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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Wearables: What Happens When Tech Companies Design Wearable Products



By Chris Benham, co-founder and director of Inspired Jewellery Ltd.

Wearables is a big discussion point at the moment with the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas—where the who’s who of the tech industry launched their latest products and innovations. Many people, including myself, watched with interest to see all the latest product launches. I must admit I was pretty deflated when I saw an article on all the designs of the watches. Almost as deflated as I was when the Apple Watch was launched. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a gadget lover. I already have visions of incorporating my wearable in my daily life. I hop into my car. It starts up with my proximity key watch with the door already opened this way. Buy my coffee by swiping my phone using NFC technology (I can’t wait to be able to ditch my wallet and keys!) Then get home and open my garage door with the watch. Then walk to my front door and open my Kevo lock with the touch of my finger. Then as I walk in the Philip Hue lights come on along with the Sonos music streaming my favorite stations … you get the idea. But no matter how cool all this is, I won’t wear it if I look like a walking computer. 

To win me over you’ve got to combine exquisite design with exceptional ease of use. An epic challenge. No doubt Apple, Samsung/Android and Withings have all nailed the software side of this. Currently I see the wearables that have been launched fall into two categories: 

The first is the phone/tablet/laptop on your wrist category. These are the ones that feel like they’ve been designed by the creators of the software who are often not inherently wearable product designers such as watch, jewelry and fashion designers. The ones that fall into this category include the major brands like the Apple Watch, Samsung and Fitbit. It feels strange adding Apple and Samsung into this category as they are arguably the best product designers in the world. 

The second category are the traditional watches that have had some “smarts” added to them but still essentially look like a regular watch to the layperson. These include examples like Withings Activate, the latest LG and Guess watches.

When designing jewelry our challenge is always to make the diamond integral to the design and not an afterthought. The most successful diamond ring designs are the ones that achieve this. Consumers inherently can feel this when they see a design that passes or fails this emotional test. I currently believe there is a gaping hole in the wearable watch between the two categories. The technological advances are not integral to the design and consumer need. They feel like someone has plunked a phone on your wrist or a diamond on a band because you’ve got to get the diamond on there somehow.

Watches, like jewelry, provide people with an outward expression of themselves, their personality and lifestyle. They buy a watch because they have an emotional connection to the design. They already have a clock on their phone so they don’t need one like they used to. But they still buy them because of this connection and expression. 

Currently one of the biggest barriers I believe in creating a successful wearable is that in order for it to be successful you need exceptional software to back it up. This can cost millions if not tens of millions to develop. No doubt when Apple’s Watch is available it will have an exceptional user experience that integrates with all the other gadgets you use in your daily life. The same with Withings Activite, which I’m sure has great health-based software that they’ve leveraged from all their existing health based products. 

The best products will be developed, I believe, when the barriers to entry are removed and watch creators can use a platform where they can quickly create apps that integrate with the wearable they’ve created to serve a niche. The Android Wear platform will likely be the best place for this. Thus ensuring they don’t have to spend all their time being distracted by creating the software. This will have its own challenges in terms of seamless experience and lack of full control of the customer experience. Apple has overcome this by keeping the ecosystem super tight. The problem that I see with this approach is that they can get away with it when it’s a phone, a MacBook Air, etc. The catch, I don’t wear any of those things. 

So to put my money where my mouth is, my prediction is that the truly cool smart watches will come when people start focusing on niches. I like surfing and I for one can’t wait until there is a surfing watch that combines all the tide information predictions, weather patterns and proactively tells me there is a pumping swell coming over the horizon arriving at 7:15 a.m. A watch that I can wear in the surf and not have to take off when I get into the office because it looks like I’ve still got the beach on my hand. But that’s just me. 

I’ll be excited when someone creates a wearable that combines form and function not a slapping together of existing technologies. If they achieve this then I’ll be the first person to line up and buy. For now my pick is the Withings Activite but maybe that’s because it embraces traditional industrial design and is not just trying to add another screen to my life. Bring on new developments and innovation—I’ll surely be watching. 

See of full list of 56 wearables from the CES conference.

It is a very subjective topic but I’d love to hear if your thoughts on whether you agree or disagree. 

Jewelry News Network columnist, Chris Benham, is co-founder and director of Inspired Jewellery Ltd., Wellington, New Zealand, a global creative studio for specialist jewelry design. 

Please join me on the Jewelry News Network Facebook Page, on Twitter @JewelryNewsNet and on the Forbes website.

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