Wearables in 2019: Hitting the limits of watches

clock • 5 min read

No wrist for the wicked

BACK IN 2015, people with too much time on their hands forecasted that 245 million wearables would be sold in 2019. Given only 84 million of them were sold at the time of the prediction, that felt like a stretch, and yet here we are with official numbers pointing to that figure in the third quarter of 2019 alone, we have to concede they were probably bang on the banana. 

So smartwatches must have improved massively since then, right? Hmmm.

Low-wrist strategy

Let's start with the Apple Watch. When the bold sales prediction was made back in 2015, the first-ever Apple Watch had just been released - including the ludicrous £15,000 Watch Edition, which is now obsolete. Now we're onto the fifth generation, and it's fair to say the company is running short on ideas. 

Things that people would actually find useful - built-in GPS and cellular data - have been present and correct since 2017, so now it feels like Apple is groping around for extras people might conceivably want. Last year it was the ability to do a full ECG on your wrist rather than consulting, y'know, a doctor. This year it's an OLED screen - the kind of which other brands have had for ages.   

Not that Samsung is doing any better. In fact, its contribution to the wearable space this year - the Galaxy Watch Active 2 - is mainly notable for cribbing the ECG feature Apple added last year, which at least makes a pleasant change from iPhones belatedly getting Android staples. Oh, and the fact it only came out six months after the original Watch Active, which must have really delighted early adopters.

Still, 2019 was also notable for two big returns. First, Motorola - the company that made the original round smartwatch - is back. Well, seemingly. In fact, the third-generation Moto 360 is only licensing the name, and is actually the handiwork of eBuyNow which is just a typo away from infringing at least one copyright. Still, the company has done something right and finally ditched the ‘flat tyre' design of the originals, where the perfectly round screen was squared off at the bottom. But anything really new? Nah. 

Second, there's Fitbit. The company hasn't exactly gone away, but was certainly in the sales wilderness, being squeezed by the Apple Watch at the top end, and Chinese bands from Xiaomi and Honor at the bottom end. The company's revival started last year with the Versa smartwatch, but has continued into 2019 with the Versa 2. It turns out that releasing a smartwatch that doesn't look like an electronic tag for tracking criminals on parole, combined with the superb Fitbit app is a winning combination. Who knew? 

The Versa 2 is actually really nice, though still lacks GPS. It also, wholly unnecessarily, has Alexa built-in, meaning you're never short of a rib-tickling joke via Amazon's cloud servers if you want. Though in this case, Alexa writes the answer on the tiny OLED screen, as if it's a hostage trying to raise a silent alarm. 

Not just watches

Is that the most innovation we've seen this year? Yeah, sadly it is. But if you look beyond the wrist, you begin to realise that this could be a blessing in disguise. Casting our minds back to CES, there were a whole host of wearables queueing up to fix non-existent problems. It was bad enough with the smart belt - a device that proved that at least 630 fools are easily parted from their money on Kickstarter - but things have got increasingly weird in the hunt for innovation.

How about smart jewellery, which changes colour via an accompanying app? Because who doesn't want to think about whether they've charged their necklace before a night out? (Five hours of battery life. Five.) 

And let's put a screen on a handbag, just for the fun of it, too.

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Then there's my personal favourite: the Monit Smart Nappy. This will instantly tell you whether your baby has soiled itself before your olfactory senses give the game away. It'll even tip you off as to whether you're expecting urine or excrement, killing any sense of suspense. Spoilers, Monit!

And if you were thinking that putting internet-connected sensors next to your junk was something you might grow out of, then you haven't heard of smart-underwear creators Skiin. The company's undies can, apparently, track all kinds of body metrics as well as control your smart home. Christ, just use a damned light switch, people. Still, at least the iCon smart condom, thankfully, appears to be vapourware. 

AR you sure this is wise?

Of course, wearable technology isn't limited to the wrist, waist and (lamentably) groin. The next big frontier appears to be the head with everyone from Apple to Qualcomm betting the house on augmented reality being the next big thing.

Charitably, we can't find a great deal of evidence to back this hunch - barring the brief moment in 2016 when everyone started catching Pokemon to distract from the political upheaval of Brexit - but that doesn't seem to be stopping them. Apple has apparently pencilled in 2023 for its AR specs, so you can look forward to buying a pair with your iPhone 16 (or perhaps iPhone 13S).


Qualcomm, meanwhile, is making a set of reference glasses. They'll be 5G-enabled, capable of 8K playback and with 360-degree feedback. But you'll still likely look like a tool wearing them, and wondering whether being able to hunt Pokemon without getting your phone out was really worth blowing through hundreds of pounds of hard-earned cash.

Google Glass may be dead and buried, but you can look forward to people looking like Borg cosplayers of their own volition in just three years time, if the rumours are right. And if Apple is on board, it may just become fashionable. The company has managed to convince every man and his dog to stick unrepairable electric toothbrush heads in their ears, after all. µ    

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