The Future of Wearables Depends on an Entirely New Business Model
In the near future, your gym will give you compression gear to wear during your workout. The gear will be filled with tiny, invisible generators that spring to life with the energy from your movement, your body heat and the WIFI signals in the room. The generators will then power little sensors seamlessly integrated into your clothing, which measure everything your body does: Kinematics, range of motion, heart rate, sweat, reps, blood sugar, body fat and so on.
The gear connects to the cloud, and when you reach a workout station, a virtual coach projected on the wall guides you through your routine. Your stats are automatically shared with your friends, injury information is provided to your doctor, and you keep coming back to the gym, because you can tangibly see your performance improving.
This vision for wearables is everywhere you look. Some are calling it “disappearables,” others say we are “enchanting” objects.” I call it, “wear and forget.” The core idea is that technology should become so unobtrusive that we don’t even know it is there. It should capture energy from its environment, track and sense the world around it -- and do so seamlessly and unobtrusively.
That’s the vision, but let’s take it a step further. What does it really mean to have something so hidden that you can’t see the tech? The smart compression gear will be indistinguishable from other, normal compression gear. Sure, it will do these amazing things in the gym, but if you want to just wear it as compression gear that is fine too, because nobody can tell that there is technology in there -- including you.
Maybe you are snowboarding and you want a better way to interact with your phone, GoPro, or HUD goggles. Imagine ski gloves that capture energy from your body heat and motion, with small sensors that capture your finger movements so you can tweet, swipe and blog even in the wet and cold.
No phone? Not a problem. The gloves still function perfectly as ski gloves. Again, in the land of disappearables, nobody can tell that there is technology in there, including you.
Or in another example: Granny has Alzheimer’s, she pulls on her slippers, wanders down the corridor, out the door and into the street. She is met by a lovely young woman who helps her back to the rest home for a cup of tea.
How did the nurse know? As Granny started walking, small generators bought the slippers to life, powered up a GPS beacon, and sent a text to the nurse. Remember, nobody can tell if a pair of slippers are disapperables, including Granny.
I would like to propose a challenge: The marginal lifestyle cost of wearable technology should be zero.
Wearing compression gear is a lifestyle decision. Wearing this gear has accrued benefits, such as reduced chafing and muscle stiffness, and also some costs, such as how they look and possible discomfort. If adding tech makes clothing too uncomfortable, too unfashionable, restricts motion excessively or adds annoying extra work like battery charging, then it can tip this balance of pros and cons and cause you to re-think putting on your tech-enabled kit.
But if adding tech does not detract from the benefits compression gear brings, because it is so seamless and hidden that you forget it is there, then there is no additional lifestyle cost. Logic says you will wear tech-enabled compression gear any time you would wear normal compression gear.
Economists will tell you that when a marginal cost hits zero, weird and wonderful things happen. Entirely new business models become possible, and old industries tumble before the new. Remember what digital photography did to Kodak? In this case of smart compression gear, users can tap into their body metrics whenever they want, not only for the gym, but for endless applications.
This new business model, called the “device as a service” model, is different than the current standard. For example, instead of buying compression gear, the gym will give it to you for free and increase subscription fees to cover the costs. The gym will in turn pay a subscription to the wearable company that makes the gear in the first place. The wearable company looks after the data, ensures the privacy of the athlete and provides the application program interface for the gym’s own software to tap into.
Our hypothetical athlete may also play rugby. His coach will have an app that tracks the intensity of tackles, helps manage injury and provides guidance on when to push and when to rest. The club will also pay a subscription to access the data -- with the player’s permission of course. The same smart clothing can thus become the backbone of many different sports activities, allowing a new type of app store to flourish, with wearable companies holding the keys.
In the above examples, a third party pays the subscription fees, but you can also imagine a direct model too. Maybe you want to go figure skating and animate your routine. No problem! Simply chuck on the gear, subscribe to an app, pull data from your suit -- and off you go.
This approach is more than just a new way of doing business. It may be essential for the wearable industry’s survival. Presently, wearable devices have a significant lifestyle cost. They are bulky, inconvenient and need constant charging. Customer churn is high with a large number of people abandoning products shortly after purchase. Profit margins are razor thin in devices themselves due to highly commoditized global supply chains -- check out the profitability of android phones for example.
However, when wearables reach a marginal lifestyle cost of zero, three things can happen -- users continue using their devices, companies can genuinely switch to a device as a service model, and a new application marketplace can be created.
This exciting future is just around the corner. Sensors, generators, and microprocessors are constantly shrinking and becoming available in soft-form factors. Power consumption is dropping, and companies are waking up to the fact that a new approach is critical to their survival.
With the inevitable advent of seamless technology, wearable companies that drive the marginal lifestyle cost of their products to zero will be the winners in the coming years.