Wired recently pondered whether wearable technologies are only for the privileged. Ultimately the article was just a report on the high price of wearable fitness technologies and Google Glass, while stopping short of exploring the very interesting question in its title, “Are Wearable Technologies Just a Luxury for the Upper-Class?” A look back at the history of innovative and disruptive technologies suggests not, and that eventually these technologies will someday be mass market, but only if they solve problems familiar to classes lower on the socioeconomic ladder. Once-expensive revolutionary technologies can achieve economies of scale and move down-market only if they solve commonplace problems better than existing products, while others that solve niche problems remain expensive, and more often than not disappear altogether.
The Cellular Phone — Problem Solver
Cell phones are everywhere, and in developing countries they are more prevalent than landlines for a variety of reasons including lack of wired infrastructure and more flexible payment plans, on top of all the benefits of mobility. In fact, penetration of cellular phones per capita in the developing world is fact-approaching that of the developed world.
More importantly, these people have leap-frogged landlines. Per capita penetration of cellular phones far exceeds that of landlines in the developing world. Naturally this is because these consumers can only afford one solution whereas their developed counterparts are more likely to have both a cell phone and a landline, but it is more evidence that a once miraculous technology was not only for the privileged.
Even smartphones are now ubiquitous in developed countries. In fact, according to Christian Science Monitor, 1 in 3 middle schoolers uses a smartphone for homework, and this isn’t just the 1 in 3 at elite private schools. In fact, 49% of Hispanic middle schoolers are using smartphones for homework, versus just 36% of white peers. Clearly this is because more privileged students are likely using desktops or maybe even a Macbook Air that sits in their bedroom while their iPhone lies idle, but these figures would have startled the man on the street 10 years ago.
Bluetooth Headsets — Problem Solver
As insulting to fashion as Bluetooth headsets are, they are currently extremely cheap and are used by people across many socioeconomic classes. If a Samsung smartwatch that you speak into qualifies as “wearable tech”, so should a Bluetooth. Many models of Bluetooth headset are available from BestBuy and Amazon for less than $30. Although first marketed to the executive class, Bluetooth handsets may in fact solve problems more associated with poorer socioeconomic classes who are more likely to literally have their hands full — not with handshakes and million dollar checks, but with steering wheels, children, and tools.
Segway — Niche Problem
The Segway is the preeminent example of a product that was dreamed of as a mass market invention but utterly failed to penetrate beyond the upper class in consumer sales. Dean Kamen dreamed of cities being reorganized around the Segway (he should have reflected on the difficulty bike advocates have had in getting bike lanes on existing streets), and yet the last time I saw a consumer on a Segway was probably on TV in Arrested Development.
It simply didn’t solve a common problem. It feel somewhere between walking, biking, and driving, and consumers weren’t looking for a 4th option. There are other important lessons to be learned from the Segway that pertain to wearable tech (e.g., is it silly? is it inconvenient?) but fundamentally it didn’t fix a real problem, and certainly not for the non-rich.
LaserDisc — Niche Problem
Similarly, LaserDisC was an expensive product that failed to gain mass market acceptance because it didn’t productively solve a real problem (and had problems of its own). Foremost, it wasn’t better than VHS for the money and hassle. Any format war is risky, but LaserDisc didn’t have an edge in solving the problem. Yes, its definition was higher, but that advantage was negligible for small displays. When you envision someone in 1985 despairing, “I wish Tootise looked better on my five-foot-wide TV!”, do you imagine them in a big house or a small house? LaserDisc players were more expensive, but initially the discs were less expensive than VHS cassettes, as the latter had moving parts. However, LaserDisc costs grew while VHS costs declined as the market grew and the manufacturers achieved greater economies of scale. LaserDisc remained a novelty, and ultimately disappeared with the advent of DVDs.
Market Forces Don’t Care about Class
Fundamentally, market forces don’t care about class. If a product can be manufactured inexpensively enough for mass market consumption, at least one player will move down market. Some players will strategically aim for a luxury market, but even Apple is now introducing the iPhone 5c to access additional customer segments. The question is — does anyone want to spend precious money on personal measurement and wearable tech, other than technorati? I say “precious” because for the wealthy $150 for a Nike Fuelband or $1,500 for Google Glass may not be precious, but that question is how to weigh whether the product is actually meeting a real need. It remains to be seen whether Google Glass is the next cell phone or Segway, but either way, the wearable tech movement is here to stay, and eventually innovators will identify form factors and functionality that meet real problems common to all people. At that point, someone will figure out how to lower the cost to put it in the hands of everyone on the street… and make a killing doing it.
What are the Real Problems to Solve?
Health is a top contender — everyone gets sick, and there’s a ton of money up for grabs for products that lower healthcare costs. Obviously the leading wearable technologies are focused on this use-case, and they are getting more powerful. Insurers may soon take notice and subsidize the cost of heart rate monitors just as they pay for glucose monitors. In a dystopian world they may even track your performance and punish you for your lack of exercise with higher premiums.
Convenience always sells, but are these new technologies more convenient than existing products? The most commonly appealing functionality of Google Glass can be duplicated with a Bluetooth headset and a turn of the head down to your phone. Perhaps someday Google Glass will become almost invisible, but until then it’s convenience factor is not a selling point.
Self-knowledge is a tough sell. The notion of the quantified self is appealing for data geek such as myself and the health-conscious, but all but the most dedicated will find the bands stowed in the back of their sock drawer after a few months. These technologies need staying power for the individual or they will not become culturally endemic. It’s always been a question of, “now what?” Consumers need to have the flexibility to change their lifestyle in ways that would optimize these metrics, and people of less privilege may have more difficulty doing that.