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We Have Not Yet Reached Peak Wearable

The wearables we’ve seen over the past five years or so are still in the early stages of where wearables can go.

It’s hard to look at the current crop of wearable technology and not feel at least a little disappointed. But wearable tech, in my opinion, is still one of the most exciting areas of tech.

I’ve been testing and writing about wearable tech since around the time the first Fitbit came out. (One of my Dow Jones colleagues at the time called the Fitbit the “iPod of pedometers.”) While the idea of keeping a daily log or journal to measure progress wasn’t a new one, Fitbit was at the forefront of a new wave of wireless activity trackers, and I was admittedly fascinated by the whole quantified self movement. There is a very human element to all of this wearable tech, and that is that people are always seeking out things that promise to make them better. No doubt Ben Franklin would be wearing one if the tech had been around then.

Since then we’ve seen a ridiculous number of activity trackers hit the market, most of them offering similar sets of sensors, each one incrementally better than the next. We’ve seen wearables in the form of Google Glass, an actual face computer that creates an augmented world in front of your eyes. We’ve seen the reemergence of smartwatches, which some people believe will subsume activity trackers, and other people believe are fundamentally, categorically different.

But the wearables we’ve seen over the past five years or so are still early-stage, and there are significant trade-offs with each of them. I described some of this in an earlier column. Some of them have really poor battery life. Some of them promise third-party app integration, but then third-party apps don’t work very well on them. Some of them work pretty well, but are also pretty ugly (Walt Mossberg once referred to a wearable I was testing as a “celibacy band,” with good reason).

There’s also the question of how much value these consumer wearables can actually provide. Sure, you can track your daily steps, sleep and food intake for six months straight — but what will that actually tell you about yourself, or what needs to change? Some companies, like Jawbone, have focused on providing smart health insights through software, but the key there is getting people to keep wearing the darn thing.

And let’s not forget about privacy. Many consumers shudder at the thought of sending daily activity information to a giant tech corporation’s cloud database. They’re not entirely wrong; not many consumer tech companies have made their intentions clear around the long-term use of people’s health data. Just the other day, I Googled myself and the name of a wearable company to dig up an old article I wrote, and, surprise surprise — some of my activity-tracking metrics popped up as a search result, even though that account is “private.”

So why am I so excited about wearable tech, excited enough to get onstage today to talk about this at Code/Mobile at The Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, Calif.?

Because the step-counting is just baby steps to a greater potential. Wearables right now are on the fringe of a few areas, specifically, that I think could impact the way we interact with computers on our bodies.

The first area is authentication. Have you tried paying for something with Apple Pay on an Apple Watch yet? Because the first time I did, I thought, wow. Not only do I not have to pull out my wallet, I don’t even have to tap my phone — I literally paid with my wrist. That’s just one example, but the implications for simple authentication through wearables are vast. It’s easy to see how you could use a wrist wearable — or another wearable on the body — to identify yourself in a corporate office building, log onto an Internet account without having to type in a password or open a car door without a key.

I also think there’s greater potential for voice interaction through wearables, something that’s already present in Apple Watch, Android Wear smartwatches and Microsoft’s new activity-tracking Band. (Google was definitely on to this early with Google Glass, even if wearing a face computer was too awkward for the first version to catch on.) Wearables are not good input devices. They have tiny displays and their interfaces are confusing (if they even have an interface). So, right now you can say things like, “Hey Siri, play Taylor Swift,” or “Okay, Google, how far away is San Francisco?” into your wrist. But getting this to work is still a “60 percent of the time it works every time” sort of thing, and that’s being generous. In order for wearables to really work, the voice interaction has to be fluid and consistent, to the point where we can reliably dictate things to our wearable tech all the time.

And I think there’s much, much more to come with wearables as medical diagnostic tools. The devices mentioned above are limited in what they offer partly because they’re consumer-focused, non-FDA-approved wearables. They’re repetitive, not prescriptive. But there is wearable tech that goes beyond this. Take for example “smart” clothing, or apparel that communicates your activities, heart rate and other biometric data wirelessly to a smartphone app. That’s great for serious athletes and fitness freaks, right? But looking beyond that, a “smart” shirt is something that could be used as a medical tool to get biometric readings from people who live hours away from the nearest doctor. The same could be said for sensor-filled patches, wrist wearables and other tech that attaches to the body — or even goes in the body.

These are just a few reasons why I think we haven’t reached peak wearable yet, even if right now they seem more like not-yet-thereables rather than amazing wearables.

Lauren Goode is a senior editor at The Verge.

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