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The Future of Wearables - Thinking Outside the Watch

A “wearable” is a class of technology that has been immensely successful for a variety of companies of vastly differing sizes. “FitBit” has practically become a household term to mean a fitness monitor that you wear like a watch, like “Kleenex” is to tissues. And they have reaped the benefits – the Fitbit corporation grew into a 9B company from 2011 to 2015. But sales figures make it clear that dedicated fitness monitors are becoming less popular than smartwatches because they do so much more than just counting steps, and nobody wants to charge yet another device that doesn’t provide value (one of the highest ranked reasons consumers state for abandoning fitness monitors).

For this reason, “wearable” has become a buzz word in the consumer electronics industry that for all intents and purposes means the same thing as “smartwatch”. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, and to differentiate our approach we like to use the term “disappearable”. Emerging technologies are quietly fueling innovations in disappearables, (defined as gadgets that provide benefits without anybody knowing that they’re there, either because they blend with (or are integral to) your wardrobe, or they are placed underneath a garment, or inside a pocket), and this is where Gadgettronix is focused – it’s no coincidence that two of the four co-founders hail from the garment and fashion industry, one as a creative and one as a product manager. Technically, the disappearables class also includes ingestibles (smart pills) and implatables (pacemakers and such), but even though there is some functional overlap, class 3 medical devices are very different animals than the wearable super class and are not considered in this discussion.

Information technology and Moore’s Law led to astonishing gains in productivity, but the productivity growth rate we can attribute to faster hardware has decreased dramatically. Computing devices are still getting smaller and faster, so what gives? We believe it’s because these gadgets have become so powerful that their capabilities outstrip our abilities to effectively interact with them. The benefits are there, you just need to click a dozen things to access them, something that takes your full attention. At some point, the value proposition gets swamped by the hassle, which is a real shame.

Imagine if you could, with the swipe of your hand in air, use the push-to-talk feature to locate your buddy while skiing in heavy snow, without removing anything from your pocket or exposing your phone to the elements. Or hear the next route guidance while riding a bike share to a meeting without stopping or losing focus on the road. As with distracted driving, distracted riding is a real issue (and in this case no matter who is at fault, the rider loses). Distracted walking is an issue as well – a 2013 study found that more than 1500 pedestrians were hospitalized in 2010 for accidents related to distracted walking, and the expected total this year is much higher. To address this, municipalities such as Honolulu are now getting laws on the books making looking at your device while crossing the street illegal. Germany has taken the step of placing traffic signals in the sidewalks so you are alerted to the signal color before stepping into the street, quite an expensive prospect. Gadgettronix’ first product is the gestr (pronounced “jester”), a device that allows you to interact intuitively with your mobile phone using gestures, allowing pedestrians, cyclists, skiers, runners etc. to maintain focus on what they’re doing.

These gestures take the form of swipes and taps of your right palm against the back of your left hand, or vice versa depending on your handedness.. There’s only a couple of ways to pull this off hardware-wise, so the secret sauce is in the detection software, which is not trivial. The interpreted gestures are sent to the smartphone wirelessly using Bluetooth, and a companion app will execute the commands received from the gestr and allow the user to assign functions to each gesture. There are plenty of options in terms of functions associated with the gestures – basically anything you can do programmatically with Android or iOS is fair game, even if it’s with an accessory. For example, the user could assign one gesture to mean “start filming with this sports camera on top of my head”. User feedback will be mined extensively to guide the introduction of new supported commands, and eventually there will be an open framework (API) that will enable the user base to define their own supported commands that can be sold as a micro-transaction or just contributed to the gestr community.

In collaboration with Allegro Micro and Oregon State University, the technical team just recently achieved proof-of-concept using a state of the art sensor recently released by Allegro that will allow the sensor package to become thinner, smaller (about the size of a postage stamp) and less expensive with a better user experience. With this technology it’s quite feasible to introduce machine learning and allow the user to design, not only their own commands, but also their own gestures, merely by showing the gestr how to do it. We are already hearing of unanticipated use cases from the community, including health care and the military.

“Disruptive” is not a word we use lightly – truly disruptive technologies are extremely rare. I would characterize gestr technology as, what Geoffrey Moore (author of “Crossing the Chasm”) called “discontinuous”, which essentially means it is something more than an improvement (faster, cheaper, smaller, etc) on an existing capability. One thing observed at CES was that there is now a smart watch for every conceivable demographic. The features that are there to support any particular consumer can be compelling for that subset of the market, but it doesn’t require the customer to rethink how he or she uses the device – the gestr does. The gestr does for the smartphone what the Camelbak did for the water bottle, not change its purpose but rather make it much more accessible, and a water bottle has only one function, whereas a smart phone has literally thousands.

Wearables have a high growth potential, but the next incremental enhancement of a smart watch is not going to enable the industry to realize that potential. Neither will the dedicated-sport devices that are expensive, ugly and extremely limited in their capability. Even when natural language processing becomes reliable years from now, talking to the air is still disruptive and embarrassing. And new technologies are emerging every day, but the question is, how do we integrate them seamlessly into our daily lives? Gadgettronix sees the mobile phone as treasure chest of untapped potential, and will continue to find ways to unlock that potential. Frictionless access is one of the keys, and it’s innovations like these that “think outside the watch” that will be the catalysts that propel the wearable industry.

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