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How to think about wearable technology?

In the past years we have been witness to the birth of what has been dubbed the wearable technology revolution. An explosion of interest, products, services and platforms focused on leveraging technology that can be worn mainly to quantify and simplify our daily activities in bid to improve our overall health, fitness, performance and efficiency. From the big sports brands like Adidas, Nike & Under Armour to start ups like FitBit, Moov, WiThings and Pebble. As well the big tech players like Apple, Samsung and Google, to name a few. Wearables have featured heavily on the technology radar, resulting in a plethora of new devices and the whimsical claims that go with them.


This trend has been driven by rapid advances in our ability to collect, process and interpret vast quantities of data through integrated, connected sensors that are decreasing in price, size and power consumption, and increasing in functionality and processing power, allowing for increasingly accurate, sophisticated and complex measurements and devices in ever smaller packages.


Of late however, the hype has seemingly dwindled with wearable market leaders, such as FitBit, acquiring the struggling Pebble in a bid to rejuvenate itself in a market that seems to have lost its luster and allure. This is evidenced by a share price that has dropped by a whopping 70% since FitBit’s IPO in 2015. A market flooded with devices at every price point and a spate of reports and articles that condemn wearable fitness devices as inaccurate and ineffective and smart watches as ultimately useless or unnecessary at best. On the surface the outlook for the future of this space at present looks to be fairly uncertain. The novelty has worn off and the reality is setting in, what is on offer simply is not delivering on its promise.

The big question is whether this is the maturity and end of a fad or a turning point. The answer is both. The fact is wearable technology as we know it is at the end of its current rope, but it is also in its infancy and a part of something that is so much bigger than step counting and sending gimmicky heart rate based love taps.


Internet of Things


It is often overlooked but important to remember that wearable technology is part of the overarching shift into the connectivity of everything around us. It is been labelled as the Internet of Things (IoT) and Wearable technology is part of it. To put this movement into perspective, it was predicted that in 2016 there were 5.5 million new “things” connected to the internet every day. That is just under 65 every second. It is increasing exponentially and it is just one of the astronomical statistics and projections made by multiple agencies in regards to the IoT movement. The numbers are truly astounding and the potential for innovation and the development of new value streams is virtually limitless.


In light of these trends, the future of wearable technology is bright, just not in its current commercially available form and trajectory. In general, the way in which we think about wearable technology needs to shift beyond just being able to sense, collect, analyze and display data and information towards a more holistically end user focused value proposition. Access to information being defined as delivering value has run its course in this space It is why activity trackers and the like inevitably end up in a draw within a matter of weeks after purchase. They simply fail to deliver value and engage users beyond the delivery of the information itself and the increased awareness that comes along with it.


Value


Whilst a giant leap has certainly been made, the true worth of connected, interactive, wearable products will not be truly realized until this ability to measure and connect is matched by its ability to seamlessly and unobtrusively deliver true, long-lasting value to both the user and the provider.

To put this into context, it means that while it is all well and good to have the ability to constantly measure heart rate and daily activity, or any other arbitrary metric or function on any device with any purpose for that matter, but without the ability to understand and communicate why it matters, what to do next, how to do it, make it easy to do, make you want to do it, what the impact of doing it will be and ensuring it gets done, there will be no lasting impact and thus no true value.


It means that the data collected through users needs to be utilized to identify, describe, diagnose, prescribe, predict, automate and act upon historical information collected, for an experience that is customized and personalized. (This as opposed to just displaying it nicely with interpretation and follow up largely left to the user who has little chance of deciphering what is good, bad or indifferent and more importantly what comes next.) At the same time, it needs to become more natural, more integrated, seamless and, ultimately, more human.


Current wearables are, more often than not, a burden to the user, an addition or a complication that struggles to justify its necessity and the effort required to extract value in the long run. Wearables are already becoming “invisibles”, integrated and disappearing into our everyday items, where they will be increasingly functional but unnoticeable, but they are not there yet commercially.


Considering this obvious complexity and looking, for example, at the current and future technology landscape in healthcare and the likes of MC10 one can begin to see this necessary, evolutionary pivot taking shape and two things become abundantly clear:

the first is that this entire space is inadequately described or covered by the term “wearable technology”. The wearable part is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, with much of the potential still lying below the water line and connected to vast ecosystems of devices, data and platforms. Unseen, untapped and sizeable.


Secondly the space will, needs to and is about to go through an evolutionary period of consolidation, integration and maturity. At its simplified core this is a paradigm shift from sense and respond to predict and act that is being enabled by an increasingly connected world underpinned by the impending and growing influence of artificial intelligence and cloud computing.


Taking risks is a smaller risk than doing nothing


Given its current state and the resulting current lull in above the line activity in wearables, the big mistake being made right now by large organizations considering a leap into wearable technology or who are trying to figure out what it means to them, is that it is considered to be confined to watches, step counters and professional athletes. A vertical unto itself as opposed to an entry point to and part of a vast, rapidly expanding horizontal movement that will reshape our lives and the world as we know it.


This traditional, siloed, product oriented point of view is stifling many organizations onto a path of digital half-heartedness and inaction which in the medium term will have negative consequences. The memes of Uber, AirBnB, Ali Baba and Facebook that currently adorn the internet with examples of digital businesses thriving on traditional industries failing to take advantage of what the digital world has to offer are now cliché, but the message and the risk of inaction could not be any more clear. As the prominent businessman, Azim Premji once said: “When the rate of change outside is more than what it is inside, be sure that the end is near”. In the current environment, this means any business that is not actively seeking to leverage technology throughout its operations, processes, products and communications to explore, improve and increase the value they are receiving from and delivering to their customers and consumers, is in danger of being sideswiped by a digitally savvy, often unknown competitor.


Unfortunately, it is well known that large, established organizations traditionally only fall back on innovation as a reactionary means to respond to market or competitor shifts. More often than not, what they deem to be innovation is in fact just refreshing and renewing a well-known and successful formula, as opposed to truly doing something different. The current reality is that given the pace of technological change, being reactive and refreshing is simply not enough. Proactivity and the willingness to creatively explore outside of an organization’s comfort zone is essential to successfully navigating our increasingly complex and digitally driven world.


The digital imperative is essentially to leverage technology to automate the growth of your business, expand your reach and enable new value streams or face becoming only a supplier to a larger platform, losing market relevance or disappearing altogether. The CEO of BMW, Dr.-Ing. Norbert Reithofer summed it up nicely when asked why BMW started it’s electric car project with the BMWi-3 and i-8, he responded frankly: “Because doing nothing was even a bigger risk".


This however does not necessarily mean that “if it can be connected, it will be”, something you hear thrown around like a Yoda quote in the IoT space. Rather, it means “if connecting it adds value, it will be”. The difference is huge and the statement is key. Just because you can does not mean you should, but, somewhat problematically, the fact is that if you don’t ever connect it you will never know what value you can deliver. The hard part is that the value in making a product or service connected and/or interactive is not always obvious. Those who are rewarded are those who are precise, methodical and, more than anything, willing, proactive and explorative in their approach to innovation.


Failing fast to succeed


Venturing into this digital world is generally perceived as requiring businesses to enter into the unknown and lay down investment for an unknown outcome. Which is only true if your business has no vision, strategy or indeed desire to exist beyond next Christmas, in which case you should be packing your bags already. The writing is on the wall and the numbers are all there to back up the fact that there is a real necessity to actively digitally transforming your business, if you are not already in the process of doing so. The potential benefits of taking that leap into the unknown far outweigh the prospect of not existing at all. In Kien’s experience the magic fix to this predicament lies in one of the simplest questions any organization can ask itself, “what if…?”.


Being able to ask this question and act on it requires a version of a strategic business perspective commonly referred to as “failing fast”. That is often talked about by and within organizations but rarely executed against, because it includes an innate risk of failure. The problem in our eyes is that the negative tonality of the phrase itself almost dooms it to its own namesake, before a single breathe can be taken. More optimistically, Kien likes to refer to this approach, with tongue in cheek, as succeeding speedily.


Innovation, especially in this world of exponential change, needs to be seen as inherently positive within an organization. We are not here to fail, we are here to succeed. Failure is just part of that process. This sentiment should be driven from the upper echelons of the business in a way that encourages and incentivizes employees and business units to ideate, try, measure, reflect and evolve continuously and without fear of reprisals.


To ask the question “what if?” in a business context is to use one’s imagination to explore the unexplored through the lens of a crystal clear, documented understanding of one’s own business, consumer, market and competition which already, hopefully, exists within the organization. The fact is that newness and ideas are simply connections made between disparate sets of information. If you are not constantly enabling the exploration of the world beyond your bubble to make those connections, whether that be beyond your desk, your business unit, your company, your market or your industry, you can never come up with anything new.


We all know this can be difficult in the face of the day to day grind but mandating that time be made for this type of work is essential. Take Google’s 20% time, which dictates that employees should use 20% of their time to work on personal interest projects. Famous products to come out this include Google News, Gmail and AdSense. It is debated whether it is truly a policy at the search giant, but, regardless, the important thing is that the culture around innovation and exploration exists at all to drive newness.


What does digital mean to you?


Now it is clear that not every company is Google, an establishment built on the minds of the most digitally savvy among us, but that should not stop any business from taking the time to think about what digital means to them, how they currently deal with it and whether they even have the sufficient resources and expertise to truly make strategic decisions in this area. Ultimately every business has the knowledge and people with the potential to innovate and transform beyond what they believe possible, they simply lack the right expertise, frameworks and environment to do so.


Admitting you have a problem is the first step which puts you on the path of exploration to discuss and engage with potential partners and agencies to guide you in building foundational use cases and the business cases behind them that can be executed on with a focus on delivering real business value.


Now, you will have noticed by now that we have drifted a long way from the Apple Watches and Fitbits of the wearable technology world. There is method in the madness we assure you, for this is the crux of the whole article. Wearable technology is an end point, a solution, an outcome. It is not the be all and end all, it is not a vertical, It is an enabler, a phrase used to describe an emerging capability within the exponentially growing physical and virtual network and ecosystem of products, services and experiences that is the Internet of Things.


Wearable technology may be something that can dramatically change and benefit your company, business or industry, but it also may not. The more important thing is that you understand the necessity to innovate and transform digitally and are exploring this digital world in which wearable technology could be one of the myriad of solutions on offer or a means by which to deliver and receive more value and grow your company.


Simple, right?