Wearable technology is all the rage in 2014, forming one of the key themes at the giant CES show in January and getting a conference and expo all to itself in London a couple of months later. Numerous startups, many of them crowd-funded, will release their debut products this year, while Apple, after biding its time in customary style, is widely expected to enter the wearables market with the iWatch — probably in September.
Cynics point out that, with the smartphone market maturing and revenues flattening or dropping, mobile device vendors are simply seeking new ways to unlock consumers' wallets. Samsung's latest Gear 2 smartwatch costs a princely £249 (inc. VAT), for example — and yet most of its functionality is dependent on linking to an expensive smartphone such as the £579 (inc. VAT) Galaxy S5.
The cynics have a point, but there's also no doubt that interesting and potentially useful things are happening in wearable technology — particularly where devices, apps and services come together to form a vibrant ecosystem that serves a well-defined need. The miniaturisation of technology has reached a point where a variety of sensors and other tech can be built into wearable gadgets (many piggy-backing on a smartphone's connectivity, processing power and local storage) that enhance the user's life in some way. Examples are health monitoring and activity tracking, environmental sensing, data monitoring and recording, collaboration, authentication and augmented reality.
Right now, the most activity is centred around smartwatches and wrist-borne health/activity trackers, while Google's head-mounted Glass is the poster-child for the wearable tech movement. But there's much more to come.
Humans have always adorned their bodies with gadgetry — be it for show, for utility, or both. Our Dipity timeline (above) documents examples such as body armour, spectacles, wearable calculating aids, hearing aids, diving gear, spacesuits, exoskeletons and experiments in human-machine 'cyborgs'. As ever, the latest 'new thing' — the smartwatch — is revealed to have considerable heritage (remember Microsoft's SPOT watches of a decade ago?).
Perhaps, as with tablets, wearable technology will spend a decade or so serving vertical markets before emerging to mainstream acceptance on the back of a breakthrough product. Apple supplied the breakthrough for tablets in the shape of the iPad; whether the much-rumoured iWatch will do the job for wearables later this year is debatable. However, if any company can crack the wearables market Apple is a good bet to do it at some point — a hi-tech Issey Miyake black turtleneck anyone?
As ever, if we've omitted any historically significant examples from our timeline, do let us know.
Many form factors and usage modes remain to be tried, and possibly found wanting, before wearable technology becomes mainstream. When it comes to the enterprise market, Forrester Research sees wearable adoption playing out as follows: 'piloting and early adoption' from 2014 to 2016; 'mainstreaming' from 2017 to 2019; and 'the move to business centrality' from 2020 to 2024. Within a decade, according to Forrester, "for some businesses, wearable tools will become central to how their employees do their jobs". We look forward to updating our timeline as the wearable technology market negotiates these phases.