CES 2014: Big hype for wearables, but revolution yet to come

Expert panel highlights uncertainties, current-gen drawbacks for on-the-body computers

Wearable technology is everywhere at this year's CES – as a quick perusal of early coverage reveals. It's tough to turn around on the show floor without seeing smart clothing, smart watches, and Google Glass wannabes.

wearables

Credit: IDG News Service

But an expert panel on Tuesday morning said that anyone getting the impression that there will be an explosion of wearable tech in the coming months might be in for a surprise. Despite all the optimism, there are a host of issues yet to be addressed, including the lack of a killer app, concerns over privacy and little agreement on what the eventual mass market for the technology will actually look like.

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Current-generation wearables have been focused on just a few applications – most notably, the so-called “quantified self” trend. Activity trackers measure steps taken, calories burned and distance run, while providing that data in an easily digestible form for users.

Sonny Vu, founder and CEO of activity tracker manufacturer Misfit Wearables, was forthright about the need for a more diverse feature set.

“I’m not sure if something that does one thing is going to be all that useful in the long run,” he said. “It’s great to track activities, great to track some of these things, but eventually [that device] might end up with your drawer.”

Those features simply don’t currently exist for wearables, according to Vu. Whereas there are a lot of people that would turn their cars around if they’d forgotten their smartphone at home, wearables aren’t generally seen as that much of a necessity.

“But I believe there are probably two or three of those killer use cases that will come about … that will only be possible in a wearable context,” he said.

Whether that entails a more diverse ecosystem of devices than the mostly wrist-based offerings currently on the market is a subject of further debate. IBM medical device leader Stephen Pierce argued that the future will demand a suite of different wearables.

“I don’t think that there will be a single killer app,” he said. “And there won’t necessarily be a single, all-in-one device. … Some will focus only on the diagnostic or the sensor space, others will focus on the therapeutic or presentation space.”

Synapse CMO Chris Massot, however, disagreed, arguing that there’s a limit to how much technology a given person will be willing to wear.

“You’re not going to wear seven things on your wrist,” he said. “Until there’s a device that starts to put [a lot of functions] together, that’s going to create a scenario that’s going to make me want to not forget it at home.”

The development of the underlying technology, of course, will play a major role in shaping the future of wearables. Mario Esposito is the CTO of Heapsylon, a company that builds activity tracking into articles of clothing like sports bras, socks and T-shirts.

“I believe there is a conversion that has to happen,” said Esposito. “Computers must get so small … that they can be embedded into the garment.”

He and Vu agreed that a key issue is energy density, an area that wearables makers have been eyeing for some time.

“One of the greatest breakthroughs that we’re all waiting for is energy density, whether that’s through better batteries, better charging systems or just power harvested,” he said. “I just think that most people are not going to want to charge their shirts.”

The only thing that seems particularly clear at this point is that even the experts aren’t sure where wearables will wind up.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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