A Post-Mobile Vision
The history of computing has been defined by 4 epochs: the mainframe, the PC, the internet, and mobile. Each epoch lasts around 15 years before the next platform comes along to disrupt it. Despite the fact that we are only in year 7 of mobile, technology companies are already preparing for the next computing platform; wearables. While everybody in the industry agrees that wearables are the next big thing, it is not exactly clear what the wearable category actually entails and what the use cases will be. Smartwatches and smartglasses are the most prominent wearable devices today, but it is uncertain what users can do more effectively on these devices than they can on their smartphones.
The wearables category is the next computing platform but will not replace mobile, wearables will coexist and in many cases compliment the smartphone. The smartphone will remain the central hub around which an ecosystem of wearable hardware will revolve. The ecosystem of wearable hardware will fragment into 2 distinct categories: smartwear and eyewear. Wearables will bring about the convergence of computing and fashion, and more fundamentally, art and science.
Smartwear: Quantifying the World
There are 2 different use cases for wrist-based devices; fitness tracking and glanceable notifications. First, the wrist has become the first wearable battleground and the products offered by Fitbit, Jawbone, and Nike focus mainly on fitness tracking. These products are physical activity trackers featuring pedometers and accelerometers that measure movement, and they utilize a small OLED screen to display data. These products have found a niche with health-conscious consumers; however, they have been unable to appeal to the mass market. New iterations of wrist-based wearables are attempting to move beyond just fitness. Products from Pebble, Samsung, Sony, and Qualcomm are attempting to increase appeal by integrating with smartphones and acting as a supplementary device. Simple interactions, such as call rejection or messaging, are enabled by the touch screen and the user can receive notifications through SMS, email, and 3rd party apps. The extension of functionality is likely to increase in 2014 with both Apple and Microsoft likely to release wrist-based wearables.
With fitness tracking, as the price falls, size shrinks, and accuracy improves, sensors will increasingly be embedded in everything. Every garment will come with an embedded accelerometer, magnetometer, and gyroscope, all quantifying the wearer’s activity. Developments in conductive fibres for power and embroidered radios for communication mean these sensors will communicate directly with the user’s smartphone or a cloud-service. It will become redundant to have a dedicated device to measure activity. We will begin to see devices such as pedometers embedded into shoes, shirts measuring heart rate and breathing levels, and mattresses measuring sleep patterns. After this is established, there will be a move to go beyond tracking and to create real value with automation and analytics. Vital signs are measured and shared with healthcare professionals. A shirt connects with a thermostat to automatically change the temperature, a shoe automatically unlocks the door using a proximity sensor, and the mattress suggests an early night.
With notifications that can be read with a glance, the smartwatch is used as a smaller mirror display that reduces the need to interact with a smartphone. The smartwatch is used to display relevant notifications with the aim to reduce the disruption caused by smartphone alerts and reduce the steps needed to access the notification. A smartphone has 5 steps to reach relevant notification; reaching into pocket, powering up the device, unlocking the device, swiping for the notification bar, and then pressing the notification or reading it directly. With a smartwatch this process can be reduced to one or two steps, and the software powering the device will be able to focus on ensuring relevance and prioritising notifications. Glanceable notifications are a strong use case for a smartwatch, because they would make getting access to information easier and more natural than with a smartphone. However, the smartphone does a ‘good enough’ job of notifications, making it unlikely that customers will buy a new device specifically to address this need.
Eyewear: Bridging the Digital and Physical Worlds
The second battleground for wearable devices is likely to be around the eyes. Google Glass has already captured the imagination of the technology community, while Vuzix and GlassUp are among a clutch of new competitors producing eye-based wearables. These types of wearables will be employed for more natural notifications and augmented reality. First, unlike wrist-worn devices, eyewear will not require the user to move their head or twist their arm, or like smartphones, go through 5 steps to retrieve the information. Receiving notifications will be a completely frictionless and unobtrusive experience. User behaviours will modify to work with the new interface, and instead of checking a smartphone, which isn’t a natural action, users will simply train their eyes to look up when they require information.
Augmented reality (AR) is the most exciting use case for a wearable device. The ability to layer digital information constantly on the physical world in real time is unique to a wearable device. This is an extension of glanceable notifications and has the potential to be the ‘killer app’ for wearable devices. AR wearables will have to sit near the eye to be effective, either as with Google Glass as a pair of glasses, or in the future as contact lenses. Apps with AR features have been around for smartphones since 2010 but they have failed to capture users. The advancement of location-based technologies, especially indoors, as well as improvements in display technologies, has significantly driven adoption. However, adoption is still low because ultimately smartphones are not the ideal form factor for AR applications. They are unwieldy and must be held up to the physical environment for digital information to be displayed. AR is therefore only used in short bursts when the user has the time to stop and hold up their phone. An eye-based wearable removes the friction of using AR, as the device can be constantly in active mode displaying highly relevant information automatically or by using a voice command.
Every vertical will be touched by AR; the customer service representative who has instant access to the customers CRM file, the surgeon who has instant access to a patient’s medical history, or the teacher who can see a child’s most recent exam result and tailor their teaching accordingly. Layering digital information onto the real world is the first phase of AR, and the game-changing advancements will come when AR software is able to crunch billions of data sets, identify patterns and provide recommendations, or provide insight to aid the human decision-making process in real time.
Eyewear will have to embrace design and focus on fashion over technical specs to become a mass market product, but unlike a wrist-based wearable, eyewear has a ‘killer app.’ The opportunities around AR will attract both developers and customers, creating network effects and a valuable platform. AR allows for the digital and physical world to be merged and it has the potential to fundamentally change the human condition, allowing every user to have access to the entirety of human knowledge in real time. AR could eliminate information asymmetry by providing both parties in a transaction the same quality and volume of information. If information is power, then AR could become the greatest tool in abolishing power imbalances in industry and society at large.
Art & Science
As computing has miniaturized and become more intimate; design has become an ever more important purchasing criterion for consumers. Apple found a product-market fit when computers became mobile and design became a more important criterion for customers. With wearables, the computing industry is converging with the fashion industry, having profound effects for product development, manufacturing, sales, and marketing. Technical specifications will begin to diminish in importance as all displays are high resolution, all chipsets perform adequately, and all sensors are accurate. This convergence will upend existing value chains and industry dynamics once again and the mobile winners—Google, Apple, and Samsung—are not guaranteed to win in wearables.
Technology companies will need to develop new capabilities to effectively sell fashion; Apple is hiring talent from the fashion industry, most recently Paul Deneve, former CEO of Yves Saint Laurent and Angela Ahrendts, former CEO of Burberry. In fact, the acquisition of the headphone company Beats Music begins to make more sense considering that Beats have been able to sell a commodity wearable for huge premiums. Google is strengthening its partnerships with glasses makers Oakley and Ray-Ban to help it make its Glass products more fashionable. More technology companies will begin building their capabilities in the design, fashion, and apparel domains.
“You can never be overdressed or overeducated.”
The demand for the new explosive growth or wearables has resulted in many analysts claiming that they are the next big thing and that consumers are approaching a post-mobile era. Wearable devices will never match the growth rates and volumes of the smartphone market, because wearables will ultimately be supplementary to the smartphone. They will be the hardware ecosystem that leverages the smartphone platform, much in the same way that the app ecosystem leverages the smartphone platform. There will be a proliferation of wearables that will address specific customer needs, but as the market matures 2 categories will emerge; smartwear and eyewear.
Wrist-worn devices will never become a mass market product. For fitness tracking, smartwear will proliferate as it will be more accurate, more natural, and most importantly fashionable. Smartwear will be unobtrusive and almost invisible, quantifying the world with zero-input from the user. Smartwear will be part of a broader shift to a connected world, in which every object, wearable and stationary, will be connected in one network. Eyewear has the potential to be the single most important display of our connected lives in the future. Eyewear will enable AR to flourish, bridging the digital and physical worlds and driving unparalleled innovation and societal benefits. The smartphone industry drove the convergence of the computing and mobile industries, both of which were engineering industries. With wearables however, the computing and fashion industries have very different dynamics and purchasing behaviours. Computing is engineering-led, whereas fashion is arts-driven. To be successful, technology companies will have to embrace fashion and design. As Oscar Wilde once said; “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.”