For such a young product category, the wearable tech market is remarkably diverse. These devices cover a huge range of form factors, applications and prices, but they all have a few things in common: They're connected, they're small, and they're worn on the human body.
The bounty of wearables on display at this year's International CES seems to suggest a breakout year for the category. But Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and director of research for the Consumer Electronics Association, says we're still very much in the "exploratory phase," with manufacturers simply throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks.
Though it has captured plenty of headlines, the smartwatch is still a nascent technology. Leader Pebble unveiled its brand-new Pebble Steel this week, which aims to blend the intelligence of the standard Pebble smartwatch with the elegance of a traditional metal watchband.
It has more or less the same functionality as the original Pebble, but with a more stylish design and a higher pice. At $249, it demands $100 more than its predecessor.
The lesser-known Martian Notifier, unveiled this week, offers a similar sense of refinement. It's the first smartwatch we've seen with an analog dial, and it offers OS-synced vibrating alerts. It's less feature-heavy than the Steel, but that could be a selling point for some buyers. Sometimes simpler is better.
If the tepid reaction to Samsung's Galaxy Gear is any indicator, smartwatches are in dire need of stylistic direction. It's a consideration that's frequently overlooked in wearable tech, due to the tech sector's disconnect from the world of fashion. However, early glances at the Notifier and Steel suggest at least a few developers have gotten the hint.
The sudden abundance of wearable tech is so overwhelming that it's difficult for individual brands to stand out. The competition is fiercest among fitness trackers — flexible wristbands that monitor the wearer's physical activity.
"The biggest market to come to fruition has been the health and fitness trackers," says DuBravac, adding that shipments could reach 12 million this year.
At CES, many companies are offering similar products. A brief list of the hottest activity trackers at the show includes Basis, Reign, Fitbit, Fitbug, Vivofit, Tao, Nabu, Wellograph, Atlas, Up, Pulse, Pulsense, FuelBand, Lifeband, Viiiiva and Core.
Some products offer unique features such as automatic sleep monitoring (Basis) or open-source software (Epson's Pulsense), but there are few traits that truly distinguish one brand from another. It would be difficult to name a clear standout.
If you really want a fitness band that's able to track your steps, heart rate and sleep patterns, then sync the data through mobile, it's best to focus on value. To that end, the Fitbit Force, Garmin Vivofit and Epson Pulsense are good options. All three check in at $129.
The most buzzed-about wearable tech at CES is probably augmented reality (AR) glasses. Google Glass is the most recognizable example, but iterations of the concept have been on the market for a few years.
Vuzix entered the AR sector in 2010 with its M100 Smart Glasses, while Epson (also an early leader in smartwatches) has had a wearable AR display, the Moverio BT-100, on sale since 2011.
At a news conference Monday, Epson unveiled its latest AR glasses: the Moverio BT-200. Though graced with a sleek design and improved features, the BT-200 is not the mass-market gadget Google is trying to craft with Glass. Even so, it has real potential for use in design, gaming and engineering. The competitive price of $700 could attract early adopters when it's released in March.
Beyond Wrists and Faces
Wearables don't begin and end with watches and glasses. There are other ways tech can be worn and integrated with your digital devices. Perhaps the most unusual example is the Sensoria Fitness Socks, which track your vital signs through your feet.
Whereas fitness trackers typically keep tabs on you by monitoring your pulse, the Fitness Socks record podiatric data and, over time, learn the cadence, foot-landing habits and weight distribution of their owner. The list price of $150 is a lot to ask for a pair of socks, but if you're an avid runner, they could be an intriguing addition to the sock drawer.
Clearly, many of these products have a narrow, specialized lure, likely to appeal only to the earliest of early adopters. But it's important to recognize the wider trend: Wearable technology is finally beginning to merge with economic practicality and, more important, fashion.