I spent a good part of 2016 writing a book about wearable devices, so I got to take a deep dive into each category of wearables. The more I dug in, the more I realized that they’re just not that useful. Smartwatches are second-screens for the notification layer of our phone, and function only as a reminder to stare at our phones during the few moments of our lives that we’re not already staring at our phones. Activity trackers promise fitness and for some reason the pounds aren’t falling off when we hit that 10,000-steps-a-day goal, largely because they’re ignoring the much larger factor of our diet and they’re just a cheap pedometer that links to our phones.
It would appear that the market is finally catching on. Recently Pebble sold for nothing, Fitbit’s stock tumbled in 2016, Apple started lumping Apple Watch sales reporting in with iPads and iPods, and two of the better services in the wearables market, Jawbone and Narrative, are barely keeping their doors open. There are two things going on here: Some companies that are genuinely useful, like Narrative, have had a hard time explaining to consumers how valuable their services are. Other companies are just putting out garbage that nobody needs or wants.
When I first started my book, my friend, and wearable tech expert Alastair Somerville said that in five years, the wearables industry will look nothing at all like it does now, and I think we’re finally seeing that transition. We’re done with the simple pedometers and the annoying smartwatches–they used to be new and shiny, but turned out to be not that useful. But that’s not to suggest that wearables are dead. There are two next-generation wearable devices that stick out to me right now, both for very different reasons. We’ll call them the survivors, and they serve as a harbinger of things to come.
Here One, the Trojan horse
I met Noah Kraft, the founder of Doppler Labs at SXSW last year right before he won “best of show.” This was shortly after Here Active Listening was released into the world via Kickstarter. The device was simple: a computer that you stick in your ears to equalize environmental sound in real time. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was a pretty crazy experience, and the device had already grown a feverish fan base with a wait list 70,000 people long. We mostly talked about existential issues around sensory manipulation and the future of wearable tech, but an odd thing that struck me from the conversation was that he had no plans to produce more units. He had a rapidly growing wait list of people waiting to hand him money, and he wanted to hold off for a v2 instead of just producing more! I thought he was crazy.
Fast-forward a year later and I’m seeing Doppler’s second release, Here One, being compared to Apple’s AirPods. For their much-anticipated update, Doppler simply added the functionality to make the earbuds play music and take calls. All of a sudden it makes perfect sense. What I used to consider insane turned out to be one of the smartest pivots I’ve seen in the wearables industry, effectively a Trojan horse. Where other brilliantly designed services have failed to communicate their brilliance to a wider audience, Doppler is using long-standing behavior patterns—like listening to music on headphones—to introduce its device to users who would have never considered a single-function device that augments what you hear.
More importantly, Here One is a true wearable computing platform. By having on-board computation, Here One is poised to become the first pervasive general-purpose wearable computing platform, with Tesla-like over-the-air updates capable of greatly expanding the functionality of the service. With updates in their pipeline such as real-time language translation, the Here One has potential to earn its spot in your ears. I’m personally waiting for a Jarvis/Samantha-like ear-based personal assistant, which is now entirely possible.
Ōura Ring: Finally Delivering
The first thing you notice about Ōura is its form factor, but that’s probably the least interesting thing about this incredible activity tracker. What instantly got my attention in Ōura is what this service is not claiming to offer: fitness. The Ōura ring counts your steps, and you can set it to vibrate if you’ve been sitting still for too long, but this tracker doesn’t care if you get 10,000 steps every day because its creators understand that activity is only part of the equation.
What you actually get from Ōura is a service that delivers on what nearly every activity tracker on the market has failed to provide: actual prescriptive and actionable information based on what the service has learned from your behavior over time. I cannot stress how much of a leap this is from the overpriced pedometers that report on your real-time proximity to an arbitrary step goal—there’s a reason why those devices live in your drawer.
Every morning you get a report from Ōura, and the primary metric for Ōura is “readiness.” Readiness is a score to describe how ready you are to perform that day, and has been extremely accurate in predicting my general productivity. Readiness is based on the relationship between your rest and your physical activity. Not only does your report tell you how much energy you’re going to have during the day, but also what you can do that day to make tomorrow a little better. Sometimes Ōura tells you to take it easy that day and to get to bed a little earlier, and some days it’s to go as hard as you can cause you’re fully prepared to take on anything. This combined with an in-depth sleep analysis with specific suggestions on how to get more rest makes Ōura the first useful tool in this category.
I have a box in my office labeled “electric garbage,” which is full of all varieties of smartwatches, fitness trackers, and random poorly executed good ideas that were interesting for a week or two, but never really stuck; this box contains one of almost every wearable device ever made. I’m thinking of these devices as first-generation wearables: They taught us a lot but have run their course. The next generation is going to have to be smarter (actually smart, not just marketing-smart) and more outcome-oriented than the first generation. Here One and the Ōura Ring have passed the twin tests of smarts and providing real value. Who else will join them?