LAS VEGAS — Walking on the massive show floor of the Consumer Electronics Show last week, you’d be hard-pressed not to come across some sort of wearable device. From smartwatches that summoned driverless vehicles, to head gadgets that grow hair back and measure brainwaves, wearables were everywhere at CES.
These body-worn devices, many of which do more than just track your steps or sleep, also dominated the conversation this year. Amobee, a mobile marketing agency that analyzes real-time and historical interest trends online, found that there was more awareness around wearables than any other topic at CES this year. “If 2014 was the year wearables arrived at CES, 2015 was the year that wearables arrived front and center,” the company noted.
Shipments of these devices are expected to increase in 2015 as well. Shawn DuBravac, a chief economist with the Consumer Electronics Association, said that 10.5 million smartwatches will be shipped this year in the U.S. — far more than what DuBravac predicted just one year ago.
But walking around the fitness and technology area of CES, where representatives from all types of wearable companies hounded press members in hopes of convincing them that their gadget was the next great innovation, it felt as though there were simply too many wearable companies given how much demand exists today.
For example, Fortune noted last week that 85 percent of U.S. consumers (out of 3,400 polled) said they were not in the market for a fitness band. And after spending a week at CES, I still haven’t come across convincing use cases that match the staggering number of companies sprouting up in this new market.
In fact, this almost seems like a wearable bubble. Or, on the other hand, maybe this is a classic chicken-or-the-egg problem.
I spoke with DuBravac after CES to get a better sense of where this industry is heading. DuBravac, who gave the annual “state of the electronics industry” presentation before CES kicked off this year, said that the wearable movement is a smaller piece of a much bigger storyline and inflection point that’s playing out in the tech world now.
The first part of that storyline, DuBravac said, is that sensors have become incredibly inexpensive and businesses are now trying to find the best uses for them on our bodies. The other half of the story is how society is becoming more digital than ever and the Internet is embedding itself in a large number of places — not just in our pockets, but our cars, our homes, and of course, our bodies.
“To me, the wearable story is, does the Internet make sense on the wrist?” DuBravac explained. “Maybe the wrist doesn’t work out. Maybe it’s not the best place for it. We’ll be putting sensors in a variety of different locations on the body and other objects that we interact with. We’ll experiment over the next couple of years and look at the use cases.”
That much is clear from the products shown off at this year’s CES, where there were seemingly devices for every part of your body. Of course, not every single company pitching their wearable at the big conference will succeed — that fact hasn’t changed in the 50-year history of CES. The show is more of a proving ground for what’s coming next, DuBravac noted.
“A lot of CES is figuring out what use case scenarios are meaningful,” DuBravac noted. “We are in this period of experimentation and you’ll just see that explode from here.”
A tipping point for wearable use cases could come later this year when Apple debuts its Apple Watch, which many expect will officially launch the wearable movement. Christopher Mims at the Wall Street Journal saw some Apple Watch apps in action and penned this piece describing how “the Apple Watch will be a launching pad for the next wave of billion-dollar consumer-tech startups.” From Mims’ post:
While many have highlighted Apple Watch’s payments software and health-monitoring capabilities, its ability to connect us to what our phones already know about where we are and what we’re doing—augmenting our reality with a new layer of data—makes me think it could bring about profound behavioral change in its users. As Apple illustrated with the iPhone, it’s changes in what we find it easy and enjoyable to do that beget changes in our habits and social norms. And those are the shifts that create real opportunities for the next billion-dollar startup.
Internet-connected sensors on our bodies and sensors in physical products around us — the home, the car, etc. — will certainly multiply in the future. But how these sensors are used and where they are located certainly remains to be seen.
“I don’t think it’s a bubble,” DuBravac said of the wearable and smartwatch influx at CES. “It’s more experimentation. We see 20,000 new products launch at CES. Not all will succeed, and no one should suggest that. These companies are competing in a highly competitive environment — every environment is — and this one in particular is growing. More players will arrive as the addressable market gets bigger and more opportunities arise.”