Wearables are inching toward a purpose in 2016

By not trying to do everything, they're finally worth something.

Before CES 2016 began, I was expecting wearable technology to occupy less space on the floor than in 2015. I'd reasoned that the industry's failure to make the devices essential for life would cause it to retreat until the problems were fixed. Quite the opposite has happened, and there are enough wearable companies out there to justify splitting off to fill their own, dedicated event. The usual frustrations are still evident, but smart minds are beginning to craft gear that does one job, and does it well. Right now, nobody has been able to make a wearable that everyone needs, but that's no longer the goal.

Some of the most interesting launches of this week weren't smartwatches or fitness trackers, although Fitbit, Fossil and Misfit were all out in force. WiseWear built a personal attack alarm into a piece of costume jewelry that is designed to keep people safe at night. Should they run into trouble, a double tap will send their location and an SOS message to their emergency contacts. There's no guarantee that a device like this will be a success, but it was built to solve a problem, and it does so pretty well.

The same goes for L'Oreal's My UV Patch, a sticker that is worn on the skin and is designed to monitor people's exposure to sunlight. The patch came out of research by wearable medicine pioneer John Rogers at the University of Illinois. Rogers is also involved with a startup that has created the first "medical tattoo," a stick-on sensor that's designed to monitor the body's vital signs and bring lab conditions into the real world. It'll take a decade before this technology moves out from university campuses, but it has the potential to replace every device you get hooked up to while in the ER.

Last year, Misfit CEO Sonny Vu predicted that wearable technology would find a home in the baby care market. We're still waiting for him to be proved right, but rugrat-worn wearables were all over the show. Startup Owlet came out with a smart baby sock that's designed to monitor a newborn's vital signs in the hope of preventing SIDS. The show also had a sharp upswing in nonwearable baby tech, like 4moms' self-installing car seat, so expect the tech world to make babies a new priority.

Consumer wearables are also venturing out into more ephemeral territory. The Concepter Soul is a gadget that tells you how much time that you spend with the people you love. OK, it's hipster nonsense that's been pulled from the big book of self-actualization bullshit, but that doesn't mean it's a bad idea. The fact that it tracks more than just the usual bunch of steps and reps means that it's hard to hate. The same goes for OhMiBod's LoveLife Krush, a smart kegel exerciser that's helping to break taboos around women's genital health.

What all of these devices show is that maybe crafting a smartwatch that does as many things as a smartphone is the wrong goal. The most interesting devices that I saw at this show were all designed to do a single thing, and do it well. Maybe the idea of a general-purpose device that acts as an analog or companion to your phone is simply not the way to appeal to the masses. There were plenty of smartwatches on the floor, but none of them do anything new that we haven't already seen.

Wearables are still a niche proposition but this year has made me think that it's not actually a bad thing. As companies and startups move away from just making a second, smaller screen for your phone, the less inessential they become. We're still a long way away from everyone in the world owning or desiring one of these things, but maybe it's time to admit that a Swiss Army Knife isn't the way forward. Whatever happens, I'm looking forward to seeing what's coming next.