Is There a Future for Wearable Tech?

Now that Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch is out of the bag, the race is officially on for the wearable tech market. Other tech giants like Apple, Qualcomm and possibly LG are next on the list to develop their own wearable gadgets. Sony's already out with its SmartWatch and recently announced SmartWatch 2. Even Nissan is getting into the game. And don't forget Google -- as the first company to launch augmented reality glasses, it's also likely to develop its own version of the smartwatch.

But is the wearable tech market the next big thing or is it just a half-baked effort by manufacturers to inject a new product category into the stalling smartphone market?

As a technology nut, I'm enthusiastic about the idea of wearable tech -- but I also have reservations. I'm not sure that manufacturers or consumers are ready for a real take off in this market just yet. While it's exciting to think about the potential in this new genre, the reality just isn't there yet -- when it comes to design, performance and features.

Here are five problems that could slow down the wearable tech trend:

  • Battery Life -- By far, the biggest problem for most wearable devices is the limited battery life. Google Glass' battery can run down in as little as 1.5 to 2 hours if you're shooting a lot of video; Samsung's new smartwatch can only last a day with 'regular use' and will run out a lot sooner if you're doing a lot with it; and while the Pebble Watch might last a few days on a single charge, it will run down your phone's battery instead. A short battery life is always an issue in tech, whether it's a phone, tablet or laptop, but this problem becomes more acute with a wearable device. If consumers have to take off their watch or glasses more than once a day to charge it, that's going to limit how often they're willing to use it. (It also doesn't help that it's a pain to charge them -- i.e., can't use a regular charger.) In order for wearable tech to take off, we first need to see some real innovation in battery design.
  • Size -- Another tricky issue these products have to contend with is their perceived 'bulkiness.' One side effect of adding in these advanced new features into watches and eyeglasses is that they need extra hardware to carry them out. Manufacturers have to figure out a way to either overcome the larger size with better aesthetics or to reduce the size of these hardware components -- neither of which will be easy. Whether it's Samsung's new smartwatch or Google's augmented reality eyeglasses, these products are bigger and clunkier than their normal counterparts -- and that's going to be a turn-off for the average consumer.
  • The Dork Factor -- This brings me to another issue: the dork factor. Unlike other computerized products, 'style' is a critical factor when it comes to wearable tech. Since these products are essentially accessories, they have to look like it -- unless a smartwatch looks more like a Gucci or Fossil than it does a gadget out of the Jetsons, it won't attract the average consumer.
  • The Bluetooth Conundrum -- Here's another problem to consider: will wearable tech make us look like a**holes, the way bluetooth headsets did? Those have been widely available since the early 2000s, but they never really took off with the average consumer because of the stigma associated with using them. Will talking to our watches or videotaping everyone with our glasses really be any less obnoxious?
  • What is the Value Add? -- What is the main value proposition for the smartwatch? Compared to a smartphone, it has a smaller screen, poor resolution quality, doesn't run as fast, can't do as much and is a pain to charge. Really, the only benefit of owning a smartwatch is that you don't have to take your phone out of your pocket to get important information. Is that really worth $299? At some point down the road, I expect to see brilliant new features incorporated into these devices -- but for now, it's just not there yet. That said, not every wearable device lacks value -- products like Google Glass, which allows for first-person video shooting and augmented reality viewing, and the Nike FuelBand, which monitors your personal health information, both offer a new experience for the user. The bottom line is that wearable tech is a mixed bag; only certain types of devices will be worth owning.

While I'm excited about the future prospects of wearable tech, I think the industry has a lot of hurdles to get past before we can see strong sellers in this market. For now, these products seem best suited for niche markets -- hardcore techies and health/fitness buffs. The broader consumer market is unlikely to bite until problems like design, battery life and value are better addressed by manufacturers.