Why wearable technology hasn't hit the mainstream

Years ago, I read an article about a new Sony Walkman being tested. Unlike the then ubiquitous belt-hung cassette player, this model was an "implant" -- a small device embedded near the auditory nerves. Written as a straightforward tech review, the only hint that this was the stuff of imagination was the publish date -- April 1.

Fast-forward 30 years, and we stand on the edge of that reality, from sophisticated medical implants that monitor heart activity and brain function to Google Glass and more wearable tech on the cusp of a breakthrough. Wearable devices will rise from about 13 million in 2013 to 130 million in 2018, according to Juniper Research. And the size of that market will jump from $1.4 billion in 2013 to $19 billion in 2018. But for now, we're all waiting for the must-have device that will propel the category to the top of consumers' minds.

Currently, social media conversations about wearables reveal both a lack of clarity around the category and the dominance of brands over devices -- brand mentions outpace device conversations 20-1. Prior to this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Google Glass dominated brand mentions in social media. While Google Glass still remains the most visible, new product debuts at the event drove up share for LG's Lifeband Touch and Sony's life-tracking Core wearable.

Whether any of these introductions take off in a big way remains to be seen. Immediately following CES, wearable conversation volume tailed off dramatically, indicating that even the ardent fans in attendance quickly lost interest. The most common sentiments found in our social listening -- beyond enthusiasm -- were confusion and skepticism.

"I frankly don't get the point of a smart watch...they seem to me to be unnecessary, trying to create and fill a niche at the same time," read one comment. A recent Harris poll found that 59 percent of Americans don't understand or see the need for wearable technology. Overcoming this resistance will require a device that makes wearable simple and seamless.

There are a few key factors that need to align to bring wearables into the mainstream. First, it needs to be stylish: not fashion-forward, futuristic, or high-tech, but of the here and now. Until wearable technology fits in with the rest of our accessory choices and moves seamlessly from work to play, people will be slow to adopt. Second, it must be accessible. It's not about having the piece that is the most aspirational; it's about having the piece that is obtainable. And it's quite possible that a breakthrough is on the horizon. Already, Intel is partnering with fashion powerhouses like Barney's New York, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and Opening Ceremony to create cool, design-forward wearable technology. 

So while we await the breakthrough device that brings wearables from idea to indispensible, what can marketers do in the meantime? Healthcare companies looking at CRM systems and database upgrades should be planning for the influx of new data coming from these devices. Retailers should investigate the potential of wearable devices for customer service and inventory management. But most importantly, brands can use this time to help shape the conversation about wearables. We've already seen that consumers associate the market more strongly with brands than devices. This puts brands in the unique position of being able to steer conversations and build consumer engagement alongside developing technology.

We're already seeing agencies and other content creators using wearable devices. GoPro is creating immersive video content, and the PGA Tour is using Google Glass to bring players' POVs directly to fans. With enthusiasm growing for both brands and consumers, the best way to stay ahead of the coming wave of devices is to start moving now.

Jay Wilson is vice president at Wunderman.

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