Wearable Gadgets: In Search of a Value Proposition

A smartwatch needs to add to the reasons I wear a watch. Smart glasses need to add to the reasons I put glasses on my face. These are the challenges for wearable computing.

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Pebble, MetaWatch, i'm Watch, Sony

I’d like to start out with a question I have been asking myself: Why does Google Glass need to be on my face? More importantly, to get the benefits of Google Glass (whatever one deems those benefits to be), why does it need to come in a form factor that goes on my face? The answer is that it likely does not.

The same question will need to be answered by any potential existence of an Apple iWatch or any other smartwatch. My favorite line from smartwatch critics is that no one wears watches these days. My standard response: and those that do wear watches don’t wear them to keep time.

I absolutely agree that the wrist is prime real estate, but I’d add that it is also highly valuable real estate. Therefore, for a consumer to put something on their wrist, their face, or any other part of their person, there must be a clear value proposition.

In Search of a Value Proposition

This is why, to date, the only real wearable success stories have been devices like the Fitbit, Nike Fuelband, Jawbone Up, and others in the wearable health segment. The industry term for this segment is the “quantified self.” These devices track our activity and give us insight into how many steps we have taken, calories burned, quality and quantity of sleep, and things like that.

For many, this is a clear value proposition and a compelling reason to place an additional object on their body. The value proposition is also a simple one: Wear this object and it will give you details about your activity and general health. For many, this is valuable information. When a segment like wearable computing is in the early stages of adoption, as we are in now, simple value propositions are key to getting initial consumer adoption.

Google Glass’s challenge lies both in the value proposition and the form factor. Google hopes to flesh out the value proposition with the public research and development happening with its early adopters. The form factor however, is a larger question. While it’s true that many people wear sunglasses or eyeglasses, most would tell you they do not always want to or even enjoying having glasses on their face. There is eye surgery for those who need glasses so that they no longer have to wear glasses. Given behavioral observations around glasses, one would need to conclude that to keep an object on one’s face, there must be a good reason.

Whatever the longer term benefits of something like Google Glass turn out to be, it is likely that they will show up in other objects — not necessarily glasses. Like displays in our cars, or more intelligent screens we often have with us, like our phones or perhaps even a smartwatch.

Similarly, any smartwatch will also have to make its case for existence beyond the techno-geek crowd. Here we come back to my earlier point that those who wear a watch don’t do so to keep time. I wear a watch. I like my watch. Besides my wedding ring, it’s the only piece of jewelry I wear. I intentionally selected this watch for a variety of reasons, but it’s not on my wrist because I need it to keep time. It’s a fashion accessory for me. I’d argue that for most watch wearers, this is the case as well. This is exactly my point about why the wrist is valuable real estate. It is valuable because those who place a watch there do so for more than just its functionality.

Why Should I Wear This?

Objects we choose to put on our person and go out in public with are highly personal and intentionally selected. The personal and intentional reasons that we wear objects are the things that wearable computing devices don’t just need to overcome; they need to add to those reasons as well.

A smartwatch needs to add to the reasons I wear a watch. Smart glasses need to add to the reasons I put glasses on my face. Addressing these things are the challenges for those who aspire to create wearable computers that are embraced by the masses. I am also confident that this is where a lot of innovation will happen over the next 10 years.

We have ideas about how this shakes out: things like relevant, contextual information at a glance, or notifications, for example, add value. All the exact value propositions of wearable computing are not yet fully known, though. But even with so much ambiguity around wearable computing, I am optimistic and looking forward to the innovations that will take place to create wearable computers that add value to our lives.

Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the Big Picture opinion column that appears here every week on TIME Tech.