Wearable computers still have a way to go before being mainstream

Even though more wearable devices are on the market, it is far from certain that they will be bought in great numbers anytime soon

The next computer you buy is likely to fit on a wrist or sit atop a nose. At least that is what many tech companies are hoping.

At the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last week, more than a dozen tech companies showcased internet-connected watches and glasses capable of running software apps.

These companies are following the footsteps of Google, which introduced Glass, its connected monocle, in 2012, and Samsung Electronics, which released a smartwatch last year.

But even though more companies are offering wearable devices, it is far from certain that people will buy and wear the products in great numbers anytime soon. Both smartwatches and connected glasses must overcome several hurdles, analysts say, before mainstream consumers welcome them into their everyday lives.


For one, most smartwatches and glasses look far less fashionable than the accessories they mimic.

For another, they often have mediocre battery life, making them unsuitable for wearing all day. And in general, they can be costly, running into hundreds of dollars, even though their features are often limited or still a little buggy.

Great potential
Those issues have not stopped tech companies from seeing great potential and pouring resources into the new devices. Big brands like Epson, the company known for its printers and video projectors, and Qualcomm, the chip maker, showed off wearable devices this week, as did a crop of smaller brands.

"We're still in the experimental stages of the wearable market," said Henry Samueli, chief technical officer of Broadcom, which makes wireless chips for mobile devices. "But at some point one of them will stick and consumers are going to love them, and everyone else is going to copy it."

It is clear why companies are eager to get a head start on the wearables market. Now that smartphones and tablets are commonplace, and both those markets are dominated by Apple and Samsung Electronics, tech companies are looking for somewhere new to gain a foothold.

And then there is the elephant in the room: Apple is widely expected to move into wearables. The company has been busy working on a connected wristwatch that it hopes to introduce in the near future, according to people briefed on the project.

The wearables category is expected to be highly lucrative.

Gartner, the research firm, estimates wearable computers, including shoes, tattoos and accessories, will be a $10 billion market by 2016. The research company says that much of the revenue will come from accessories with health applications, like devices that count your steps or do things like automatically deliver insulin for diabetics.

Epson’s new connected wristband, for example, has a sensor that measures heart rate by using light to measure red cell count in the wrist.

The device, Pulsense, also has motion sensors that track the number of footsteps a person takes.

The Pulsense costs $200 for the version with a watch face and looks utilitarian compared with many traditional wristwatches sold at the same price. But Anna Jen, director for new ventures for Epson, said the device was aimed at people interested in tracking health closely.

“Sometimes when I look at the numbers and I realise I’m a little bit stressed, I’ll take a few minutes to breathe, walk around and get a drink of water,” she said. “That’s really what our Pulsense products are designed to do.”

Epson also introduced a smart glasses device, Moverio BT-200, which creates miniature projections to display semitransparent digital images in front of the user’s eyes.

Epson says the $700 glasses can be used by consumers to play virtual reality games, but also could be used by workers like mechanics, who could look at an engine through the glasses and see a chart on how to repair the engine.

But the glasses, which are chunky and have a cord running out of them, are not likely to be on a fashion runway anytime soon.

JP Gownder, a technology analyst for Forrester Research, said that was a common problem with wearables so far. "Traditional tech companies don't do well with fashion," he said.

Companies will have to move outside their comfort zone and seek advice from high-end fashion makers instead of just industrial designers, he said.

Pebble, a smartwatch maker, made a step in that direction this week, when it introduced a version of its watch made with stainless steel. It costs $250, or $100 more than the first Pebble, which was made of plastic.

Battery power
Other trade-offs are also easily apparent with most wearable devices, particularly when it comes to battery power and screens. Some smartwatch makers have chosen to stick with an LCD display to show videos and sharper graphics, sacrificing battery power as a result. For example, Samsung's $300 Galaxy Gear smartwatch received poor reviews from critics partly because its battery lasted from six to 12 hours.

The Pebble watch’s battery life is long – about a week – but that is because the Pebble uses a monochrome display that limits the sort of images that can be shown. Qualcomm’s smartwatch, the Toq, is similarly limited by its low-powered display.

Samueli of Broadcom said that wearable device makers would probably have to agree on a smarter, uniform solution for charging the battery, like wireless charging stations that can power a device without it being plugged in. “You’re not going to plug in 10 different gadgets to charge overnight,” he said.

Some of the strides in power and wearable computing technology are coming straight from chip makers.

Intel this week announced a low-power microcomputer called the Intel Edison, which has been squeezed into a tiny form as small as a memory card and includes built-in wireless connectivity. Broadcom has introduced a package that includes the parts and software needed to add a wireless connection to everyday objects, like shoes and clothing.

Only a few makers of wearable computers will cross the finish line, said Gownder of Forrester.

But he said that he had no doubt that wearable computers would become a mainstream product, as the smartphone is today.

“There is definitely a hype bubble – admittedly – but there was a hype bubble around the internet in 1999 as well,” he said.

“We’re in that same stage with wearables, and at the same time they are going to be very real.”

© 2014 New York Times News Service