Wearables or swearables? Mobile World Congress panel raises the questions but not the answers

An event called Wearable Wednesday, which took place last night at Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress, promised to explain the “State of the Wearable Economy”; but anyone hoping to better understand the economics of wearables after the event would have been largely disappointed – the closest it came was a statement by an Intel spokesperson that the number of connected devices is growing by 300% per year – but it was a fun and thought-provoking event nevertheless.

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The event was organized by Redg Snodgrass of Wearable World and featured some product pitches and a panel discussion. 

Raimo Van der Klein from GlassEffect, which offers apps and services for Google Glass, talked about contactless payments using Glass and showed a video in which a payment (using Bitcoin) is confirmed with a nod of the head. It sounds dangerously easy, but he went on to explain that you also have to read a QR code and make a voice command: still hands-free, but veering towards being too complex.

Despite wearable technology being cutting-edge and with obvious huge potential, the panel discussion was somewhat downbeat. Wearable technology lacks a killer app, we heard. Sonny Vu, founder of Misfit, emphasised that wearable technology has to be “either beautiful or invisible”, with both characteristics rare today. Wearables look like they are designed by engineers for engineers, he said.

That is a fair description of Google Glass, which seems to me more of a prototype than a product, fascinating though it is. One speaker declared that his wife will not let him wear Google Glass “because you look really stupid”. Add to that the unsettling “you are spying on me” effect that Glass has on others, and you get something that is less than attractive to most people.

Other issues discussed were power, with agreement that having to charge a device every few days is hopeless for something you are expected to wear all the time,  and fragmentation; there is no standard wearable platform.

Journalist Ina Fried who moderated the panel posed the question: is the future of wearables in low-power sensors, which talk to your smartphone where the intelligence resides,  or smart devices (some with displays) that do more but suffer from high power requirements?

In discussion with Vu afterwards he observed that the wearable technology that is already proven to be big business is the watch. Watches are proven and attractive devices that we use constantly. Someone asked me, why bother with a watch when you have a smartphone; but there are good reasons we still wear watches, including hands-free access, security (much harder to grab a watch than a phone) and instant results.

You can therefore see the logic behind smart watches: take something we use already and extend it. Unfortunately it is easy to make the watch concept worse rather than better, by adding complexity or the burden of constant recharging.

Another big theme is fitness sensors, and here at Mobile World Congress they are everywhere (Sony’s SmartBand and Samsung’s Gear Fit are two examples from big players). Is the public as fitness-obsessed as these companies hope? That is unknown, but it seems likely that health monitoring via wearable sensors will only increase. Questions raised include who owns the resulting data, how we can prevent it being used in ways we dislike (such as raising health insurance premiums if you have “bad” results), and whether it will breed hypochondria. Doctor, my heart rate is up a bit …

Privacy tends not to be a theme at this kind of event. “In a couple of years you will have the camera on continuously” enthused Snodgrass. As ever, the technology is there before we have learned what is appropriate usage or how it should be regulated, if at all.

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