Wearables: the eyes have it
Wearable computing is a tantalizing and lucrative market, which is presently characterized by a degree of uncertainty.
A significant grey area is regulation, which has a major bearing on the potential market size. For example, there may be questions about the usage of smart glasses, which potentially enable anything heard or seen by a smart glasses user to be captured, shared and archived. However smartphones already have a similar capability to capture video, stills and audio, so smart glasses’ ramifications on privacy are not wholly new.
Smart glasses may well get prohibited in some environments – such as in some schools, courtrooms, board rooms and golf courses, where smartphones are already banned – but that still leaves many other places where they could be used. It is worth considering that in some venues, such as restaurants and clothes stores, taking photos is actively encouraged and the quantity of photos taken, shared and rated is considered a positive.
Smart glasses are unlikely to be allowed when driving. In some jurisdictions, current laws make it explicitly illegal to have a monitor capable of displaying video in the field of view of a driver. It is not necessary for the police to prove that the driver was watching video instead of the mapping function: merely wearing a device with the capability is against the law.
A key imperative for all wearable device manufacturers is the need to foster app development: having a large range of apps will be core to the devices’ utility. A challenge will be to get developers to create apps for a category of device with relatively few users. For smart glasses, apps would need to be built from scratch: existing apps cannot be used for glasses, which are fundamentally different from a smartphone or tablet. That said, early adopters tend to have a high propensity to purchase apps, and so may be a small but lucrative market.
As well as apps, another ancillary market will be in complementary devices. For example, one device combines with smart glasses to enable remote control of devices, such as television sets.
The capability of wearable devices is likely to improve continually, but expectations should be set carefully. There are fundamental constraints of battery technology, acceptable weight and the bulk of wearable devices. This means that some notions, such as full screen augmented reality built into a regular pair of sunglasses, priced at $500 and with integrated 4G, is many years off – and may never be realized.
Trends such as the ageing of many nations’ populations, widening cellular connectivity, and the move towards telemedicine (for more information, see the 2014 Prediction: eVisits: the 21st century housecall) may signal significant opportunities for wearables in the medium and long-term. Wearables may serve as sensors that are always in close proximity to the user, and could become a new communications platform providing larger images to those with dimming sight, or text messages to those with failing hearing. The combination of sensor, actuator and communicator may prove to be a compelling value proposition to patient, physician and insurance companies alike.
Middle East perspective
The Arab youth are well characterized as early technology adopters, with clear enthusiasm and interest in the new digital form factors represented by wearable technology.
However, as wearable devices come into the local market place, a range of issues and obstacles present themselves. The first, from a consumer perspective is economic. Most consumers are price sensitive and will certainly be restricted by their budgets, limiting their ability to adopt wearables in the short-term.
The local internet and telecommunications infrastructure in the region also needs to be more developed, in terms of internet speed, coverage and capacity, as it is in Western markets. All three technical factors need to be in place if users are to enjoy the full range of capabilities that wearable technologies can offer.
Another unknown is the reaction by society and government once the new technologies take hold. Will authorities in the Middle East fear or embrace the use of wearable devices? Will consumers be responsible with their new gadgets? Although camera and smart phones are prolific in the region today, they had been the source of much controversy stirred in the past. The fact that smart glasses enable pictures to be taken more seamlessly with the wink of an eye is one example that could reopen the debate, especially in a region traditionally more conservative and private than the rest of the world. Middle East authorities should be wary of this and work with other governments to establish a common regulatory framework and set of usage standards which are in the best interests of all.
Conversely, time and time again, the region is also well known to adopt methods, standards, tools and technologies once they are proven in the Western world, even if it is at a slower pace in many cases. With all six GCC governments leading strong mobile and e-government initiatives to improve their complete spectrum of government services, from utilities, transport, police, customs and municipalities to health services, bill payments, education, research and gathering citizen feedback, the public sector could even be one of the primary drivers behind wearable adoption.