There's an underlying theme every year at CES and this time it was wearable technology. Or more accurately, the desperate attempt to make sure everyone knows you're making wearable tech, too. The result? Truckloads of cheap looking trinket watches and a glut of the same features at every booth.
2014's wearable tech: Bling that knows when your phone rings
Going for the Wrist
The big rumor bouncing around the Internet is that Apple is hard at work on a smartwatch product that'll take the industry by storm. It was pretty clear tech gear makers were hearing those same rumors because they all rushed to the CES expo floor with their own ideas on what a smartwatch should be -- and it looked like most had the same idea: big size, limited features.
It wasn't so much about what the technology can bring to consumers. Instead, it was about what companies could get on the expo floor, features be damned. The common thread was "it lets you know when you have a phone call," which is great, but hardly enough to justify spending over US$100 on a clunky watch with limited battery life.
What was lacking was a sense of innovation. What was there in spades was a feeling that device makers were desperately looking for the magic mix to get consumers interest. What they were missing was the idea that it's about enhancing the user experience, not extending the smartphone screen to our wrists.
The exception in the wrist top market was fitness tech. Companies like Fitbit, Basis, Withings, and LifeTrak all showed off devices that use our wrists as simply the tool to keep our tech close at hand instead of as a platform that needs covering with anything sporting a strap and a display. Turns out with a very clear goal in mind -- in this case monitoring and logging our fitness activity -- companies can build devices that legitimately serve a purpose instead of simply hoping the stumble into a market.
Even still, there were so many fitness trackers that it was hard to tell them all apart. They all log how many steps you take in a day, track calories burned, and know how far you've walked. Many can track your sleep patterns, too, and tell how many flights of stairs you climbed.
Some go on your wrist, and some clip on your belt, but very few have features that clearly set them apart from their competition.
Despite the product glut, there were a few devices that stood out. In the smartwatch world, Pebble's new Steel has a sharp look and an app store of its own, and on the fitness side, the Fitbit One, Jawbone Up and Nike FuelBand are still the names to follow even though they aren't new this year. The Carbon Steel from Basis, however, looks exciting with its built-in heart rate monitor and promised superior sleep tracking.
Fitness trackers like LifeTrak's work because they serve a clear purpose
The takeaway here is that device makers can build some great products when they have tangible goals. When they don't you see the long list of smartwatches we encountered at CES that are weak solutions looking for problems to solve: If you can feel your smartphone vibrating in your pocket, you don't need an alert on your wrist; when your Bluetooth headset says the name of the caller, you don't need a second screen to see who they are.
The Myopic Future of Glasses
Google hypes its Glass product, and there were plenty of people wearing the face-top interface around CES. Google Glass isn't a shipping product, and neither were any of the other face-tops we saw at CES. There's a reason for that: So far all of the face-tops are bad implementations of a cool sci-fi idea where you have every bit of information you want available in real time.
Unobtrusive and omnipresent real time information; that's the idea. The reality is that device makers haven't been able to move that idea successfully from the drawing board to our faces.
Face-tops, at least in their current form, are clunky and raise concerns about the privacy of anyone that's near them. Never mind the fact that those of us who do wear glasses to see can't understand why those that don't would willingly wear them. Glasses are, to put it bluntly, a pain in the... face.
Google Glass is still very beta and isn't intended for anything other than a proof of concept platform. Epsoon's Moverio looks even worse and says "I belong in the test lab" loud and clear with its thick cable dangling between your glasses and smartphone.
As long as products like these are seen as proof of concept, that's great because they help us push the envelope and tell us -- both as product designers and users -- what will be socially acceptable. Keep bringing on the ugly designs and awkward implementations because without them we won't figure out what really does work.
For now, the face-top market just isn't here.
Looking for a Leader
Maybe the real problem isn't that companies can't figure out exactly which features will add value to customers; maybe they're lost just trying to figure out where to start, so they're trying the same old features in hopes that they stumble on the answer.
Or, companies could be simply putting out products to have a name in the market while they wait for someone to come along and show them what to do. That someone, presumably, being Apple.
Rumors have been circulating for months that Apple is working on its own smartwatch, dubbed by the media and analysts "iWatch." The company has a proven track record for disrupting markets. The iPod changed portable media players forever, the iPhone reinvented the smartphone market, and the iPad brought life to the dead tablet market. Apple could do the same in the wearable tech market, too.
Assuming companies are waiting to see what Apple does says a lot about its competition. Namely, they know they can't innovate in this space and are content to copy someone else's designs.
With the probability that Apple is entering the wearable tech space this year seeming pretty high, it's a safe bet next year's offerings at CES will be far more compelling. Maybe 2015 will be the year wearables really take off, because it looks like it isn't happening in 2014.