I wrote a blog on my experience with wearables a couple of years ago (My Wearables “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”) – it basically was a lamentation of my journey to find one (or any!) that excited me. I would characterize this initial generation as v1.0 – klugey products with limited or poor functionality, lack of real aesthetic appeal, and power/battery/connectivity issues.
Since then, a lot has happened in the wearables world. Many have gone out of business, and some have gotten acquired or gone public (Fitbit, Withings). New products have emerged. A massive amount of capital has gone into this space, and some of the winners appear to have formed. After a couple of years, and several more devices, I’ve come away quite passionate about a few of these.
According to Tracxn, more than $3bn has been invested into the wearables sector in the past 5 years, with $1bn invested in 2015. Several reasons account for this massive increase in investment: (1) the rise of smartphone sales, which has resulted in greater engagement with the wearables devices; (2) advances in communication technologies (such as low energy bluetooth), power, and display technologies; and (3) an explosion in the app ecosystem fueling the wearables revolution. While the broad wearables segment includes several sub-segments (fitness, sports, healthcare, infotainment, fashion), I’ve focused on the fitness segment, which accounts for >30% of the invested dollars in the space.
The current experience with wearables is materially better than what I had experienced a couple of years ago. This includes (1) several quality use cases; (2) better technology; (3) attractive look and feel; and (4) utility of the data.
1. Use Cases. My favorite use cases for wearables are fitness (primarily running), sleep & step tracking. For fitness, the Garmin fenix3 is my favorite – I’ve tried probably 10 GPS watches over the past 5 years, and the fenix 3 is my clear favorite (great look & feel, excellent functionality, and top class connectivity). For sleep & steps, both Fitbit and Jawbone have high quality offerings. The sleep tracking feature has been extremely helpful for me to figure out sleep patterns, cause-and-effect, and the key levers (e.g. deep sleep vs total sleep). The step tracking feature, which is likely the #1 use case for most users, has enhanced my activity levels, which is a very powerful reason to use these products.
2. Better technology. Jawbone, in particular, had a fair number of product issues a couple of years ago – I had to switch out 4-5 of them over the course of a year. However, the Jawbone UP4, released last fall, has several product innovations, including integrated Amex payments, and a much more robust technology platform. Continuous software upgrades to these devices and advances in connectivity and battery life have enabled many of the current generation of devices to actually work well. This is in stark contrast to a couple of years ago, when the devices were buggy at best. Another example of the technology improvements is regarding connectivity – the devices now are easier to connect to bluetooth and also stay connected. This is still a work in progress, but much better than in the past.
3. Attractive look & feel. The biggest release in the past 2 years in the wearables category has been the release of the Apple Watch. My initial experience with the Apple Watch was mediocre, due to a combination of the inability for any device to live up to the massive hype that was attached with the launch of the watch, as well as some initial bugs in connectivity and the utility of the apps (e.g. notifications not coming through, not synchronizing with phone). However, after a few software iterations, I’ve come to be very satisfied with the Apple Watch – my favorite use case actually be one of the simplest, which is text & phone notifications on the watch. Beyond the functionality, Ive been impressed with the great look and feel of the Apple Watch. Another watch where I’ve been impressed with the aesthetic appeal is the Olio watch. The Olio watch, made by Olio Devices, is a beautiful smart watch that was created by some former Apple designers (full disclosure: NEA is an investor in Olio Devices).
4. Utility of the data. I’ve amassed about 5 years of data between my jawbone, fitbit, & watch devices. As I had mentioned in my first blog on wearables, the data (sleep, steps, trends) has continued to be one of the most powerful reasons why I’m so engaged with my devices. The data is enhanced with integration with other apps or wearables (e.g. weight, diet/nutrition) that can provide a comprehensive view of your health and wellness behavior. The data has been powerful for me in affecting change in a gamification-type way (walking more steps to keep up with my prior weekly averages, or trying to set new personal bests for steps; adjusting diet to get sleep back on track). The current dashboards for Fitbit allows me to see trend data over weeks, months, years.
What is Still Needed
Continued accelerating product & design cycles have resulted in much faster releases of new features, products, & brands. Having said that, I do have a wish list of what I think is still needed: a system of record for consumer health data, and an “omnia in unum” (all in one) wearables device.
A true “system of record for consumer health data”. This would look something like an app or software program which has all of an individual’s wearables data, from health, wellness, diet/nutrition, sleep, etc. There would be analytics such that the data can be synthesized with tools available to understand the data. The software would integrate many data streams to provide a unified view of your health & fitness. By providing your “home page for your wearables data”, you would engage daily with the data and analysis. Many of the existing wearables devices are trying to do this themselves, from Jawbone with its open application ecosystem, to the obvious Apple Watch. While these are still compelling offerings, the challenge is being able to fully see ALL of your data, and not necessarily having a Jawbone or Apple-centric view of your health and wellness. As with all emerging technologies and trends, once there is material mass adoption, an entire ecosystem, largely propelled by software, takes shape. I look forward to that trend happening with wearables.
The “omnia in unum” wearables. From this blog, it’s probably apparent that i use several devices simultaneously (Apple watch or Garmin GPS watch + fitbit). Part of the reason is really form factor vs use case – a big one for me is sleep tracking, and it’s much more comfortable to have the smallest form factor. But, I do think there is an opportunity to design a product that can serve most, if not all, of the use cases. Coupling this with the software system of record could be a defining “iPod-like” moment for this segment.