Do simple single function consumer wearable devices have a future or are they just a passing fad?

The current market driver for wearables appears to be fitness applications and there are plenty of fitness devices already on the market with new entrants popping up all the time. Some started life as simple digital pedometers, but by adding elevation, geographic position and heart rate as well as more sophisticated sensors, they can capture more useful information. To gain real insight, as well as monetising the data in some way, a cloud-based service needs to be added to supplement the physical device; free to start with, or always free for simpler tasks, and then perhaps paid for as perceived value increases.

It is a common model, applied elsewhere in IT, and in the physical world approximating to the popular razor and bladesmarketing approach.  However, longer term wearable digital fitness risks falling into a disposable fad in a similar way to gym membership. Many join up after a particular event – New Year resolution, birthday, etc. – but only stay the course a few months.

Yes, of course a number will persevere, but are the sweaty worlds of working out or the massed ranks of hikers the best places for a top end, high tech gadget with a monthly subscription to Aerobics-as-a-service? If only a simple device is required – digital pedometer plus – then it’s much harder to see many valued added apps following or a growing ecosystem of additional functions providing any meaningful payback. In fact, some early device providers, such as Nike with its Fuelband, have already stumbled and fallen by the wayside.

Health, rather than fitness makes much more sense as there is a greater opportunity for added value applications. Fitness and health should go hand in hand, but individuals are generally more attuned to the benefits of reducing their risks than the opportunity of adding value’ via increasing fitness – the instinct for survival perhaps being greater than overcoming natural laziness? Devices and services that monitor health and provide actionable advice may have more monetise-able longevity. After all, people pay premiums for faster access to (private) healthcare, healthysuperfoods and organic produce, so the model of paying to be healthier is well understood and well-funded.

Completing the feedback loop by monitoring and feeding data back to a central hub adds value to the health sector by allowing for better targeting, applying resources and understanding results. So, as well as the health benefit, the individuals involved might also see lower personal costs especially if health monitoring is tied to overall costs associated with the person’s health etc. As with other forms of detailed data gathering, the insurance industry, through life and medical insurance, should recognise the benefits of this insight and incorporate it into honing its offerings. Where the individualshealth cover or insurance is paid for by their employers (essentially monitoring to reduce human maintenancecosts) there may also be cost saving incentives for employers as well as health, fitness and even financial incentives for employees.

From a society perspective there are also huge potential benefits for supporting the vulnerable, unwell or those at risk – not only for the social good, but also saving costs, in only needing to send first responders or other care workers out when there is a physical need (notwithstanding the needs for social contact – but this can still be scheduled for care workers with different skill sets). However, there is a risk that these benefits, while hugely worthy, are difficult to attribute and so may end up being ancillary rather than primary drivers for adoption. So there has to be a clear personal incentive to wear – being safe, being cared for or being financially rewarded.

Simple consumer wearables may have an important future in health and fitness, but they need more than cool tech, sensors, cloud services and long battery lives. They need to engage both the wearer and service providers, financially as well as through ‘cool marketing’, to successfully fuel the surrounding ecosystem and to ensure they continue to be regularly worn and used.

It might be that in the longer term, smart fabrics will increasingly incorporate sensors, providing pervasive monitoring without inconveniencing the wearer in any way, or other routinely carried devices, such as mobile phones or emerging ones like smartwatches, will capture sufficient data. In the meantime, there is a significant simple wearable opportunity on the wrist, but the value has to be clear to all parties in order to have staying power.