The tech industry learned some important lessons in 2014. The hard way.
Tech companies, big and small, launched expensive, clunky, chunky wearable devices that were incompatible with our phones and needed charging every day. The result? Hidden sales figures, returns and two month gaps between product launches, not to mention huge delays getting the damn things released.
But this is 2015 and judging by the tech spectacle that is CES this week, wearables have regrouped and come back much, much stronger.
We didn’t see the Apple Watch - as expected - or any major launches from big players like Samsung, which already has enough devices in its line-up (and money in its marketing budget) to rest easy until Mobile World Congress in March.
What we did see was a bunch of companies that seem to ‘get’ wearables and where the category is heading. Brands like Intel, Garmin, Withings and Misfit who are building wearable tech that's cheaper than ever, smaller and better-looking, longer lasting, upgradeable and compatible with everything. Mostly, anyway.
Perhaps the biggest lesson from 2014 is that wearables designers realised we’re not going to wear something that looks like a gadget strapped to our wrist or face. This next wave of wearable tech, starting with the devices on show at CES, is both smaller and much better-looking than last year’s cohort.
Sony’s SmartWatch 3 - originally clad in rubber - got a new stainless steel finish in an attempt to get us to fall for its form as much as its function which, it’s got to be said, offers more than most do-it-all smartwatches with GPS for runners and straightforward Micro USB charging.
LG and Audi also teased a stylish variant on the G Watch R, running on WebOS and due in 2016, that looks much more premium than the device it is based on.
The new version of our favourite sports watch of 2014, the Garmin Fenix 3 is now 12g lighter than its predecessor with a colour screen and new blue strap - small tweaks that add up to give it a radical new appearance.
As is usually the case with hardware, everything got smaller. Intel announced its Curie button sized system-on-chip to power future wearables, following on from its Edison board which was deemed too big by most tinkerers.
The AmpStrip, which has smashed its Indiegogo target during CES week, is a genius fitness tracker that’s the size of a plaster. The Bragi Dash wireless earbuds, also on show, are barely any bigger than a regular pair of running earphones.
And the round Alcatel Watch looks like a copycat Moto 360, but it’s just 10.5mm thick to the 360’s 11.5mm with a smaller watch face diameter of 41.8mm. (Though to be fair to Motorola, Alcatel doesn’t make use of all of this for the screen with a fairly big bezel).
Smart jewellery that can be customised with preset patterns or photos from your smartphone’s gallery was also on show, in the form of the curved E Ink LookSee smart bracelet. We might not have seen much else in the way of smart earrings, necklaces and bangles at CES but it's a trend that's quietly growing in Europe and elsewhere.
VR and AR headsets and glasses - probably the geekiest-looking of all wearable tech - were not forgotten either. Sony showed off its clip-on single lens smart glasses prototype proving that AR in your face doesn’t need to be insane sci-fi style or nothing.
The team behind the Avegant Glyph VR headset, created primarily for watching movies on planes, also released finalised designs that look like an oversized pair of Beats headphones. We’d wear it.
Fashion didn’t exactly take over CES but a few notable partnerships were surprisingly more than pretty faces. The Guess Connect doesn’t just look like the watchmakers’ best-selling Rigor model with an impressively discreet monochrome OLED for notifications. Oh no, Guess and its tech partner Martian also announced that the Connect watch will be upgradeable in the future as all Martian’s tech is housed in one swappable module. Classic, fashion led design and upgradeable tech inside sounds like a winning formula for wearables.
Again, when Swarovski teamed up with Misfit on the new Shine activity tracker we weren’t shocked to see crystals on sparkly bracelet bands. But we didn’t see the solar powered module coming. Misfit is already known for giving good battery - months rather than days or weeks - but the purple variant of the Swarovski Shine never needs charging. The embedded solar cells soak up rays from the sun or even artificial light from the bulbs in your office.
Tiny, stylish, wearable device with solar charging and customisable looks don’t sound cheap, do they? But launch prices were slashed in every category.
Smartwatches like the Alcatel Watch launched for as low as £100/$150, the new Razer Nabu X fitness band is just $50 (or $20 to Razer Insiders) and Lenovo announced its take on Sony’s SmartBand Talk for less than half the price.
Put simply, if you couldn’t afford a slice of wearable tech in 2014, chances are you can now.
One of the wearable heroes from the show, the Withings Activité Pop, embodies many of these leaps forward. It’s one of the smallest ‘smartwatches’ we’ve tried, much more affordable than its £320/$450 predecessor, comes in three stylish but (not childish) colours and lasts for eight months. It’s not for real fitness enthusiasts but for most of us, it’s a goer.
We’ve focused on the hardware so far but let’s think about what’s next. It’s all about apps, data, compatibility and connections.
More and more we saw wearables launch for iPhone and Android or at least promise to add future support for one or the other in 2015. Garmin announced that its exciting range of sports smartwatches, including the promisingly mainstream Vivoactive, will run third party apps via its Connect IQ platform. Sony opened up its Lifelog platform to the likes of Withings and IFTT. Samsung’s Milk VR store for virtual reality videos has just launched - it’s open to any content, subject to approval and we got to take a tour around Iceland with a Gear VR at CES. Plus Razer is practically giving away its VR headset hardware in a bid to kickstart the industry.
Wearables that track health and fitness still need to figure out what to do with all the data these devices are tracking. How best to make it work for us as individuals. Features like Jawbone's supposed Smart Coach need to go much further. In time, wearables will know us better than we know ourselves. First, we need to be able to improve our lifestyles in meaningful ways, genuinely save time and wean ourselves off screens.
The wearable and smart home revolutions won’t take off if every manufacturer locks down data, controls and functionality. It’s good to see bits of innovation like the Misfit Flash being used to turn Misfit’s Bolt coloured smart bulbs on and off. Not to mention BMW and others letting you park your car from an Android Wear watch.
But we don’t want a BMW or a Misfit system. Nest has got the right idea, as does Pebble, as does Philips. We want one smart system controlled by our wearables and smartphones, compatible with everything. Is that too much to ask for 2015 and beyond?