Making Sense of CES 2014 Part I: Wearables
The big takeaways from CES after one month of perspective
An email from organizers on Day 2 of CES 2014 claimed a “record amount of innovation” at this year’s show. I’m mildly curious how that was measured. There was undoubtedly more to see than ever before. Despite the fact that the largest consumer electronics companies continue to decrease their visible presence, more and more exhibitors show up each passing year to fill in the void. The attention and the crowds continue to grow in the “Eureka” halls at the Venetian for fledgling companies and startups demonstrating their wares. Trendy industry markets spawn booths for companies that may not even be in business for a return trip in 2015.
It all adds up to a Herculean effort to make any sense of what you’ve seen after four head-spinning days of shuttle buses, convention center food and random Vanilla Ice encounters. But I’m going to take a swing at a high level fly by for those of you who couldn’t make this year’s show, those of you who made the show but only had time for a handshake and a pretzel dog, and those of you that made it to Vegas but for various reasons not the show. You know who you are.
And just for fun, this year I’m going to add in some predictions on the future of these categories so that we can come back next year and see where I was right and where I was wrong.
Wearing out their welcome?
Without question the hottest category at the show this year was wearables. There was even “Wrist Central” - a zone exclusively for smartwatches.
There’s always a bandwagon for trendy market segments, but the wearables category is like an expanding black hole attracting a lot of bad products, some good ideas and a few companies that don’t even want their products labeled as such. Firms like Juniper Research are flaming the wearable fire with the projection that the market will be worth $19 billion by 2018. It’s worth noting that the market only saw approximately $1.4 billion in sales last year.
So, who is going to spend all that money, and what are they going to spend it on?
The state of the wearables category at CES 2014 was maybe best summed up by the question I heard from buyers at all of the wearable booths: “What makes your product different?”
In many cases, not much.
Some of the offerings:
Fitbit continues to put in a workman-like effort to expand their ecosystem. They have a solid user base and simplistic designs & colors that appeal to their core user group. Nothing jaw-dropping, but they know who they are, who their user is, and they execute their ideas well, which may just be the keys to surviving in the wearable jungle.
The Shine is a no-frills activity monitor developed by a group of people that made it because they could, not because they were really interested in the wearables market. And you know what? They did a pretty good job of it. The design is understated and blends in well with a variety of clothing types and the CMF details are done well enough to give the impression of a premium product. The simplicity of the product experience is appealing to a lot of people, but that same simplicity may kill the Shine in the long run. The long term test of the activity monitor will be if it can continue to engage and inspire the user over the course of months or years, and some Shine users are admitting that they’re already falling into the pattern of using it for nothing more than a watch - which, ironically, seems to validate Misfit’s styling approach for the Shine.
Garmin has maintained a place at the smartwatch and wearable table - seemingly through brand recognition and solid sales channels. Their product design has been consistently pedestrian and they show no real motivation to introduce new technologies, but rather evolve proven technology and integrate it into their ecosystem. The Vivofit concept somehow manages to feel about 5 years behind a curve that didn’t even exist 5 years ago. Their new smartwatches show more progressive design thinking and thought but are still far from revolutionary for a company that could be at the forefront of this market.
Some of the 800 pound gorillas in the LVCC halls - like Samsung, LG & Sony - seem content to just put something in an acrylic case to demonstrate they’re aware of the trend. None of the large CE companies seem to have a focused wearables plan and at this point it feels like they’re just mailing in concepts that you have no recollection of seeing when you review your photos.
Razer is calling their Nabu concept a “smart band”. The band is meant to provide users with “real-world gamification” capabilities in addition to monitoring activity. Razer says the Nabu will offer band-to-band communication for users to exchange in-game data and will be compatible with future augmented reality games. It’s unclear who is developing those augmented reality games.
The gamification aspect is an original idea for a very dedicated market, so it’s not difficult to imagine the hardcore gaming user group having a real desire for a premium gaming peripheral. Razer’s commitment to the idea seems debatable, as the prototypes shown at CES were unfortunately poorly executed Fuelband knock-offs and one Razer rep for the product was heard answering the question of “Does it have an accelerometer?” with “What’s an accelerometer?”
Seemingly a last gasp effort pulled out of a 2005 archive from the Dutch company as their automotive navigation sales continue to decline. And selling wearables won’t provide the financial impact the company desperately needs. It’s difficult to fault the product and the design if the company isn’t really behind the effort.
The Neptune folks deserve a lot of credit for going with their gut and against the popular train of thought that users want wearables that are lighter, smaller and slimmer. The Pine is none of these. But what it does provide is the most holistic, smartphone-like experience of any wearable, complete with a touchscreen QWERTY keyboard when necessary. The Neptune is, at this point, a small computer strapped to your wrist and it looks like it. Despite this, Neptune seems to have found an unmet need as their Kickstarter campaign raised 800K from a 100K goal, an accomplishment that shouldn’t be disregarded.
Wellograph’s smartwatch/activity monitor certainly is making a lovely attempt at being the “sophisticated” wearable for the discerning consumer. The sapphire crystal, leather & metal details echo high end watch CMF characteristics, and the prototypes were nicely executed. But it begs the question: how well can a metal and leather activity monitor meet the environmental and human factors requirements that are necessary and expected, no matter how “all-weather” the materials are?
The Pebble Mercedes edition
Former Kickstarter darling Pebble has certainly captured a dedicated audience and continues to expand their footprint. Teaming up with Mercedes at this year’s show for a concept smartwatch was a particularly astute move. While the first generation Pebble product disappointed all but the most hardcore fan with its lack of design and implementation quality, new design concepts like this Mercedes concept show Pebble moving in a more refined direction and thinking about applications that offer tangible user benefits.
The Qualcomm Toq
The Toq was featured in the Qualcomm Smarthome Tour, as guides turned on, turned off and connected with devices in rooms via the Toq. The Toq acts as a vehicle for their AllSync application, and the design feels like an afterthought. You can see the connected lifestyle idea taking place with the Toq more so than any other wearable, and it’s possible Qualcomm is just chasing down consumers for their platform.
Basis definitely has a holistic monitoring feature set: it can capture heart rate, heart rate patterns, motion, calorie expenditure, multiple sleep stages, perspiration and skin temperature. And they provide a pleasant digital app experience to boot. The challenge for Basis seems to be bootstrapping their product into a sleeker, slimmer, more user friendly package. They have a great sensor set and they’re showing strides towards refining their device design. If they can find a way to make the complete Basis user experience meet the promise, they could be a definitive player in the market.
The June measures sun exposure in a high end, jewelry-like product design. Netatmo certainly took a definitive stance as to who their user was and what they wanted. It is elegantly designed and has a sleek, slender profile. The June approaches the wearables market from the fashion first perspective, and it remains to be seen whether the consumer really wants technology disguised as something else. There is an increasing desire from the mass consumer for technology to simply move to the background of their lives, but will concepts like June be accepted by users as an authentic experience?
Vancive Metria IH1
The Metria is intended to be a 7-day disposable monitor that measures health and activity biofeedback on numerous levels. The Metria would work in conjunction with a physician to help collect and analyze the data so that more informed patient health decisions can be made. While the look and feel of the Metria - even if it is a disposable - could use some work, the approach is fresh and the idea has helpful benefits that can be immediately recognized. While many products in the wearables market at CES seemed like luxuries, products like the Metria have the potential to be a necessity.
I applaud the Spree team for having a different approach. It collects your biofeedback and measures your activity by wearing the device like a headband. Spree says this is because the placement of the device makes the data much more accurate. I was ready to write this off as completely ludicrous because people are typically very self-conscious about the items they will wear on their heads, but then 3 people wearing Google Glass walked by.
The Reebok Checklight, designed in cooperation with the small think tank MC10, won the CES 2014 Design & Engineering Showcase Award for Best Innovation in Health & Fitness.
This is a great example of emerging technology and situational design meeting a rising need. Concussion awareness in sports at all levels is skyrocketing. The Checklight is a thin mesh skullcap that can fit under a helmet or other headgear and with a sewn-in sensor at the back of the neck. The cap measures the force of the hit and the sensor indicates the severity of the blow to the head.
Wearables at CES 2015: The Prediction
Wearables will still be a dominant, trendy market at CES 2015. The gaudy predictions for the growth of the market will continue spur the creation of new products and companies. We’ll see an expansion of form factors and ergonomic placement of the devices. Many of the “me too” products, however, will fall to the wayside as the market matures and companies without inspiring designs, compelling stories and solid reasons for being fail to attract enough interest from retailers and buyers. Look for more medical wearables that are actually providing beneficial data to healthcare providers and insurance companies. One of the most interesting segments of the wearables market to watch will be the development of fabrics and apparel that can measure all of the same metrics as wrist-worn devices.
The future of the wearables market is murky as many companies continue to struggle to find real value propositions for their products. The experiences are simply not retaining a long term connection with the user. The wearables market certainly has generated a slew of growth predictions and press, but we’re still talking about a category that has yet to establish any significant meaning with the mass consumer.
Stay tuned for Part II: The Connected Home