Let's stop focusing on why wearables might change the world and deal with market reality

By James Robinson , written on October 23, 2014

From The News Desk

As far as 50-page existential ponderings on the current state and future direction of wearable technology go, The Wearable Future -- a new report released Tuesday as part of PwC’s consumer intelligence series -- is a doozy.

It is filled with talk about wearables needing to move toward more “human-centered design,” reshaping the market around user experience in order to meet its destiny of reshaping every industry you could possibly think of: medicine, retail, human resources...

For the dystopian among us, there are even passages like the following, underscoring how wearables could remake advertising: “Brands could even tap body cues to tailor messaging. Sensor revealing that you’re thirsty? Here’s a coupon for smart water. Low on vitamins? Flash this for $1 off your favorite vitamin-loaded juice product. Serotonin levels down? Grab yourself a free soda and open happiness.”

Holy Minority Report, Batman!

There’s a lot of sizzle, but when you break into the steak of the numbers, PwC’s reports show that as we wait out these last few pre-Apple Watch months, wearables have been a bit of a market wet rag.

PwC’s headline number, based off its survey of 1000 consumers, is that wearables are at 20 percent market penetration in 2014, the same place the tablet was in 2012. PwC posit that 40 percent of Americans now own a tablet, ergo, wearables could be expected to multiply at a similarly exponential rate.

But it ignores many a key factor. Wearables are a splintered market -- PwC is counting fitness trackers, smart watches, and every smart device (headphones! shirts!) under the sun to get to 20.

And in the market, activity trackers are the leading seller, outpacing smart watches in 2013 by 40 percent -- or, 3.3 million to 2 million. This looks to hold out going forward (Apple Watch aside), with 51 percent of people expressing some desire for an activity tracker, and only 40 percent for a smart watch. But activity trackers haven't proven to be a sure thing, showing up to be a little like gym memberships with high abandonment rates. We’re still waiting to see if Apple can nail the smartwatch, because no one else has. Meanwhile, Google Glass has fizzled as a consumer product so far.

PwC’s report shows that wearables, for how not new and not particularly scary the concept is by now, are largely the dominion of young men. Millenials are twice as likely as someone over 35 to embrace them and 71 percent of online conversation about wearables was male dominated, PwC found.

There's a long way to go and some fear in the market: 82 percent of people saw wearables as an invasion of privacy waiting to happen, and 86 percent saw it as making them more vulnerable to security breaches.

So, in terms of philosophical argument and laying out a hypothetical path to a best case scenario, PwC’s Wearable Future is best in class. But no one has cracked wearables yet -- not even the still-to-go-on-sale, very expensive Apple Watch. Until someone makes a piece of wearable technology inevitable and long lasting, all the future talk amounts to a celebration of a victory that is far from won.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]