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Wearables in the Wings

I got the opportunity to attend the Wearable Tech Expo in New York this week and left with mixed hopes about how this new extension to the mobile world was faring and how quickly it might become significant. Avi Greengart, Research Director at Current Analysis brought up the oft quoted number of $50 billion as the potential sales from wearables, but quickly dismissed it as a near-term likelihood. In the meantime there were way more tattoos, orange sneakers, and peculiar hairdos than we find at your run-of-the-mill tech expo.

This was my second year attending the expo, and I found a very different line up than last year. Last year, the focus was on finished products like the Pebble smart watch, activity monitors like Nike's Fuelband, Jawbone's UP, Fibit, viewers like Google Glass or Vuzix's M100, telemedicine devices and smart clothing like the Under Armour E39 or the Adidas miCoach and miCoach Elite system. While some of those were still evident (including a keynote by Pebble's Chief Product Evangelist), the theme this year was more along the lines of "how do we get this thing moving."

While not as optimistic as last year, the conversation seemed to be based more in terms of reality and real challenges to adoption. In particular, the word "fashion" popped up quite a bit, along with the recognition that people (except possibly some of those with unique style choices who were attending the show) weren't going to wear something that made them look like a weirdo. Electronics be damned, if you're wearing it, it's "fashion," and that represents a very personal choice.

One outcome of that line of thought was the consensus that enterprises rather than consumers would deliver the first buyers for wearables. Joe Fitzgerald, Senior Manager at Deloitte struck that theme in his keynote and it was echoed in the later panel discussions. In particular, Mr. Fitzgerald identified potential markets for wearable viewers or video cameras in areas like field service, retail, health care, and public safety. Industrial applications also take the "fashion" factor out of the equation, as one speaker drew the comparison between fashion eyewear and safety goggles. We have had mobile computers with bar code and RFID readers that essentially attach to the user's wrist for years, so the move to industrial wearables isn't much of a stretch.

One of the more interesting presentations was by Robin Shea, a retail marketing expert in consumer electronics at consulting firm dciArtform, who talked about the challenges of selling wearables through traditional electronics outlets. Ms. Shea made the very strong point that as wearables are very "personal" products, consumers will want to try them on, see what it looks like, how heavy they are, etc. They will need to try it, and they will want to look in a mirror - they don't have mirrors in an electronics store! What they do have is several levels of security with impossible to open bubble packs, locked peg boards where you can't even read the packaging, and for high ticket items, display cases that look like shark cages.

There were some interesting though not necessarily "marketable" items on display. Waterloo, Ontario based Thalmic Labs had an armband that would allow you to control various electronic devices with gestures. Making a fist, spreading out your hand, or waving your arm in or out could be used as commands to simulate a game controller, control a drone, operate an audio or video player or advance PowerPoint slides.

Finnish Augumenta announced soon-to-be-available software that will work with Google Glass or any wearable viewer that will project a keypad or device controller onto the palm of your hand and operate it with your finger. It looked really cool when the company's CTO was demonstrating it, but when I put it on it quickly became apparent that operating this in its current form would take considerable training and it would not be an out-of-the-box, plug-and-play experience.

This year there seemed to be as many component manufacturers as there were finished products. That included everything from custom software developers to building block kits for fabricating and testing finished products to a company called HZO that had a process for waterproofing electronic devices. They even demonstrated an Apple iPhone working while submerged in a fish tank. However, HZO's product was not an aftermarket process, but something that would have to be integrated into the manufacturing process.

All in all, I found the tone to be less "gee whiz, isn't this neat" and more focused on the real and practical challenges of creating a whole new class of products and making them commercially viable. Unless we expand the definition of "wearables" to include Bluetooth headsets and other devices, we have a long way to go to reach that $50 billion potential. For now, we are still in the mode of waiting for that first real "break out" wearable product.

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