Wearables go niche and narrow in the search for consumer relevance

Jared Newman

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Wearables are looking for commitment. Manufacturers know that consumers discard many activity trackers within a year of purchase, and it seems that no advances in actual technology are helping new wristbands stand out.

So instead of trying to chase established general-purpose fitness trackers such as those from Jawbone and Fitbit, the manufacturers we saw at CES 2015 were much more focused on niche use-case scenarios, hawking purpose-built wearables for marathon runners, basketball players and even stressed-out cubicle workers. Vendors are clearly hoping that people will commit to devices that do only a single thing, but do so really, really well.

Old hardware, new tricks

For instance, an upcoming $150 tracker called GoMore (pictured at the top of this article) promises to approximate users’ stamina capacities based on their heart rate. While GoMore’s EKG sensors are nothing special, the device uses a patented algorithm that finds the relationship between heart rate, lactic acid buildup, and energy burn, and converts it all into a stamina percentage. With the device strapped to your chest, GoMore’s companion app tells you when you’re burning too much energy and says how much farther you could go if you managed stamina more effectively.

The Zensorium Being ($200) goes beyond basic step counting and heart rate tracking by measuring the wearer’s stress levels and providing tips on how to remain calm. Again, there’s nothing particularly notable about the hardware itself, whose photo-diode-based heart rate sensor is similar to what you’ll find in other fitness watches. Instead, it’s all in the algorithm, which use variations in heart rate to tell when you’re calm or overly anxious.

zensorium Jared Newman

Zensorium’s Being uses a conventional heart rate monitor to detect anxiety and calmness.

Even the lowly accelerometer and gyroscope combo—long a staple of smartphones and fitness trackers—is being put to more interesting uses by firms like Vert, whose $125 tracker is the first dedicated to measuring jump height and frequency. Though the hardware itself isn’t revolutionary, Vert’s singular focus has gotten the attention of the U.S. Women’s volleyball team, which uses the device in training. Coaches can even plunk down $100 for a coaching platform that tracks up to six athletes at once.

Makers of more traditional fitness watches are now trying to specialize as well. Garmin’s new epix smartwatch, for instance, appeals to hardcore hikers and off-trail skiers with 8GB of storage for satellite and topographical maps. Epson’s Runsense watches appeal to serious runners, combining GPS and step counting to measure the length and frequency of users’ strides.

garminepix Garmin

Garmin’s epix watch guides hikers and skiiers with offline maps.

Where to wear a wearable

Thanks to Fitbit, Jawbone and a slew of new smartwatches, we tend to think of wearable tech as living on the wrist. But at CES, some wearable makers tried to distinguish themselves by moving their hardware to other parts of the body. In doing so, they stand less chance of being rendered obsolete by increasingly sophisticated smartwatches and fitness bands.

The most oddball example is Belty, a smart belt that aims to track users’ waistlines and provide extra comfort. The belt’s mechanical strap automatically loosens and tightens as you sit and stand, and uses tension sensors to figure out your ideal level of comfort over time. (Belty says the final version will be smaller and less chunky than the CES prototype, but isn’t talking prices yet.)

belty Jared Newman

Belty might look a little odd, but it could be a lifesaver after Thanksgiving dinner.

Other wearables, such as UpRight, aim to be more discreet. The $129 posture correction device sticks onto the small of your back and vibrates as you slouch. Though you’re only supposed to wear it for an hour per day, UpRight claims that better posture will start to feel automatic after a few weeks.

Some wearable tech has even found its way onto the foot. Sensoria, for instance, plans to sell a pair of $199 smart socks next quarter that can count the wearer’s steps and detect which part of the foot is getting the most pressure. And later this month, Digitsoles will sell a $199 pair of heated insoles that users can control by smartphone—with a side of step-counting, of course.

digitsole Jared Newman

Digitsoles promises to heat your buns to just the right temperature through its companion smartphone app.

Meanwhile, LifeTrak is letting users decide where to wear the company’s Gem heart rate monitor. When the $110 tracker launches in the middle of this year, LifeTrak will offer a fabric holder that crafty users can sew onto a headband, workout shirt or sports bra. Going one step further, AmpStrip plans to offer a a heart rate monitor that sticks straight to the wearer’s body with disposable adhesive.

lifetrakgem Jared Newman

Lifetrak’s Gem can be sewn into clothing if you’re handy with a needle.

While none of these new wearables are likely to strike it big on their own, collectively they hint at what wearable technology will become: smarter, more flexible, and able to cover a broad range of uses beyond basic step and sleep counting. 

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