The world has been waiting for wearable technology to fulfil its potential since 2014. So what is causing the delay?

At SXSW Levi debuted its wearable ‘Commuter X Jacquard‘ denim jacket. Produced in collaboration with Google, it links to a smartphone and subsequently helps the rider navigate their journey by prompting them to make turns and giving an estimated arrival time. In addition, the tech inside the sleeve can also skip music tracks (amongst others features). In response to its inception GQ proclaimed: ‘Finally, a piece of wearable tech that actually looks wearable’. Ouch!

Equally interesting was revealing eMarketer data (issued in February this year), which stated that in a recent poll of 1,000 US internet users aged 18+, fully three-quarters said they had never purchased any form of wearable tech.

Once the great hope – well, certainly in 2014 – ‘wearables’ have not quite taken off in the way that they were predicted to. Whilst it would be foolhardy to write the category off (consigning it to the MiniDisc and Blu-Ray ‘also ran’ bin) it does feel like the end of the beginning. So, what needs to change? Arguably there are four broad themes that need to be addressed in order to ignite wide-spread interest.

1. Cost

So far, a lot of the products have been expensive, not only to produce but also for the buyer. Take the aforementioned Levi’s item – it retails for $350, quite a lot of money for a piece that has a comparable version – without the tech – that costs only $148.

Similarly, the Oakley Radar Pace, a sunglass/personal coach hybrid is $449. Or consider the Rochambeau smart jacket, a 15-strong collection that used smartphone connection to offer the wearer “exclusive access to dining, art, clubbing, retail and fashion experiences” in New York: a bargain at $630!

To be fair to the latter, it was intended to be gimmicky; moreover, whilst there are some good gadgets out there for under $150, at present too many are prohibitively priced, making them the preserve of either luxury shoppers or people who are fanatical about fitness.

2. The smartphone

Even for people who counter the point above with the Fitbit, which is around $100 in stores, the instant push-back is myriad apps on the market that are incredibly useful and typically free.

Put another way, the smartphone is the best piece of wearable tech out there. Ask Apple, the seemingly impressive 11.9m US sales of the Apple Watch in 2016 were comprehensively outflanked by the dizzying 90m US iPhone users over the same period (up from 82m in 2015). It is accepted that they are not comparable products but it does highlight a constant tension – smartphones, via apps, can do almost anything that wearables can do and more, whereas wearables appear to cater one or two requirements – so why bother?

3. Vanity

Snap Inc. (Snapchat’s parent company) released Spectacles last year – brightly coloured sunglasses that record ‘Snappable’ video clips from eye-level that can subsequently be shared on their sister social media channel.

Yet this brings back memories of Google Glass, a similar concept that was launched in 2014 and folded in 2015. Quite aside from the irritation of having to always wear the glasses – to catch that unmissable moment – frankly, people care about what they look like. Whilst Spectacles have a more ubiquitous appeal, as they are sunnies, they are still ‘face furniture’ and inherently invasive – especially if the user is not used to wearing specs.

They fall down also precisely because they are sunglasses, which are odd to wear inside (unless you want to be ‘that’ guy). As such, it is likely that before long they might simply be stowed in the top pocket where they will record very little.

4. Battery life

This is a more complicated category as some items have a better life-span than others, yet the fact remains that a fair few of these items do require continual charging (here again the pervasiveness of smartphone chargers versus the countless wearable options will impact consumer choice).

Some do come with excellent single-charge expectancy yet the quoted battery life usually accounts for the stasis of minimal usage such as ‘Standby’ or simply showing the time; the power often evaporates when interaction levels are increased (undermining their appeal). Wi-Fi charging could be a game-changer here, as will the general momentum of change within technology that dictates smaller, faster, longer (although some remain less convinced).

Thus the problem is far from unresolvable, although there is no date in mind… 

Arguably, this final point could be applied to the entire category, indeed, if wearable tech were given a school report one might expect: “B-. A good start but hopefully there is more to come!” Quite.