The problem with wearables

The problem with wearables

Summary: Wearable technology is likely to be a big focus at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas this week. With all these companies lining up products for consumers to wear, there's one big hurdle no one has overcome.

TOPICS: Mobility, Google, CES
(Image: Sarah Tew/CBS Interactive)

You may have seen Google Glass, smartwatches, and Bluetooth jewelry that flash to indicate information is available to the wearer. All of these are products deemed as wearables, tech-enabled doodads that you wear as daily accesories. It seems companies are racing to get wearable tech to market, and it's expected a few products will be announced at the CES in Vegas this week.

With all the recent activity with wearables, you'd think consumers are waiting to snap them up and hit the streets wearing one device or another. Some no doubt will do just that, but history tells us that might not happen.

Remember the lowly Bluetooth headset that used to be in ears all over the place? These gizmos were early examples of wearable tech that did what they were designed to do, and in many cases did it well. That's why it was common to see them all over the place, inserted in consumers' ears to let them interact with their phone which could remain in the bag or pocket.

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I used them heavily and I wasn't alone. The ability to go through a mobile day with the phone put away was useful. It was solid wearable tech before wearable was even a thing.

So the first example of wearable technology has pretty much gone away, and likely due to the same hurdle that will affect most new wearables.

Things changed over time as the Bluetooth headset largely disappeared. Not completely, a few hardy souls still use them today. They are the exception rather than the rule, and this spells trouble for new wearables that are starting to appear.

So what happened with the Bluetooth headset? Those I have asked about it usually give a common reason for shelving their headset. They cite a negative reaction they regularly got from those around them. It wasn't difficulty or failure to get good utility that doomed the Bluetooth headset, it was how people around them reacted to the gizmo sticking out of their ear that created the problem.

It didn't help that most headsets looked dorky, and that played a role in how people reacted to them. I'm told that many settings where a headset was most useful were ones that others were most uncomfortable to see them in use. It was sort of like always fiddling with the phone when you were supposed to be interacting with others. People don't like to think that those they are interacting with aren't paying attention.

(Image: Sarah Tew/CNET)

So the first example of wearable technology has pretty much gone away, and likely due to the same hurdle that will affect most new wearables. Take Google Glass, even supporters like Robert Scoble, the famous man in the shower, are getting more circumspect with this wearable device.

ZDNet's own Zack Whittaker has been trying to deal with the "Glasshole" effect, specifically how to deal with the negative reaction from others when he shows up wearing Google Glass. Wired's Mat Honan reported on the experience of wearing Google Glass for a year, and his comment is a big indicator of the lurking problem with most wearables:

My Glass experiences have left me a little wary of wearables because I’m never sure where they’re welcome. I’m not wearing my $1,500 face computer on public transit where there’s a good chance it might be yanked from my face. I won’t wear it out to dinner, because it seems as rude as holding a phone in my hand during a meal. I won’t wear it to a bar. I won’t wear it to a movie. I can’t wear it to the playground or my kid’s school because sometimes it scares children.

While Google Glass is very obvious since it sits on your face, it's no more obvious than the Bluetooth headset of old. While the latter won't generate such immediate negative reactions as the wearable from Google, previous users told me that knee-jerk reaction they also got played a role in their putting the headset away for good.

This negative reception will likely not be restricted to Google Glass. Smartwatches might get them too if consumer adoption grows. Imagine seeing folks around a conference table constantly checking their watch to see incoming messages. It's always been annoying to think meeting attendees are overly concerned about the time, think how much worse that negative reaction will be if fellow attendees think that others' smartwatches are stealing attention.

Most wearables work by connecting to either the web or another personal device. They interact with notifications and other functions of said device to prevent the user from pulling it out of the pocket. Wearables tend to look dorky which already creates a negative impression to those around the user, and that reaction is even worse as the wearable steals the owner's focus from those around him/her.

The popularity of the useful Bluetooth headset was short-lived, and we may see the same thing with the "new" wearables beginning to appear. Consumers are less likely to adopt them if they fear a negative reaction in public for wearing them. That shiny wearable may end up in that drawer where forgotten gadgets go to die.

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Topics: Mobility, Google, CES

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  • Some fools...

    Will waste their money and then store the device along with the four digital cameras they no longer use.
    • The smartwatch will become popular.

      The smartwatch is the one that will be popular.

      Swiss watchmakers need to watch out (so to speak).

      Yeah, yeah, everyone said that digital watches in the 1970s were a fad, and people went back to real mechanical watches again, beautiful as they are.

      It's going to happen again, but this time it won't be a fad. The smartwatch will be permanent.

      People misjudge the reason for wearing one. It's not for you to watch information. No. Instead, the watch will be watching you. It's for monitoring purposes.

      It doesn't matter how geeky they look. If they are essential and indispensable, then people will wear them. If people have to wear such a device, then that will be the only device they wear. Nobody is going to wear a second watch. Therefore, if the smartwatch becomes compelling, which it will (there is no doubt), then they are not going to wear a mechanical watch at the same time.

      Funny, the Swiss watch industry still does not know what is about to hit it.
      • Why a watch then?

        If it's simply to monitor you, as opposed to something you actively and consciously interact with, why does it have to be a watch? I have no doubt that such monitoring devices will emerge, but they don't need to be visible. It could be something that's hidden from sight.

        The Swiss Watch industry will survive. People aren't going to be trading in their designer watches for Galaxy Gear. They're status symbols and fashion accessories just as much as they're timepieces for many who wear them. They aren't giving them up in favor of a gadget that will be obsolete in 24 months, especially when the average person walking down the street has the same gadget.
        • Different products for different folks

          What you're talking about is 2 different products sold and marketed in different ways:

          The ACTIVITY MONITOR is something that WILL be practically invisible, with motion sensors, HR sensors, etc. This could be like the Jawbone Up bracelet, Nike+ Fuelband, Polar Fitness Loop, Amiigo, etc.

          These devices have little or no screen, probably sync with your smartphone, and are really just and array of sensors you wear on your body to collect data and give you info about your daily activity.

          A SMARTWATCH is a companion device to your smartphone. There is a two-way communication happening, where your smartphone will push updates to your smartwatch, you can view, open, and read them, dismiss or reply to them, and go on your way. It's a quick "in-and-out" window TO your smartphone, without ever having to take the damn thing out of your pocket.

          THE DIFFERENCE is you can still wear a fitness tracker with your swiss timepiece. Nobody's going to as questions about wearing a watch and bracelet with some hidden electronics inside. A smartwatch is more of a dedication (for us watch-wearers) because that will become your new watch, so it better be good.
      • sorry

        not ditching my rolex for that nonsense.
  • The problem is...

    Most tech wearables sing out "Look at me, I am a gizmo. Cool, huh!". The answer is no. People tend to wear stuff out of necessity or for adornment and a decent bit of tech kit needs to fit in with that.

    I wear glasses because I need to wear glasses, not to look like a Terminator. I wear a watch because I want to know the time (really). However, it needs to be fairly tasteful, not cheap dayglo plastic.

    I also really could not be bothered with spending half my life worrying which gizmo needs charging before the end of the day. My simple quartz watch, tells me the time accurately enough and has a battery that last years. My glasses let me read and have never had to plug them into the mains.

    The only thing that really still bugs me is my phone which I constantly felt the need to check its charge until I gave up on any sense of style and bought a brick of a battery which will get me through the day without concern.

    Any wearable tech would need to be incredibly useful, unintrusive and durable. Nothing I have seen so far meets those targets. These devices seem to be looking for a market rather than being demanded by a market.
  • Why did they make Glass look so dumb?

    Seriously, it wouldn't be a problem if they had tried to make it even slightly fashionable. Maybe offer a couple different makes and colors of frames that resemble normal glasses rather than some kind of cyborg dork robot headband thing that frightens children.
    • you have it backwards

      I have Glass.. I really don't wear them much at all because they look ridiculous and i can tell a few people react adversely (this was different when my buddy picked his up in San Fran.. tech-friendly city).

      My kids love to wear them.. no one reacts adversely to a kid wearing tech. Since its cute, there's no problem, and they and their friends have never been "frightened" of them
  • The problem with wearables

    Like I said in Zack's post, I don't mind if people are wearing these gizmos. I like the idea of wearable tech but it needs to be just that - tech. I had 2 bluetooth earpieces. The first one was great and I could drive without having to hold the phone to my ear. But the only time I would wear it was when I had a call. It was just too uncomfortable to wear all the time. The second one wasn't as clear as the first and people said they heard me better when I talked directly into the phone.

    This wearable tech has 2 more hurdles aside from looks. They need to be comfortable to wear and they need to add enhance whatever it is the gadget is trying to supplement.
  • The problem is...

    Very few people wear glasses because they want to, they wear them out of necessity. I'm sure there are a few out there that do so because it makes them look smarter, or hip, but I know as someone who wears glasses, I'd be thrilled if I never had to put them on again. Same thing with watches. Since I started using a mobile phone, I've pretty much abandoned a wristwatch, there's really no need to strap a hunk of metal to my wrist when I have a phone that tells time and much more with me at all times. While more might where them as fashion than they would glasses, many people want to minimize.

    Also, I hear allot of people use the iPhone's cost and resulting crime as an argument to go with another platform every time an article about smartphone theft comes out, so if the white ear buds serve as an advertisement that I have expensive tech in my pocket and make me a target, what does wearing Google Glasses do, or a Galaxy Gear watch that's making noise, flashing alerts, etc.

    As for negative perceptions, with wearable tech comes great responsibility. And that responsibility is to not be a jack@ss. The Network Manager at my last job wore a headset that connected to his desk phone. He'd walk out of his cube and walk around the cube farm carrying on calls. My impression of him immediately dropped exponentially, as it was all about making himself look important.

    The problem is, many people become self-absorbed and obnoxious in their use of tech when they become mobile. How many stories do we hear about someone walking/falling into something (fountain, traffic, train tracks, etc.) because they have their head buried in their smartphone? I'd say it's the exception, but that's far from it. I drive home on a six lane highway that's packed in rush hour and it's incredible how many people you see paying more attention to their phones than near bumper to bumper traffic moving 40-50 mph.
    • spot on

      At the end of the day it becomes a fashion statement. Looking like James Bond wearing a classy watch - cool. Looking like a geek wearing a smartwatch - you may feel cool, but chicks aren't going to feel it, man.
      D.J. 43
  • I couldn't agree mofe with the author!

    I use my ancient Bluetooth headset only when I'm working from home -- alone. End of case.
  • I couldn't agree more with the author!

    Sorry, typo in the subject line.
    Not editable for reasons well known.
    • the author is into typos too

      The word tablet, in the following quote from the author, looks like a typo.
      "Imagine seeing folks around a conference tablet constantly checking their ...."
  • because sometimes it scares children

    Give me a break. Wearing glasses scares children! Sandy Hook is something to be scared about.
    • Thought the same thing...

      Would hate to show up at the playground in a wheelchair or something, would really freak them out.
      Rann Xeroxx
  • Wearables problems

    You point out several of the problems with wearbles: the need to not stand out obnoxiously when wearing them, that their usefulness needs to be greater than their obviousness.

    I think there are a few other problems: if they need to be charged--they need to be charged quickly and last longer than any cellphone on market, they really should be accessories to a computer--not a full phone/computer by themselves, and being embedded into existing wearable items like gloves, watches, glasses, jackets, etc. without overly revealing their being embedded.
  • Another problem with wearables

    As I understand it all of these devices have to talk to the smartphone in your pocket. That is going to use up the pitiful battery life that most of these phones have. Just running GPS for MapMyRide on my phone will suck the life out of the battery in a few hours. Doing that and having it talk to my watch or glasses is going to be even worse.
    • Low powered bluetooth

      Although they will use more power, they should use less than if you were using most bluetooth headsets since these will use the low powered bluetooth receivers.
      Rann Xeroxx
  • I've had three different Bluetooth headsets

    All three were models recommended by ZDNet or CNet, and every one of them sounded to the other person like I was talking from the bottom of a well. But that could also be the corporate iPhone.

    The only reason I have it is for work, and the only reason I need one then is some outages require that the on-site tech and support desk coordinate during problem resolution.