Wearable tech shows promise but has a long way to go

Wearables! Are you tired of hearing about them already? If you followed CES coverage this week, you might be a little weary of hearing the term. Like it or not, "wearables" or tech that you wear will be coming to your house sooner or later. For now the tech is still in the early stages, as batteries and components have shrunk enough to make the first truly useful products feasible. If you step outside the term itself, you'll soon find that this all connects to the Internet of Things, which expands to stuff like the Aria scale from Fitbit or this basketball with a sensor in it. Tech is also following the path of the Invisible Computer, and will soon be embedded in everything from our socks to our brains.

Wrist-based computing?

I never had a calculator watch, I had a UC-2000. This was Seiko's data watch, and it was pretty awesome. With only 2 kilobytes of memory, however, you had to load either BASIC or productivity apps or games, but not all at once. Still, that watch charged via conduction, and its base had a keyboard and thermal printer! There's really nothing like this today (witness this Casio watch), but it is on the horizon. For now, wrist computers, aka smart watches, are mostly two varieties: a companion for your smartphone, or a sensor-laden device for health tracking.

Of course, not all wrist devices are even watches, many provide very little feedback without a companion app. Fitness trackers are the hottest space right now, as Nike's FuelBand sets the pace for wrist sensors with feedback, and Fitbit's Force has some smart watch aspects. Looking at customer satisfaction on these devices remains a challenge, however. We're not used to charging our watches every day. Durability continues to be problematic. And no one is going to break this market wide open without just a tad more fashion sense. Pro tip, manufacturers: Normal people don't necessarily want their private sensor networks to be blinged out. Oh and I don't even know what to tell you about these wearable abominations.

On the wrist, I can say that there is definitely opportunity here. Tech challenges abound, but I've already noted my fondness for the Pebble platform, which is only going to get better. As a second screen and "helper" for your mobile, a wrist-based companion makes a lot of sense. Yes, Samsung makes some terrible, creepy ads promoting the Gear, but there's a lot more utility than you might imagine in such a device. Two years ago Marc Perton wrote a piece about smart watches that's worth a read if you're interested in the history and landscape of this space. Since then, however, the market has rapidly expanded. There's even a self-contained phone for your wrist, not that there haven't been previous attempts.

Which brings us to Apple. There's no doubt in my mind that Apple has experimented with watch designs. And I have little doubt that hiring a Burberry exec brings even more fashion sense to whatever Jony Ive's team has cooked up previously. But as we know, Apple will not release a watch until it is just right. For this, I am thankful. I saw someone mention that maybe smart watches won't have an "iPod moment" where one particular device leads the pack by a mile, and I think that may be somewhat true, given that most of what we've seen are tied to another device for maximum utility. If Apple's watch turns out to be completely dependent on the iPhone, then you'll just see more fragmentation. If Apple creates a device that can stand on its own, however, look out Gear, Pebble, etc.

Your body is a wonderland... of data

The wrist is the most sensible wearable tech because we're all used to having tech on our wrists. I've struggled to use my Fitbit regularly because it's one more thing I have to remember every day (sort of the opposite of how tech should be simplifying our lives). Plus, if you forget it enough you might wash the darn thing and kill it. No one is doing this with a watch, because you just wear the darn thing -- it provides a use beyond fitness tracking. But there are many bits of data to be gleaned from the context of your person. That is, there's a lot more sensing that could be done once you break away from the wrist.

Folks have been talking about computers being embedded into clothing, but we're a long way from that point. The next few years we'll see more tech jewelry, really. Like the Fitbit, these devices will attach to your person and track specific things. Sony's Core product, shown at CES and intentionally vague, is a great example. Logging more about your life can lead to habit awareness, leading to change. This is powerful stuff, but the fact that we're just starting to see the beginning of product cycles from the likes of Sony tells you none of this is fully baked yet.

Thus far we've seen pulse oximeters, fat counters, heart rate monitors and other devices trickle into health and fitness buff hands, but I have yet to see an army of normal people parading around wearing much more than a simple pedometer. That's going to change slowly, I think. When these devices get more fashionable, reliable and less expensive, mass adoption will occur. They must not look and feel like geeky toys, they must be simply part of your life.

The eyes have it

And then there's Google Glass. I can understand the aspirations of Glass, but I'm not convinced it will catch on. People are passionate about their faces, and Glass is perhaps the most intrusive of all wearable devices. That said, it isn't stopping companies like Lumus from launching similar devices.

I can eventually see where we would have displays that provide a sort of heads-up display for our lives, but there are a bunch of technologies that have to get better before we get there. Glass is an interesting experiment, but in the end it's sort of like the original Mac portable: A good idea on paper that'll need a lot of work to become useful for regular people. Then again, gamers seem to be OK with devices like the Oculus Rift, and that product just keeps getting better.

You're already wearing one!

If you have an iPhone 5s, you're sort of already wearing a computer, aren't you? One of the most remarkable things about the 5s is the M7, which turns your iPhone into a basic fitness tracker. The more I have to charge, keep track of and worry about my Pebble and Fitbit (which is now dead anyway) the more I see the sense in allowing my iPhone to track my movements. My iPhone is with me all the time, even when I sleep, although I realize I'm probably a weirdo.

For wearables to become mainstream, they are going to have to get better or disappear entirely into things we already use. I'm sure the exhibitors at CES are already counting their chickens, but we'll check in at the end of the year to see if any specific products really break out from the pack. Stay tuned!