The wearable dilemma: forming habits first, then building ecosystems

Updated ·3 min read
The state of wearable tech challenges, expectations and improving data collection
The state of wearable tech challenges, expectations and improving data collection

"Getting people to want to wear things all the time -- whether it's on or off" is a huge stumbling block, said Becky Stern, director of Wearable Electronics at Adafruit. Sure, smartwatches and activity trackers are becoming increasingly more visible in the tech space, but mainstream adoption is still key for the long-term success of the diminutive gadgets. Here at Expand NY, a trio of wearable-tech experts from across the spectrum of devices discussed the tech and the roadblocks to widespread use from consumers. Currently, there's still a challenge with getting the public to want to wear anything, let alone a smartwatch or activity tracker.

Not only does the device need to look amazing, but it also has to provide a function that we can't live without. If you think about a diabetes tracker, that wearable serves a vital purpose for a niche of consumers. For Co-founder of Narrative Oskar Kalmaru (the outfit that makes the Clip life-logging camera) the usefulness of wearables is a software issue. "[It's] making it smart enough to do something for you." With a large number of Americans using either activity-tracking gadgets or services, the interest is clearly there -- even now in infancy -- and Kalmaru is convinced the sector will continue to grow with more improved software.

Of course, there's also forming the habit of wearing an object like a piece of jewelry every day. Misfit Wearables CEO Sonny Vu also tackled that hurdle through the lens of Glass: "Most of the world does not wear glasses and those who do have a very vital and specific function... I don't know if that is enough." Getting folks who aren't used to wearing glasses to adopt a wearable computer goes back to that functionality issue. Unless the tech informs your job, keeps you safe or serves some other life-fulfilling purpose, the habit that's crucial for the budding sector to take root simply won't happen.

For Narrative, the user simply has to wear the Clip and it automatically snaps photos throughout the day, but the consumer still has to remember to tack it on every morning in order to make it a worthy investment. Stern sees potential with wearable sensors in the fashion industry, which would make the habit-forming issue moot. If the collection of gadgetry is sewn or woven into the fabric of every shirt you buy, you no longer have to make the conscious decision. This could also allow it to serve up types of biometrics that aren't tracked across the board. Athletic apparel companies like Adidas and Under Armour have just cracked the surface here, but if wearing is automatic after purchase, the adoption rate goes up exponentially.

After the habit-forming issue, the lack of viable ecosystems for expanding capabilities for the devices themselves is the next barrier. Think about the Pebble smartwatch and Google Glass. Both of those devices have an ever-expanding software set that continually expands the use of each device -- like Pebble's recent addition of an iOS 7 app and dev kit for more intimate access to the inner workings.

Critical-use scenarios for users change over time: It's the reason we upgrade our laptops and smartphones every year or so. With wearables, the devices need to be smart enough to adapt to our lifestyle in order to continually provide useful data about daily habits that are sure to change week to week and month to month. With Apple's new M7 motion-sensing chip tucked into the iPhone 5s, phones could soon be a key player in the collecting fray and they already pack data on our entire lives. Can the wearable-tech industry survive a lengthy round of public beta testing? Misfit's Vu believes "it may take a generation, maybe a half of a generation for people to develop a habit of charging stuff that you wear. That you'll want to charge it because it's so compelling."

[Photo credit: Craig Barritt/Getty Images]