relying on a mentality of “me too” and start genuinely innovating. CES should be the place that big corporations, alongside start-ups, are chomping at the bit to showcase something that genuinely screams “new” and appeals to normal people – instead of simply playing catch-up with competitors.
Otherwise what’s the point of traipsing around 38 football fields if all the innovation is still nowhere near the pitch?