Wearable computing devices: Can they pass the acid test?

Waiting for the other shoe to drop: Would you spend your own money to buy today's crop of wearable computing devices?

I’ve been reading and writing technology product reviews far longer than I’d like to admit. Fortunately, the years have actually taught me a thing or two about which products are likely to make a lasting difference and which are mere flashes in the pan. In fact, I’ve learned that there’s a relatively simple test that’s all too seldom applied by tech reviewers, who tend to get all excited by a given product’s whiz bang features. I think it’s past time to start applying that test to wearable computing devices.

One question to rule them all

It all boils down to a single, straightforward question: Would you spend your own hard-earned money to buy this product at list price?

If the answer is “no,” the product is not yet ready for prime time, no matter how revolutionary it may seem, no matter what spiffy new features it may have, and no matter how breathless the hype. If you’re not willing to slap down your credit card, most likely not many other folks will either, and the product won’t be a success without major changes in features, pricing, design, or environment. But since most tech reviewers get the products for free (whether or not they actually get to keep them), this question never occurs to them, or is at best an academic exercise.

I learned this hard way, during the “CD-ROM Revolution” of the mid-1990s. At the time, I was editor in chief of a magazine called Electronic Entertainment. Every month all the editors would present the cool new infotainment discs they’d seen, like Peter Gabriel’s Xplora 1 and various Star Trek extravaganzas. They’d gush about the awesome interactive this and the slick interface that, but when I’d ask which of these incredible new releases they’d shell out $50 of their own money for, they got quiet and stared at their shoes. No surprise that some of the titles from major publishers ended up selling approximately six copies each and the CD-ROM Revolution petered out faster than the Arab Spring. All that cool infotainment stuff caught on only when it showed up on the Internet for free.

So, where am I going with all this?

Which wearable would you buy?

I’m starting to see a similar phenomenon in the wearable computing market. Wearables are plenty hot and plenty hyped but I’m not ready to plunk down $150 for a Pebble or $300 for a Galaxy Gear 2 smartwatch, much less $1500 for a Google Glass. Does $130 for a Fitbit or Fuelband fitness tracker seem like a reasonable investment? How much do you think an Apple iWatch is going to cost? (Remember, an unsubsidized iPhone 5s retails for as much as $850!)

And even if you are willing to buy one of these wearables at current prices, how many different ones would any single person own, or wear?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there’s no future for wearable computing devices. What I’m saying is that something significant has to change before this market can fulfill its obvious potential. The devices have to get a lot more functional, a lot more attractive, or a lot less expensive…preferably all three.

Otherwise they’re going to end up like the CD-ROMs of the late 20th Century. Really interesting curiosities that failed to live up to the initial excitement they generated.

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