This post was originally posted on Wearable World News and can be found here.
Revolutionary or Evolutionary: Will wearables unveil the next level of mobile computing? Or will they ride the coattails of a few niche-specific smartphone apps and eventually fizzle as a device category? The answer to this lies in the market’s response to the big barriers facing mass adoption.
A recent study by Nielsen found that a surprising seventy (70%) of people are aware of wearable technology devices today, with about a half of those folks saying they would be likely to buy one. But there is a gap here: Just sixteen (16%) of consumers actually own a wearable device today. So what are the barriers to this market taking off? Let’s look at four of the biggest challenges to mass adoption:
Cost: Accessible Price Point is a Must
Purchasing a wearable— whether at the individual (consumer), corporate, or manufacturer level—must be cost-effective. Most research done on the industry thusfar indicates price as the biggest hurdle for wearable investment. Some fifty-five percent (55%) of consumers think wearable technology are too expensive to purchase, while 24% of consumers believe they already have too many devices to invest in another, according to technology research firm, TNS. Nielsen data reiterates cost as the most common barrier to entry (72%).
Why? Shelling out money for _another_ device is not exactly top of the list for most consumers, especially considering the iOS and Android ecosystems already have numerous apps that use smartphone sensors to track classic wearable metrics like steps taken, heart rate, etc. On the brand side, incorporating wearables into an enterprise IT management strategy (e.g “BYOD”) introduces a host of potentially high cost risks, nevermind taking on the manufacturing (like Nike has done). On the technology manufacturer side, investing in and selling hardware is whole different ballgame than software —think sourcing, components, design, sales, support, talent, etc.)
Specialization: Too Many One-Trick Devices, Not Enough Limbs
Another barrier to mass adoption of wearables is the proliferation of highly specialized (single use-case) devices designed for different body parts. This is a compound challenge because it involves both functionality (what can it do?) and design fit (how/where would I wear it?). These questions and their interplay present dual friction for end user adoption too: no one wants to be walking around with 15 devices measuring 15 different things across multiple body parts.
According to Tom Buehrer of TNS, “The main challenge lies in convincing people of the value [of wearables] and developing a device with mass appeal. The future of computing will be wearable, the question is, which kind of computers will people actually wear?” Following is a chart addressing this very question.
From goggles to anklets, there are literally hundreds of device-types on the market today and the jury is still out on which will emerge as the new must-have. Consider: in the chart above, the top-box response of “Clipped onto Clothing” suggests a certain non-committal (‘wherever I want to’) mentality (more on this in the next section). This data also shows wide variation of preferences with less than a third preferring any single body part (respondents were even able to select more than one answer). Either the industry must provide connectivity for cross-device utilization, an app ecosystem where the wearable becomes the platform and applications dictate its use, or owning multiple wearables will just be too cumbersome.
Fashion: Technology Companies Fail at Designing for a Fashion Context
Tech has an industry legacy of designing for duplication, efficiency, and mass production—NOT individuality. We’ve already seen this stylistic naiveté playing out in the smartwatch and smart glasses spaces, which have struggled to achieve the design sensibility of equivalent (unconnected) traditional watches and glasses. Fashion, on the other hand, deeply understands the subjective dance in which consumers waver between unique and individual on the one end, and not entirely conformist and cookie-cutter on the other. There is even a quantitative metric for uniqueness used in fashion called the Consumer Need for Uniqueness Scale (CNUS). This is where that non-committal (individualist) attitude around clothing and accessories alluded to above must be translated to wearable devices.
There is another simple barrier here of, well, looking ridiculous. This is a real challenge because it underscores the lack of social norms around wearables. Wired Magazine calls this the “Bluedouche principal,” an epithet harking back to 2007 and the Bluetooth, which to this day, “has never succeeded in shedding the fundamental perception of lameness… It makes the wearer look like they jump at the world’s beck and call rather than engaging with it on their own terms.” Some have coined the more modern “Glasshole” for those who fail to wear devices, namely Google Glass, in socially acceptable ways, displaying an air of techy exclusivity and wealth. The friction is thus not only for the wearer, but also for those interacting with the wearer, which adds a socio-cultural element to the barrier of fashion.
Technology vendors are not accustomed to the nuances of fashion design because they are vastly different than software and hardware design. Consider the success of the smartphone, given it is typically stuffed in our pockets or purses. Inconspicuousness circumvents the fashion hurdle and the socio-cultural hurdle of looking like an idiot. If the next phase of personal computing is to be worn, brands and manufacturers must immerse themselves in fashion trends and psychology to inspire design.
Platform Wars: Technology Behemoths will Battle over Wearable Operating Systems
Android and iOS will vie for platform dominance of wearables, just as they have done in the tablet market. As the leaders in mobile operating systems, not doing so for wearables would risk competitive advantage. The reason this is a challenge for wider wearable adoption because interest in each device depends on a dense ecosystem of apps, which are designed differently for each platform. Customer loyalty with existing app ecosystems will influence buying motivation and investment (positively or negatively), especially for highly specialized wearable devices.