Fjord Kitchen SF: making wearable tech go big

Sara Munday

We’ve been thinking a lot about the promise and the reality of wearable technology at Fjord, and we were excited to make it the focus of our latest Kitchen event in San Francisco. Clearly, we’re not the only ones captivated by the possibilities of wearables, as a large crowd convened at the Catharine Clark Gallery to listen and learn from our panelists including Sarah Rotman Epps, Senior Analyst at Forrester Research; Adam Gazzaley, Director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at UCSF; Bill Geiser, CEO of Meta Watch; Olof Schybergson, CEO of Fjord; and Sonny Vu, CEO of Misfit Wearables.

To give those who couldn’t make it to the event a few insights into what we learned, Shelley Evenson, Fjord’s Executive Director of Organizational Evolution, summed up the highlights:

Why Now?

Wearables aren’t really new, and we’ve been toying with them in various guises for more than a decade. So why should they catch on now? Our panelists all agreed: the smartphone is what’s powering this latest wave of wearables. The consumerization of healthcare is another factor adding to the expanding interest in wearable tech, as more and more people begin to see the value in measuring and understanding their own data. It also seems that the technology powering wearables is now ready for society—it’s smaller, faster, and being designed to entice people and capture their imagination in ways other consumer electronic gadgets might not. It’s more playful and more human, and this has helped to generate buzz.

Although much of the wearable tech coming out now is centered around health and fitness, the future of these devices will need to go far beyond into other verticals to really become relevant. The tipping point will come when some of the health applications can be related to areas like shopping, productivity, relationships, identity validation and more.

The Dark Side of Wearables

Beyond the hype and the promise of the benefits of wearables, our panelists were ready to point out the potential pitfalls. In some cases, wearable technology may only add to our daily distractions, becoming one more thing we obsessively check. Instead of adding meaning to our lives, it could have a negative impact on our performance, our relationships, and our decision-making. Companies creating wearables need to understand how to design products and services that help us to achieve our goals, contributing to our experience rather than distracting us from it.

Simplicity Has its Benefits

Panelists agreed that simplicity is a key factor in making wearables catch on more broadly with consumers. Wearables are attempting to process and track very complex information, and the trick is to find ways to overcome this complexity to make the resulting data meaningful to the consumer. Getting the right balance between simple and useful can be difficult to achieve. Mastering simplicity often means having the courage to make tough choices that some people will inevitably be unhappy about. But often it’s more about what you leave out than what you put in.

Everyday Adoption + Use Issues

Pushing at the focus of our topic—making wearables go mainstream—we delved into some of the challenges around broader adoption. One major issue: Wearable devices make us more self-aware. This added level of self-consciousness can be a good or a bad thing for many people as it changes our behavior. Will people be able to overcome this heightened awareness? As wearables move into new territory and sensors on the body become more prevalent, what new social conventions will come into play? If someone is using wearable tech to augment their knowledge (think being at a cocktail party and having a wearable device that can tell you if you’ve met someone before and remind you of their name), what does that mean for our social interactions?

Fashion Can Play a Role

For wearables to catch on, positioning them in the fashion rather than the tech realm may be key. Meta Watch’s Bill Geiser put it succinctly: “Fashion is about emotion. If it was purely a logical decision, we would all be wearing Crocs and the plastic watch that comes inside of a Happy Meal.” As with fashion, designers need to carefully consider materials as they create products for the body. How can technology become as wearable and as comfortable as a cotton t-shirt or a cashmere sweater?

Consider Apple, But Watch Out for Google

Everyone wants to know when, and with what, Apple will enter the wearables space. Some say they’re already in it with the app ecosystem and the wearable accessories they sell in the Apple store. Panelists agreed that an entry in 2013 isn’t likely, but that it would be interesting to see if they could come out with something that defined the category. More near term, Google will be the one to watch as they continue to take a more active role in the space.

One thing is for sure, the wearable tech arena is only going to get more interesting. We believe companies in the space will succeed if they can bring real value and meaning to people’s lives. We’re looking forward to seeing, and being a part of, where wearables go next.

Sara Munday

More Stories from Fjord