An App Up Your Sleeve

By | Updated Oct 4, 2016 8:42 PM UTC

A science-fiction curiosity for decades — think Dick Tracy‘s phone watch or the Terminator’s smart vision — wearable computers are now flooding into the market in the form of smartwatches and activity trackers. The devices, which let people check their e-mail, texts and heart rate without having to reach for their smartphone, are certainly cool, but their makers have yet to come up with the wearable killer app to make them best-sellers with consumers and business users.

The Situation

In September, Snap Inc., the company behind the popular Snapchat social media service, introduced Spectacles sunglasses that can record short snippets of video. The device’s single-purpose simplicity, un-geeky design and low cost — $130 — could help it overcome the obstacles that did in the far more ambitious Google Glass, which were projected to cost $1,500 before the project was abandoned as a consumer product. Earlier this year, much-anticipated virtual reality headset Oculus Rift launched. It can be used for immersive gaming or watching movies, but such head-mounted displays could take a while to go beyond avid gamers and enter the mainstream. The Apple Watch remains one of the most popular devices, with the latest model being water-resistant and featuring built-in GPS. But shipments of such smartwatches, able to view texts and use apps, declined for the first time in the second quarter of 2016, as consumers awaited new features, and many traditional watch makers stayed on the sidelines. More mainstream are fitness trackers, where Fitbit, with its new Alta and Blaze devices, remains the undisputed market leader, but China’s Xiaomi is moving up the market-share charts. Wearable devices could top $40 billion in sales by 2020, up from $20 billion last year, estimates researcher IHS, whose forecast includes devices like hearing aids.

The Background

Wearable tech isn’t new. There are hearing aids, of course, and night-vision goggles have been used in military and law enforcement settings for years. But many of the first consumer devices, like Sony’s smartwatch, have failed to gain traction. Fitness-tracking devices such as FitbitNike‘s Fuelband and the Jawbone Up popularized the concept with people who used to need doctors’ help to monitor their health. A range of devices to monitor glucose levels, heart rates and other data have been made for years by companies from Abbott to Medtronic, but these have been aimed at the chronically ill. Now, they’re likely to enter the mainstream, as consumer-electronics companies are turning out wearable gadgets that anyone can buy — and increasingly on the cheap. Health and fitness devices are expected to dominate this market in the next few years. Big drug companies have begun handing out Fitbits to participants in clinical trials in the hope of getting better data faster.

The Argument

Google co-founder Sergey Brin has said wearable devices will get technology out of the way, so we’re not scrambling to find our ringing phones while driving or out on a dinner date. Privacy advocates said devices like Glass present dangers like surreptitious recording and instantaneous facial recognition, and they have been banned from some casinos and other private businesses. Snap's Spectacles will glow whenever video is being recorded. Others worry about the moment-by-moment data wearables can collect and the potential for abuse, either by hackers or potentially by insurance companies and others. As wearable devices become part of everything we wear and carry, the going assumption will be that a computer is always looking on — a cool or a creepy thought, depending on your point of view. Is the world ready for wearable drones?

The Reference Shelf

First published Oct. 31, 2013

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Olga Kharif in Portland at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
John O'Neil at