Manufacturers need to identify the real benefits of wearable technology to users before rushing to bring new products to market, says Mark Thomas
This year has seen wearable tech confidently launched into the mainstream consumer market. Having featured heavily at the CES consumer technology trade show in Las Vegas as well as at Google I/O and the Apple World Wide Developers Conference, it is already being hailed as the next big communications opportunity.
Looking at the products that have been released in just the past few months – think Apple Watch, Barclaycard's bPay payment band, the Ralph Lauren PoloTech shirt, Jawbone UP3 and new Fitbit fitness trackers – it seems the rise of wearable tech is set to transform the future.
But why? What do we need this technology for and how is it going to enhance our lives? As a coder, and therefore a massive techie fan, I love the fact that this technology exists and we have the ability to give seemingly mundane day-to-day objects 'intelligence' to communicate with one another, but what does this really mean to the man or woman in the street?
I see this being a world full of endless possibilities but, despite all the current hype, we are still in the early stages, with the latest releases being very much the first generation of wearable technology. The industry faces plenty of challenges in the areas of aesthetics and fashion, battery power, cloud integration and user experience and expectations. These issues will need to be addressed before we can truly see value beyond novelty.
Let's take an example: one of the big questions that many people are asking at the moment is how to enhance battery life. When dealing with such small devices, careful consideration and best-practice development is required, and it's vital that we continue to push the boundaries of the technology at our disposal, I'm witnessing some interesting developments in energy harvesting that could see future wearable tech charging from ambient noise or temperature.
With regard to aesthetics, I think it's great that the likes of Ralph Lauren, Fitbit and Swarovski have already jumped on the wearable-tech bandwagon by incorporating activity trackers into fashion wear. The world of fitness actually appears to be storming ahead in this field, with 70 million wearable devices already sold across the world. Market analyst Gartner predicts that sales will rise to over 90 million in 2016. However, fitness is far from the only application for wearable tech. Financial institutions are also making inroads, with wearable wristbands taking contactless payment to the next level.
So, we've established that there are numerous devices with endless capabilities, but how does any of this truly have a positive impact on our lives? Carefully managed, these devices and the data they collect can give users greater power to detect and act upon many different aspects of their lives, from banking and finance through to home security and automation, and, in the health and wellbeing arena, from early health warnings through to customised fitness programmes tailored to the individual. I'm a keen follower of physics and chemistry, and can see that wearable tech has huge potential in detecting early signs of low blood-sugar levels, or reminding people to take medications based on signals from physiological sensors, as examples.
Of course, the functionality of these technologies is enhanced by other technology advances. The Cloud makes all of these lifestyle opportunities available in a way that wearables alone simply couldn't manage. It also offers much more opportunity for data capture, allowing both heuristic and historical analysis.
However, with the rush to get products to market, many manufacturers seem to have overlooked user experience and true usefulness. Before the next wave of wearable tech goes on sale, I believe the makers should take stock of their products, decide what they're really good for and build superior apps to support that use. Google's philosophy of building products for everyone, using technology that will make a fundamental difference to people's lives, shines through here.
It's clear that the future of wearable tech is boundless, and the advances that we've seen recently are just the beginning. Making sure we can keep up with the needs of end users, as well as collecting, collating and interpreting data and keeping pace with the innovation, is the greatest challenge.
Mark Thomas is CEO of mobile application and embedded software developer Coderus.