Where did wearables go wrong?
Futurists promised a "wearable computing" world in which you could buy gadgets that could perform a thousand functions and live anywhere on your body.
Instead, the vast majority of wearables are biometric wristwatches, measuring mostly heart rate and bodily movement. The top-selling wearables come from Fitbit, Apple, Xiaomi, Garmin and Samsung -- all watches that measure movement and heart rate.
The overwhelming predominance of fitness watches is problematic in four ways that hardly anybody talks about.
1. You can wear only one. If you're inclined to own a smartwatch, you already have one. Your wrist is taken. So the hundreds of new smartwatches on the market are unusable and irrelevant to you as a consumer.
2. Wrist-worn biometrics don't work well. The most heavily touted feature is heart rate monitoring. A JAMA Cardiology study found that the Apple Watch is the most accurate heart rate monitor among the popular fitness wearables they tested, and its accuracy was only around 90%. Others grouped into the low 80% range, according to the report. (No watch comes close to the accuracy of chest straps for heart rate monitoring because they can track the heart's electrical activity, which suggests a promising future for heart-rate-monitoring sports bras for women.)
3. Fitness watches don't boost fitness. Separate from the inaccuracy of wrist-based heart rate monitoring, the general idea of using biometrics to boost fitness probably doesn't work for most users. Take weight loss, for example. A two-year clinical trial conducted at the University of Pittsburgh put hundreds of people on a behavioral weight loss program. Half the participants were given consumer fitness wearables. But the group without wearables lost more weight. (My guess is that fitness trackers tend to make you feel like you're getting more exercise than you're really getting.)
4. People lose interest in fitness watches. More than half the fitness wearables purchased end up in a junk drawer, according to a survey by Endeavour Partners.
(Over the next two years, that situation will improve with the entry of choice in smartglasses and hearables.)
Despite all this, biometric-capable smartwatches get most of the wearables attention, and most of the sales.
But what about those of us who aren't in the market for another wristwatch, and already have a way (or don't want) to track our heart rate or movement? Are there any interesting consumer wearables beyond biometric fitness watches -- and glasses and earbuds, for that matter?
Turns out the answer is: Yes!
Here's the world of innovative wearables you never hear about that don't go on your wrist, face or ears and which don't primarily track biometrics.
An Indian startup called Leaf Wearables sells a line of smart jewelry that includes a $60 pendant, bracelet and key chain. Each device revolves around a big fake jewel. By squeezing the jewel twice, Leaf Wearables (working through a Bluetooth-connected smartphone app) notifies your list of emergency contacts with a text-based "SOS" telling them you're in danger and giving the location. They can track you on a map over time as well. If you look at your phone, you can see the nearest hospitals and police stations. The Leaf battery lasts a week between charges.
Another panic-button wearable comes from a Connecticut-based startup called Wearsafe Labs. Their wearsafe is a clip-on device called the Wearsafe Tag, and works with a smartphone via Bluetooth. By pressing a large button on the device, you alert your network of family and friends about your location via text and email. It also streams audio, so they can hear what's going on. (It also has an optional auto-DVR function, which means it's constantly buffering audio, then streams the audio beginning 60 seconds before you pressed the button.) When alerted, your contacts are linked to a dedicated "chat room" where they can talk to each other about your situation and decide what to do. The Wearsafe is free, but requires a $4.99 monthly subscription fee.
A Swedish startup called Pins Collective is crowdfunding what is effectively a $69 smart badge. It's a screen for communicating with the world using graphics, including motion graphics, which you can set on the accompanying app. You can use your words, or upload a graphic or photo. You can use it as a nametag, or to support a cause or campaign. Advertise your website or business. Make yourself easy to identify when you're meeting strangers. Pins Collective reportedly intends to launch a PinOS platform and a SDK this year, and the product should ship in February.
The Senstone is a pendant that can be worn as a clip-on, necklace, bracelet or carried as a keychain. By pressing the button or snapping your fingers, you record voice memos, which are translated into text on the app and automatically organized, according to the company, Senstone Inc. Like most wearables, it connects to an app. But unlike most, it still works even if your phone is off or elsewhere. It can record up to two hours of your yammering, which are transferred and processed later when the phone is in range. The company expects to ship in the spring.
Orion Labs offers a vaguely similar device, which you wear as a clip-on or necklace. But instead of recording your voice, the Onyx conveys it to another person. Like the Star Trek communicator, the Onyx conveys your voice instantly when and while you push the button. When you're done talking, let go to let the other person speak (like a walkie-talkie). The Onyx has actually been around for a couple of years, but will gain Alexa support by the end of this year, according to a representative for the company, which means you'll be able to interact with Amazon's virtual assistant as if you owned an Echo. The Onyx costs $199.99 for a pack of two or $129.99 for a single unit, and you can customize the colors.
Jacket and shirt
When Google sold Motorola to Lenovo, it kept Motorola's groundbreaking research group, called Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP). One of its signature initiatives is Project Jacquard, which weaves smart sensors directly into fabrics.
The first consumer product to come out of this initiative is a Jacquard-enabled jacket, which should go on the market next year. The jacket sleeve functions as a touch controller for your smartphone. A USB-chargeable tag snaps on the jacket and communicates to your phone. That enables sleeve gestures (tapping and swiping) to affect apps on your phone, such as music playback and phone call control. Levi's says the smart jacket will cost the same as dumb jackets, probably under $200.
A product called the Fan Jersey from an Australian company called Wearable Experiments is a shirt for football fans (either the international football, a.k.a. soccer, or American football varieties), which delivers real-time haptic feedback while you're watching a game. You can feel the heartbeat of specific players, or feel the impact of a kick or tackle high on your chest along the collarbone. (The shirt connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth.) When your team scores a goal or touchdown, you'll feel the roar of the crowd.
These are just a few of the hundreds of wearables that you can buy now or sometime soon. Best of all, they don't involve biometrics, fitness or require you to replace whatever it is you currently have on your wrist, on your face or in your ears.