The 5 Critical Lessons CES Taught Us About Wearable Tech

From smartwatches to smartglasses to wrist-worn activity trackers, wearables helped define CES 2014.

By Jon Phillips
Thu, January 09, 2014

IDG News Service — If you begin to see smartwatches dangling from tree branches, and activity-tracking wrist bands collecting in rain gutters, then you can thank the Consumer Electronics Show for belching out something akin to a pyroclastic flow of wearable tech over half the earth's surface.

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Every CES needs a pre-packaged narrative, and this year the hardware industry decided wearable tech should dominate the script. Wearables are novel. They're visual. And manufacturers are juicing the category with R&D and capital, so we need to scrutinize the hell out of wearables, and figure out exactly how and where they fit into our lives.

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I'm leaving CES with five key takeaways. Your data analysis may vary, so aim your contrarian tweets in the direction of @jonphillipssf. Together we can stay ahead of the curve before the wearables ash cloud covers us completely.

1. Big tech needs wearables even more than you do

At this year's show, Intel showed off a smart earbud concept that can monitor your heart rate, and cajole you into harder workouts. Sony demoed an activity tracker called the Core that can align steps, geo-location data, and life events in a single, strikingly visual timeline. And LG announced an activity tracker, the Lifeband Touch, that offers phone call notifications, call silencing, and music controls.

To varying degrees these wearables are intriguing, but what's really telling is their pedigree. The wearables conversation has been hijacked by the biggest names in consumer electronics while "traditional" wearables companies (think FitBit and Pebble) have been nudged to the second row. Indeed, at this year's CES, big tech almost seemed desperate to check off their wearable boxes, as if some greater claim to relevance was at stake.

Two factors are in play here. First, the bigger the name, the more sophisticated the story craft. All these companies know what moves headlines, so wearables had to be part of the 2014 narrative. But just as importantly, the hardware titans aren't dummies. They see the future, and it is wearables. Intel in particular needs new territory for Intel Inside.

2. The activity tracker space is painfully overcrowded

For rice cakes, how many different ways can a wrist-worn device show us our daily step counts? Accelerometer-based activity trackers run the risk of becoming the commodity hardware sub-category of the wearables space, and in some cases it's painful to watch new wristbands come to market with such dubious raison d'etre.

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