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Make room on your wrist for wearable devices

By Owen Williams / November 22, 2013

Wrist devices are currently the hottest segment of the wearable tech market, and many companies are fighting for the precious space above your hands. This year alone, we’ve seen the launch of such major products as the Jawbone Up24, Fitbit Force, Nike FuelBand SE, Pebble and Samsung Galaxy Gear. Between the two main areas of wrist wearables—smart watches and fitness bands—some have gained impressive traction, while others have floundered.

The smartwatch category is just beginning to take off, with the Samsung Galaxy Gear and Pebble being the only two real competitors at the moment. Pebble has seen massive success thanks to the open platform that supports it, with hundreds of third-party applications rapidly emerging. Samsung’s watch has seen few sales and even fewer new apps, likely due to its high cost and low compatibility. While smartwatches are still trying to find their stride, there’s another group of wrist wearables that are off to the races.

Fitness devices are booming

Fitness wearables are seeing a boom in popularity—over 8.3 million in sales in 2012 alone—despite an increasingly crowded field of competitors. The top three companies in the fitness space are Fitbit, Jawbone and Nike, with all three releasing significantly overhauled devices in the last few weeks. Each of these companies’ updates seem to bring the fitness market closer to smartwatches.

For example, the marquee feature of the new Fitbit Force is an OLED screen that gives the popular fitness tracker notification support. Users can now receive SMS alerts via icons on the device. Fitbit’s CEO, James Park, has indicated that this is the direction he believes the market is inevitably going to head in, with the company likely to venture further into smartwatch waters.

Wear your health on your wrist

Mobile health devices are also becoming a mainstay of the emerging wrist-wearable market. A number of pioneering companies are exploring new ways to interact with the human body using technology.

Thermoelectric devices like Wristify allow wearers to control their body temperature from their phone, and as a result, save on heating or cooling their homes and offices. The device is currently in the prototype stage, but the group of MIT students behind it hopes to bring their product to the public in the near future.

Other wrist devices, like the Basis B1 Band, further blur the lines between fitness trackers, health monitors and smartwatches. The Basis B1 tracks not only your steps and sleeping patterns, but also your heart rate, skin temperature and perspiration, making it the first device to deliver a full picture of the wearer’s health. Oh, and it also tells time.

The smartwatch is here, but the future is brighter

For a smartwatch to take the market by storm, it will need features from both the fitness and mobile health categories. It should not replace the function of the smartphone entirely, but rather augment it. Some feel the Galaxy Gear has tried to include too many features that are better left to smartphones (like taking pictures and running full Android applications), likely one of the reasons behind the 30% return rate.

One of the largest issues the smartwatch faces right now is the form factor. The device needs to emulate the style and fashion of a traditional watch, while providing the functionality of a tiny computer. Pebble and Galaxy Gear both struggle to strike this balance. The watch has long been a status symbol, and if a smart device intends to take its place on our wrists, it needs to look as stunning as the features inside of it. The massive success of the fitness device market may be because many of those wearables are easy to wear and attractive. A good example of this is the Jawbone Up, which looks like a simple bracelet.

The burden of boredom

Mobile expert Jen Quinlan believes another factor holding current devices back is a loss of interest. According to Quinlan, “Many products got the form factors and price point right, but they haven’t figured out an ecosystem of apps yet that are meaningful to use to keep users engaged.”

Both Fitbit and Jawbone have built out limited ecosystems of applications, but they don’t appear to be actively encouraging developers to imagine new ways of using their technology. “It isn’t just about [their] physical product; the accompanying apps and digital/mobile experience is what will keep your users engaging with your product and transform them into enthusiastic ambassadors,” Quinlan points out.

The gamification of fitness has helped some device builders with this engagement problem. One solution that Fitbit has pursued is corporate wellness programs, where companies purchase thousands of devices for their employees and pit them against each other to get the most activity out of their day.

The smartwatch solution

The question remains; if a stylish, simple and functional smartwatch were released, would the average buyer want to purchase it? Nobody has managed to pull it off yet, but Apple has long been rumored to be building an iWatch to compete in this market. If the rumors are true, it could signal the beginning of the smartwatch renaissance—considering just how much market share iOS devices already have.

If smartwatches want to maintain their niche, they’re going to have to act fast. As fitness devices begin converging with more advanced functionality, they will likely see even more mainstream success. No matter which technology corners the wrist-wearable industry, the general public is a lot more likely to start wearing smart accessories.