As the year 2014 has come to a close, now is a good time to inventory changes in the consumer electronics market and project those trends forward. One of the most obvious changes was that wearable technology has, by my observation, approached the brink of the adoption chasm into the early majority. In this article we will focus on the significant business and consumer factors of wearable technology, the notable introductions in 2014, as well as future AnandTech coverage.

If you are unfamiliar with ‘the chasm’, this is a reference to an acclaimed technology marketing book by Geoffrey A. Moore in 1991. As seen in the figure below, Geoffrey describes five stages of adoption.

The first, consumers described as innovators, are on the very bleeding edge. Innovators have a combination of unique interest in the subject area and abundant disposable income. There is a small chasm between this group and the next. This small chasm has killed many technologies and you could probably argue that 3D TVs died here. Next, early adopters are more like typical AnandTech readers. These consumers are technologically savvy and often the technology go-to person for groups of family and friends. Early adopters are likely to have made investments into products that their friends have yet to invest in themselves. My wife described me this way when I made the jump from iPhone to Windows Phone. It was an early product without majority adoption (and still is), but I wanted it anyway.

This brings us to The Big Scary Chasm in Question. How does a technology explode from a “hobby”, as famously Apple described its Apple TV, to a staple like the iPhone? In the information age of today, crossing this chasm is primarily a focus of marketing. Sure, you need good product, but without effective marketing there is little chance of wide adoption. There are plenty examples of products that have been favorably reviewed by AnandTech and others but didn't see widespread adoption. Often, it's a case of competing against the marketing budget of a much larger company, but that's a topic for another day. In short, going from a cult hit to a market leader is difficult; hence, the Chasm.

Taking this back to wearables, 2014 saw the most marketing of wearables yet, and for good reason. The traditionally explosive smartphone and tablet markets are slowing down. Analysts at CCS Insight projected a fall of smartphone sales' yearly growth from 40% in 2013 to 25% in 2014 and 15% in 2015. Analysts at Gartner project a fall of tablet sales' yearly growth from 55% in 2013 to 11% in 2014. IDC projects 2014 tablet growth even worse at 7%. At the same time, wearable revenue is projected to dramatically grow. ABI Research projects wearable technology at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 56.1% over the next five years. Finally, Price Waterhouse Coopers’ interview samples show that 76% of consumers do not need a new wearable device to replace functionality of an existing device.

The top consumer eco system players – Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Google’s partners – are growth companies. Continually increasing revenue is a corporate foundation. Without revenue growth, careers stagnate as no promotions or raises are possible. Go long enough without growth and your top talent can leave for a company with growth opportunity. In Samsung’s recent 3rd Quarter financial results, their revenue fell 20% year over year and Samsung primarily attributed this to smartphone struggles.

With all this data combined, it is a no-brainer for these consumer companies to shift resources to wearables. Therefore, all have made significant wearable announcements. Google’s partners and Microsoft have launched devices while Apple is alone in the laggard position of having nothing on the market (with Apple Watch coming this year).

Wearables: What Are They?

At their core, wearables are of course technological devices that you wear. In some sense, your smartphone is actually a wearable. Even though a smartphone usually does not directly contact your body, it is a wearable just as much as a smart purse or backpack is a wearable. However, as smartphones are already a category of their own, they are traditionally excluded even though the core technology is vastly similar. That core technology consists of sensors, wireless, storage and computing. Intel’s recent IoT (Internet of Things) platform launch contained a slide detailing the cost reduction of some of these components, which is an enabling factor of wearable growth.

Where wearables differ from smartphones is their function. By breaking from the traditional smartphone form factor a wearable can provide different benefits. These benefits can be broken down into different categories that closely mirror the contents of the device as different sensors, processors, wireless, and storage enable different use cases.

On the left side of the above diagram from ARM are devices that contain wireless connectivity, sensors, a low power microcontroller such as Coretex-M, small amounts of memory and storage; run an embedded OS; and potentially have an optional display. The vast majority of these devices today are for fitness and health, however some provide smart watch functionality as well. On the middle and right side of the diagram are devices that integrate higher end processing and storage such as full-blown application processors (think Cortex-A series) and DDR memory. These allow running richer, non-embedded operating systems (such as Android) and higher-end features at the cost of power consumption.

Wearable Use Cases
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  • Impulses - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    Uhh, there are already smart watches that use OLED displays, and smart watches that are perfectly visible in daylight (OLED or otherwise), and smartwatches that respond to motion (pretty much every Wear device? the 360's more sensitive mode burns a little more battery but it's very responsive).

    Seems to me you haven't looked very closely at much of the options in the market... The biggest issue is really battery life, but adjusting to 1-2 days of battery life hasn't been a big deal to me. We already did it once when we went from feature phones to smartphones after all...
  • name99 - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    If that is what you want, buy a Pebble today. I have one and I like it.
    But I don't see the harm in others pushing the envelope to try to see what this form factor might be capable of.

    To me the Apple solution (offloading all the serious work to the phone) makes more sense TODAY than the Tizen solution. (Google seems at a sort of intermediate point between the two, but I think is pushing the local CPU too hard). And I think a display tech like Mirasol is the way to handle color at low power.

    But I think it's foolish to be too dogmatic about these issues. In particular, we don't know the expected ten year trajectory of all the pieces involved, from the energy supply side to the CPU power usage to the expected use cases. I suspect that
    - CPU energy usage is actually a much smaller issue than screen and wireless energy usage. Meaning that there's no real win in skimping on the CPU (assuming it is, of course, a power optimized fast sleep/fast wake CPU) BUT the OS and OS/app interaction model are critical in ensuring that almost all the time nothing is running.

    - memory may be a substantial power drain. I would not be surprised if the primary reason for Apple's off-load model is limited DRAM rather than a wimpy CPU/desire to avoid using the CPU much
    [I also suspect, but maybe this is foolish, that Apple's battery life is going to be substantially longer than what they're suggesting in the press, that they're trying to calibrate expectations so that when they announce the actual battery life is 3 days rather than 1 day, people are awed and impressed. The reason I say this is that, compared to what's in a Pebble and the OS/app model, I can't see any serious sink of energy beyond a Pebble. Unlike Google/Tizen where there is all the "traditional" OS overhead and, I'm guessing, a lot more DRAM constantly draining away.]

    - color may be "frivolous" but I suspect it's essential to "cross the chasm". I think accepting the limits of Mirasol (colors, but a limited palette) would be a more fruitful direction for Pebble if they want to remain viable than sticking with eInk.

    Thinking "this is a watch plus; we'll architect the system that way" is a sure way to land up on the same path as Palm, Win CE, Nokia and other such "this is a phone plus" companies. These devices will NOT stay as just watches, even if that's the way they are perceived for the first two years or so.
  • mkozakewich - Friday, January 16, 2015 - link

    The OLED displays already use flicking or shaking to turn on. That's still bad. I'd say we use the two-colour e-ink displays so you can get off (white), black, and red or something. There's no reason you need to see colour on it. The problem here, though, is that it's not really visible at night. Putting some kind of night-light feature on would be helpful. Part of me wonders if one could add a transparent OLED on top just for when it's dark.

    Watches and phones already use deep-sleep features. They can last a week if the radios were turned off and no apps were causing the phone to wake every few minutes.

    Designing an OS is actually very difficult, which is why you never ever see anything good in consumer electronics. Think of the OSes driving things like consoles or those screens in cars or printers.

    Fancy animations are actually important. A watch with no extra graphical features just won't have that visual pull and will feel ugly. People won't want to wear them.

    These devices will definitely become cheaper as CPUs are tailor-made for them and the processes shrink even more. In the meantime, though, these things will cost far more than they're really worth. I think the best bet might be to sell them along side a cheapish phone so you can offer a big subsidy for the combination.
  • mrdude - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    With all of these smart watches being released, Dick Tracy is going to have a fit trying to find the right one. Unfortunately for him, fighting crime and solving cases is going to require a Bluetooth pairing to a compatible smartphone.
  • mjcutri - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    One device (and manufacturer) that you left out of the discussion is the recently announced Garmin Vivoactive:

    Garmin is huge among fitness buffs (cyclists - road and mountain, triathletes, marathoners) for tracking their training and races. They also have a few other devices that pick up the smartwatch theme: the more traditional but more expensive fitness tracker, the 920xt, and the just announced the Fenix 3, which combines the features of the 920xt with a more traditional round watch appearance and the Epix, which should appeal to outdoorsy types with the topographic maps display.

    I am hardly a hardcore athlete, but I have been using the old garmin 310xt for a couple years now to track my cycling and running activities and had been using a fitbit one (until I lost it) to track my steps. I am interested in the vivoactive because it looks like it combines the fitness tracker, GPS, and smartwatch into a single device that I could see myself wearing everyday.
  • Stephen Barrett - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    I agree. I couldn't cover everything and that device was actually launched in 2015 so it wasn't a good fit for the article. However, I'll reach out to Garmin and see if I can get a sample.

    Thanks for the feedback
  • mjcutri - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    Thanks Stephen. I enjoyed reading the article and look forward to AT's future coverage of wearables.

    Another advantage of the garmin devices that really appeals to me is that they are stand-alone devices that optionally connect to your smartphone. For me, this means that I can go for a run with just the watch (I hate hauling around my phone when running, which is why I picked up the 310xt in the first place) or I can go fro a bike ride with my phone in my hydration pack and still have access to texts and control my music.

    The only downside to them is the Garmin Connect interface. I have been having a hard time lately getting my 310xt to sync, and because of that I had been thinking about moving away from garmin towards some other smartwatch type device (possibly fitbit surge,) but the new devices with the wifi and/or BT sync seem to eliminate the sync issues I have been having with my 310xt.
  • DBasic - Monday, January 19, 2015 - link

    Garmin's vivosmart has many of the desired features except GPS. However, unlike many similar competitors, the vivosmart is 5 ATM rated - which is why I got it so water activities would not be a concern. Pairing/sync on unsupported phones is a pain but does work.
  • nevertell - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    "Gyms of the future could contain NFC or Bluetooth enabled weights"
    Please, no. Whilst I can imagine NFC working well, bluetooth implies someone would have to charge the weights. And please, just think about that for a second. Also, imagine a gym, usually a gym has multiple kinds of weights to be lifted, and they are stored usually in close proximity of one another. Imagine the bluetooth noise. If you're stacking weights, will you also register each weight individually with your smart device ? Or will the weights have a mesh network and then each smart device will act as a hub that will read the multicast data from each weight and then pick out the weights that report similar accelerometer output data to the smart device's accelerometer data ? Imagine the potential for all the proprietary standards and protocols and the battery drain.

    Wearables as sensors work good if little to no user interaction is necessary to obtain meaningful data.

    Anyway, IMO the best smartwatch today is the pebble steel, that being said, I've only played with some pebbles and some Samsung Smartwatches. And from my experience with them, I believe that the only functions a smartwatch can do reasonably well are sensor data capture, data transmission to a hub, simple input transfer to a hub and short string display. A smartwatch needn't have standalone apps, because today there are no user interfaces that would work well enough on a 1" display with a maximum of 6 buttons and some gestures and point-and-click touch screen. Of course, if battery and processor tech advances fast enough, maybe there'd be room for a smartwatch that can track hand movements over it (like LEAP motion), then there could be a case for standalone apps, but until then, let's not try and shove a half assed Android on a dual core SoC on my wrist and call it a watch.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    Wireless charging is certainly possible, remember. And ultimately it would require a lot of smarts to detect proximity, verify the weights are in use, etc. It's a potential solution, but I don't know how many people are really tracking this stuff and if it would help. Of course, there's the old saying: "What gets tracked improves." It's why Target, Walmart, etc. monitor the performance of employees, because if they don't most will trend towards doing less rather than more.

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