Wearable computers: The new 3D TVs?

Wearable Computers CES 2014 Analysis

It’s amazing to think that it was only four years ago that the most hyped product to come out of the Consumer Electronics Show was a new batch of 3D televisions that the consumer electronics industry had convinced itself were a potential goldmine. Fast forward to 2012 and the notion that 3D TVs would gain mass acceptance in the consumer market seemed like a cruel joke as TV manufacturers quickly shifted their efforts to developing 4K television sets while leaving 3D TV technology in the scrap heap of tech history. I bring this up because in 2014 I’m seeing a similar level of self-assured tech industry hype about another emerging brand of consumer technology that everyone is 100% certain is going to be the next big thing: Wearable computers. 

To be clear, I’m not saying that wearable computers are doomed to suffer the same fate as 3D television sets. We’re still very early in the game and all it will take is one giant hit in the consumer market to help give the wearables industry some direction, similar to how the iPhone forever changed the burgeoning smartphone industry back in 2007. But as of right now, I’m just not seeing any products that make me buy into the hype that wearables will be as revolutionary to computing as smartphones have been.

The case for smartphones was pretty easy to make back in the day: Everyone already had a mobile phone, so why not also have a mobile phone that lets you respond to email, surf the web and play games as well? For wearables the case is a little bit trickier. Unlike mobile phones, gadgets such as wristwatches are much more niche or luxury items that aren’t essential parts of our daily lives. As TECHnalysis Research’s Bob O’Donnell tells The Wall Street Journal, wearable computers need to do something unique besides offering “just a duplication of everything the smartphone does,” and right now that’s all they seem to be doing.

It also doesn’t help that two of the top examples of wearable computing that we’ve seen so far, the Galaxy Gear and Google Glass, have been fairly underwhelming, at least when it comes to their potential to be breakthroughs in the consumer market. In the Gear’s case, Samsung has essentially admitted that it’s a work in progress and that it’s still trying to figure out what, if any, killer applications the Gear has that will propel it to the kind of success it’s seen with its Galaxy line of smartphones. As for Glass, it’s a brilliant piece of innovation that still seems unlikely to succeed in the consumer market because it’s seen as creating barriers to face-to-face human interaction.

Nonetheless, it’s useful to remember that the tech industry is just really getting around to figuring out useful applications for wearables. As the technology evolves, we can expect wearables to become less visible and less intrusive than they are right now. And as Ben Bajarin notes, the wearables we’re seeing at CES this week are mere “stepping stones.” The big question the tech industry will have to answer over the next couple of years, however, is, “Stepping stones to what?”

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