There was a moment when it happened.

I was wearing some random fitness tracker a few years ago, strapped tightly around my wrist. The brand doesn't even exist anymore. I looked down and noticed I had walked exactly 12,000 steps in one day. That was about 200 more steps than the day before.

"Wow, jaw-dropping," I thought.

To say this was not a life-altering experience is a bit of an understatement. I recently posted my list of the top gadgets of 2016, and I did include one smartwatch (the Fossil Q Nate)--but it's smart because you don't have to constantly charge it and the watch is more of statement about style. Like the 3D printing market I wrote about several months ago, wearables have a major identity crisis. Consumer interest is high; consumer usage is low.

This is according to a new report by Gartner. In a survey, the research company found that people tend to buy wearables, fitness trackers, heart-rate monitors, and other gadgets or give them as gifts, but about a third of those gadgets are either returned, forgotten, or even tossed in the garbage. The report found that people are not seeing the value of the information these gadgets provide, and it's becoming a huge issue. The gadgets cost too much and people don't like the design and can't figure out how to use them.

As we look to the holiday break and then to CES 2017, an event that will surely be focused on wearable products, the report seems like the one guy who stands up at a party and starts talking about actual statistics. Sales are not great, customers are not happy. Reality has set in: The idea of a wearable was a big hit, but the practice of using a wearable everyday has turned into a market dilemma.

The answer? I found out when I was testing bikes this past summer. That fitness watch I mentioned didn't provide enough valuable information so it wasn't that compelling. On my rides, I didn't bother wearing it. On one of my bikes, I used a small gadget that attached to the handlebar and gave me way more data about my route, my speed and cadence, my heart rate, and my total miles. For a wearable to be valuable it needs to provide richer information. The data needs to be easy to digest (likely through an app on your phone, which has a much bigger screen). Maybe an assistant on the wearable that's similar to Siri needs to coach me more and distill the data on the fly.

It's also important for the wearable industry to figure out the form factor. Many of the gadgets I've tested over the past few years were large and bulky, heavy, brightly colored, and a bit obnoxious. They last a few days at most. Sometimes, they don't quite sync correctly. Some look like a dog collar and force you to wade through countless menus. Even the Apple Watch is confusing and doesn't last more than a day or two. One fitness watch, the Basis Peak, had so many problems with overheating that the product was discontinued. Pebble, which made a pretty good smartwatch that lasted longer than most, never captured a sizable market. Fitbit is now purchasing the company and will likely use their tech in future products. Here's hoping it all works out.

One of my worst tests occurred a few years ago. I wore a camera that snaps photos all day. People would look at it, pinned to my shirt, and smile awkwardly. After wearing the camera for a day, I realized it was easier (and better) to fish out my phone and snap a photo. Also, all of the photos from the wearable were dark, at the wrong angle, and a bit fuzzy. That company also does not exist anymore.

What else works? For me, there has to be more to a product than the data it provides. When I tested a service called Retrofit this past year, there were people who checked in with me for accountability. I had to keep a written food journal. And, I used the Fitbit Aria scale and a Fitbit tracker, mostly because my accountability partner insisted on that. I ended up losing 30 pounds but it wasn't because I was wearing a watch. It had more to do with an entire service helping me stay on track.

Another company called Fitnescity does roughly the same thing--accountability, tracking, personal goals, habit changing. The gadgets are part of a larger overall plan. Many wearable companies, especially the startups, don't put the hard work into building a service around the gadget, and that means the gadget has to stand on its own.

OK, so there is some work to do. Design better products. Provide more valuable data. Make them last a lot longer. Make sure there is service and support for the gadget. We'll see if anyone is heeding the call at CES in a few weeks.

Published on: Dec 13, 2016
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