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The Age of the Modern Wearables

How we arrived at the Gilded Age of the modern wearable

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The Quantified Self movement was precipitated by a cascading convergence of multiple technological leaps – phones became smarter, energy storage became sleeker, sensor tech became sharper and everything became cheaper, smaller and lighter (Thanks, composite materials). 

The potential of wearables as the emissary of one’s well being came to the fore in the late 2000s, when the founders of hardware company Fitbit mooted the idea of installing sensors in wearable devices to create a fitness tracker.

Why was this seemingly innocuous idea so potent? For starters, the concept of a fitness tracker with sensors compressed the languorous flow of the history of wearable tech in a singular trajectory – encased in Fitbit’s avant garde device were the functionalities subsequent pedometers fashioned by Leonardo Da Vinci in the 15th Century, Swiss horologist Abraham Louis Perrelet in 1770 and American founding father Thomas Jefferson, who is surprisingly credited by most accounts with inventing the world’s first step counter in 1777.

Then came the flurry of activity in the early 21st century – the invention of the lie detector in 1921 meant that there was a way to measure Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), which is used in fitness trackers even today. 

In 1965, a Japanese professor of public health and welfare Dr. Yoshiro Hatano, credited to have introduced the mantra of “10,000 steps a day” to stave off obesity that was enveloping Japan, unveiled the Manko Pei, the modern face of the step counter.

In successive decades came the accelerometer, used first in automobiles and space tech to measure vibration of a structure, the world’s first biometric display watch (a combination of ECG and radio belt used by athletes to track vitals), the GPS technology and finally, a motion sensing consumer tech that has become ubiquitous today – the cellular phone. Emboldened by the enthusiastic acceptance of its tracker, Fitbit subsequently went on to launch newer devices and introduce greater sophistications such as the altimeter, smart weighing scale, sleep tools and cardiovascular tracking devices. 

Five years on, Forbes magazine called 2015 the “breakout year” for wearables, with Fitbit going public, Apple entering the game with its smartwatch, clocking sales of 7 million devices in its maiden year and Chinese electronics maker Xiaomi becoming a serious contender in the space with its low-cost fitness trackers. To gain a sense of perspective, sample this – in 2015, Xiaomi’s third quarter sales of wearables shot up by an astounding 815%. Overall, there were more than 500 types of wearables in the market in 2015, amounting to global sales worth USD 8 Billion.

Surprisingly, the year also brought yet another sobering realization – if the design of a wearable fails to factor in the most sacred of design principles – value, no matter the exclusivity or the innovative potential, it is bound to fail. This is what happened to Google Glass, whose makers perhaps wanted to ride the heady success of the nascent wearables industry, confident that consumers would embrace the device that was the stuff of ardent cyborg fantasies.

Despite the full force of Google’s ingenuity – the smartglass was after all, a hands free computing device, something that was inconceivable at the time, users and early adopters soon dismissed the product. They were confused about the most elemental questions – where, how and why to use it? There were also serious concerns of blatant invasions of privacy, where miscreants could surreptitiously record images and pictures of others without consent. To make matters worse, the frumpy looking pair of glasses were hardly the à la mode embellishment one could justify its steep price for.

Even the Quantified Self movement, which was launched on the bedrock of self-knowledge through technology, puttered away in significance by 2015ironically, for emphasizing on data and neglecting the vitality of human experience.

The process of pouring over several gigabytes of data gradually became tedious and even incomprehensible without expert insights to parse through idiosyncrasies. The noble idea of technology being an aide to wellness eroded for some as it turned into an inhibitor of mental health, making people feel guilty about unmet health goals.

The latter half of the previous decade was marked by another ominous trend – the decline of consumer interest in wearable devices as a means of monitoring health and enabling wellness.

Market research firms downgraded the growth forecasts for wearables, including smartwatches, as consumers reported a variety of negative experiences with them – once the novelty wore off, they were simply bored to use the device, did not find any permanent use for it or found it cumbersome to maintain or operate.

Take for instance, this Gartner survey in 2016, which found that 29% of nearly smartwatch users gave up using their device. Several things stumped the analysts at Gartner in this survey of nearly 10,000 spanning US, UK and Australia. For starters, the rate of “abandonment” of the smartwatch did not change for a decade, despite the number of improvements introduced by the designers. Given that only 10% of those surveyed owned a smartwatch, the future of the industry seemed perilous. 

The turnaround came with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when there was a resurgent interest in wearable technology. With no means to keep up one’s outdoor physical fitness rituals and disposable income freed by the cut down on non-tech spending due to successive lockdowns and social distancing measures, the sale of wearables climbed steadily. Another study by consulting firm Gartner traced the rise of global spending on wearables from USD 41 Billion in 2019, to USD 69 Billion in 2020 to USD 81 Billion in 2021.

The health concerns around COVID-19 also made it crucial to track the life-threatening symptoms of the disease, such as oxygen saturation levels. For example, Samsung and Apple added this inbuilt capability to their wearable offerings in 2020.

What happens now, that the worst of the pandemic is (hopefully) behind us? Should the Quantified Self and the brand of inward-looking, tech driven individualism it inspired be written off to antiquity? How are we sure that the interest in the

The simple answer would be a ‘No’. What the Quantified Self, rather what it represents – the movement toward claiming ownership of one’s own health and wellness, needs is the power of data mining to plod through reams of recorded numbers.

Many believe that with the acquisition of Fitbit by Google in 2021 and the launch of its own smartwatch – the Google Pixel Watch, pithily marketed as “help by Google, health by Fitbit”, AI and NLP will become the frontrunners of digital health literacy, making sense of data to diagnose health conditions, or simply turn information into nuggets of self-discovery by facilitating comprehension.

The wearables market today is longer just a numbers game. It has become more vital to understand the rhythms and patterns beneath them – a job, when done well by technology, can evoke curiosity and commitment, coming full circle back to the Quantified Self, only now, as the Qualified Self.

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