The 5 critical lessons CES taught us about wearable tech

neptune pine
image: Jon Phillips

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LAS VEGAS—If you begin to see smartwatches dangling from tree branches, and activity-tracking wrist bands collecting in rain gutters, then you can thank the Consumer Electronics Show for belching out something akin to a pyroclastic flow of wearable tech over half the earth's surface.

Every CES needs a pre-packaged narrative, and this year the hardware industry decided wearable tech should dominate the script. Wearables are novel. They're visual. And manufacturers are juicing the category with R&D and capital, so we need to scrutinize the hell out of wearables, and figure out exactly how and where they fit into our lives.

I'm leaving CES with five key takeaways. Your data analysis may vary, so aim your contrarian tweets in the direction of @jonphillipssf. Together we can stay ahead of the curve before the wearables ash cloud covers us completely.

 1. Big tech needs wearables even more than you do

intel earbuds 2 Image: Jon Phillips

Dear, Intel. Please send your heart-rate-monitoring earbuds. I would like to test them now.

At this year's show, Intel showed off a smart earbud concept that can monitor your heart rate, and cajole you into harder workouts. Sony demoed an activity tracker called the Core that can align steps, geo-location data, and life events in a single, strikingly visual timeline. And LG announced an activity tracker, the Lifeband Touch, that offers phone call notifications, call silencing, and music controls.

sony core activity tracker 2 image: jon phillips

Sony Core activity tracker.

To varying degrees these wearables are intriguing, but what's really telling is their pedigree. The wearables conversation has been hijacked by the biggest names in consumer electronics while "traditional" wearables companies (think FitBit and Pebble) have been nudged to the second row. Indeed, at this year's CES, big tech almost seemed desperate to check off their wearable boxes, as if some greater claim to relevance was at stake.

Two factors are in play here. First, the bigger the name, the more sophisticated the story craft. All these companies know what moves headlines, so wearables had to be part of the 2014 narrative. But just as importantly, the hardware titans aren't dummies. They see the future, and it is wearables. Intel in particular needs new territory for Intel Inside.

2. The activity tracker space is painfully overcrowded

garmin vivofit image: Jon Phillips

The Garmin Vivofit has a great approach to battery life, but that's its biggest claim to relevance.

For rice cakes, how many different ways can a wrist-worn device show us our daily step counts? Accelerometer-based activity trackers run the risk of becoming the commodity hardware sub-category of the wearables space, and in some cases it's painful to watch new wristbands come to market with such dubious raison d'etre.

Take the new Garmin Vivofit. It doesn't need constant recharging every 10 days, as it remains juiced for a year thanks to a replaceable watch battery. It's a great feature. But is it enough to sway my vote when 10 other activity trackers are vying for my attention?

basis carbon steel 2 image: jon phillips

Basis Carbon Steel Edition activity tracker—now with REM sleep data.

Still, we did see flashes of niftier innovation under the CES tent. The Basis tracker looks better than ever in Carbon Steel Edition trim, and exposing REM sleep patterns is a trick that piques my quantified self. I'm also super intrigued by Sony's Core life event graphing. Sure, it may not surprise and delight us when the product finally ships, but it's an approach that advances an activity-tracking space that threatens to enter a bubble of me-too mediocrity.

3. Smartwatch vendors still don't get design

neptune pine image: Jon Phillips

The Neptune Pine smartwatch is large and in charge, and doesn't care who knows.

If you gathered up half of the smartwatches on display at CES 2014, and threw them inside a clear, plastic sack, you'd see a close approximation of what the Brits have traditionally called a Bag of Tat: A loose collection of cheap, gaudy trinkets that provide almost zero value individually, and specious value in aggregate. 

OK, I'm exaggerating. Probably. Maybe just a bit. But I got up close and personal with almost every smartwatch of CES 2014, and found way too much industrial design that I would never want attached to my wrist. Some CES watches looked gaudy enough for gumball machines. Some looked like they were designed by circa-1970s digital watch companies—and not in a good way.

pebble 2 image: Jon Phillips

Pebble smartwatches just keep on looking better, defying industry trends.

And, yeah, I like the "idea" of the mega-large Pine smartwatch. I'm glad at least one smartwatch company dared to create something akin to a tablet that you wear on the end of your arm. Someone had to do it. I'm just doubtful this is the fashion statement for me.

Now, I actually have great faith in the basic smartwatch concept despite the fact that heavyweights like Samsung and Sony have let us down. In fact, I think both Google and Apple are perfectly primed for smartwatch success, and I hope they bring life to smartwatch rumors that remained at a slow boil throughout 2013. But for now, as we wait for others to figure out the smartwatch market, designers really need to get their visual ID under control.

4. Smartglasses aren't actually real

moveria jon image: jon phillips

Epson Moverio: Wear at your own fashion risk.

The concept. I love the concept. Notifications that appear in my line of sight. Completely hands-free text messaging. Augmented-reality overlays displaying contextual information on top of the pedestrian landscape of (yuck) real life. It all sounds great in theory, but not a single set of smartglasses is ready for mainstream consumers. CES 2014 only reinforced what most of us already know.

Epson showed off second-generation Moverio glasses that poke and hint at useful industrial applications, but you will never—never—see a normal using this latest version in a public setting. There's just no mainstream use case. And the Epson specs look like movie props. Do you want to be that guy?

Then there's GlassUp. It's got more fashion-forward aesthetics than competitors, but these specs are still in a rough prototype stage. I don't think Google Glass will ever go full retail (at least not in any form remotely close to the current alpha version), and I have the same concerns about GlassUp, which is slated to ship to early crowd-funding backers in March, and go retail for $400 later this year.

The essential smartglass concept is incredibly intriguing, but a raft of obstacles—relating to comfort, safety, aesthetics and plain-old usefulness—stand in the way. Not a single smartglass company emerged at CES to scream "We're ready!" and not even the overall wearables hype engine of the show paid much attention to glasses this year.

glassup 2 image: Jon Phillips

GlassUp: A smart-looking prototype, if nothing else.

5. Wearables: Still incredibly exciting, all stumbles aside

I'm a cynic. You've already read this far, so you know that about me. But even I, in all my pissy-mooded grumblings of negativity, find optimism in where wearables are heading.

Consider: I feel naked without my Jawbone UP24 attached to my wrist. And I'm encouraged by the new Hangouts feature in the latest Google Glass update. It really does make text messaging a bit more convenient for those times when you can't pull out your phone.

And I'm optimistic about where Intel is going with wearables-friendly chip design. And I'm even glad that half of the wearable companies that demoed at CES showed us gear we'd never want to wear in public. We won't buy their products, but the industry will learn from their mistakes.

Las Vegas was hit by a big, messy, exaggerated mass of wearables hype at CES this year. Let's just accept that as fact, nolo contendere. But the wearables of 2014 aren't the 3D TVs, connected appliances, and no-name E-readers of CESes past. There are just too many useful products—or flawed products with a few useful features—to suggest the hardware industry isn't on to something important.

This story, "The 5 critical lessons CES taught us about wearable tech" was originally published by TechHive.

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