This is the CES of the wearable gadget. And, while there are all sorts of technologies you can wear—after all, earbuds are wearable—the big explosion is in fitness trackers. The first wave of these small gadgets, worn on a wrist, clipped on waistband, or tucked into a pocket, came from a handful of companies including Nike, Jawbone, and Fitbit. This year, dozens more companies, including big and established hardware manufacturers like Epson and LG and small startups alike, jumped into the fitness tracker fray. At their most basic, these sensors track steps; most also do some kind of sleep tracking. More sophisticated models include heart rate sensors for quick pulse checks or connect wirelessly to pulse monitors worn on the chest. Some can tell the difference between swimming, biking, walking and running.
With so many entries, there’s a surprisingly narrow range of prices and form factors; most are bands, and a few also clip on. The vast majority of the fitness trackers retail for US $100. On the lower end, I spotted the LifeTrak band at $60. (Although, on the very, very low end, Fitbit has developed a free app to take advantage of the built-in motion processor of the iPhone 5 to track motion from your pocket, with no band at all.) Misfit’s $120 Shine is a little metal button, not a band; it’s meant to be both subtle and ornamental. On the high end, the $200 Reign band from JayBird, coming out in May, has a touch sensor for spot checks of heart rate, and can tell the difference between running, swimming, and walking. I saw a tracker for dogs, the Petbit, and one designed for young children to clip on a sneaker, the Ibitz (at a kid-friendly price of $35).
In this blur of fitness bands displayed at CES, it’s hard to pick a favorite without trying them all. I liked the functionality and styling of the $130 Garmin Vivofit; it’s a little bigger than the Fitbit Flex I reviewed last year. That’s a negative for me, but it adds a few nice features: a one-year battery (it’s easy to forget to recharge the more standard 5-day battery), a display (which means you don’t have to wear a watch as wel)l, and an inactivity monitor to nag you when you’ve been sitting too long (I definitely need that). Epson’s Pulsesense ($130 without display, $200 with a display; I preferred the styling on the one without a display) includes a heart rate monitor in the band. JayBird’s Reign could give me more credit for swimming than simply assuming I took a walk in the pool, as the Fitbit does; that’s appealing, and it looks pretty sharp. LG’s Lifeband Touch is attractive with its OLED display, and the pulse-counting wireless headphones are a nice touch.
I haven’t actually tried any of these yet. I haven’t even looked at the related apps, which in some cases aren’t even developed. And that's a problem. The tracker is just one part of the package, and it’s usefulness depends in large part upon the app that lets you review and analyze the data gathered. And most companies don’t even bother to mention what’s under the hood—the algorithms that turn motion into step counts, figure out when you’re sleeping, and figure out the difference between sitting in a chair and moving your mouse around or gesturing during a conversation and actually moving. Says Michael Yang from Comcast Ventures, “algorithms are the unsung heroes of fitness.”
While fitness trackers are certainly the fastest growing product category at CES, the fact that there are so many fitness trackers out there make this type of wearable technology seem, well, ordinary. And indeed, says Sonny Vu, CEO of Misfit, “Fitness trackers are the low hanging fruit of wearables. There are so many use cases for wearables beyond fitness tracker.”
Vu thinks the killer use case for wearables still hasn’t been uncovered yet. “Wearable identity could be interesting, I'm not sure it’s killer. If I had a sensor that could predict a heart attach 4 hours ahead, I won’t say killer, but it would be life changing.”
Also plentiful this year, but getting less buzz, are the smart watches, with at least a dozen companies showing some kind of model at CES. These aren’t as appealing as the fitness bands to me, because they are still just too big, and I don’t have a huge desire to control my phone from my wrist. But there's obviously at least some consumer interest in being able to do so.
Smart watches come in three basic flavors. There’s the smart phone peripheral, which doesn’t actually connect to a wireless network itself, but acts as a remote control for a phone. There’s the sports watch, with a GPS to help map your run, connections to a chest band to track pulse, and coaching features to help set a pace, like the $320 Wellograph or the $400 Adidas Micoach Smartrun. And finally there’s the watch/phone, like the $160 Burg and the $335 Neptune Pine, with their own SIM cards and cellular connections. This last category perhaps seems more useful, but they suffer from their even larger size. Of the watches at CES, the Kreyos Meteor was, to me, the most attractive peripheral version with a display.
But it wasn’t until I saw the $200 Filip that I saw a watch-phone that made a lot of sense—at least for one demographic.
Filip is designed as a watch-phone for kids, and comes with unlimited voice and data for $10 a month. It can only make and receive calls from five numbers, and a parent sets those through an app. The app also allows the parent to track the child’s location on a map. It’s aimed at kids aged five through 12—the age of a kid that, around me, typically convinces parents to provide a cell phone “so I’ll be safe and so I can call and tell you where I am” and then promptly turns into a text-monster. As I said, brilliant.
Not every wearable at CES is a fitness tracker or a watch. There are wearable cameras that stream your life to social media, like the $100 Looxcie 3. There is a wearable EKG sensor from Quardio, and a muscle oxygen monitor from Moxy, and the June sun radiation sensor.
Lumo has a new sensor to monitor the position of the upper back and neck, which is supposed to be available this summer for under $100; the company was already producing a monitor for the lower back. Company founder Andrew Chang said he is surprised by the entire wearables category, but it is likely going to help Lumo’s sales. “We didn’t plan on building a wearable, we just wanted to solve back pain. But people are telling me it’s a wearable, so…” he said with a shrug.
Epson announced augmented reality glasses, apparently their answer to Google Glass. The Moverio BT-200 Smart Glasses use LCD projection technology to position the data on the field of view, though Epson indicated it could easily show the projection in the corner of one eye if needed. The glasses aren’t intended for constant wear, but for use in situations where augmented reality is helpful (in a work environment, involving assembly, perhaps, or identifying objects in a warehouse), or fun (for gaming). I find that they solve one major annoyance of Google Glass for people around the glass wearer—Google Glass draws your eye to the module in the corner of the glasses, making it hard to look at people when you’re talking to them, Epson’s straight on display didn’t cause that distraction.
While this CES represented only the beginning of the wearables boom, some are already looking to the future. Said Mooly Eden, general manager for perceptual computing at Intel: “It won’t stop here. Not far away, we’ll see implantable devices; it is inevitable. We’ll use our thumbs as our credit cards, get constant information about our health, interfacing directly with our brains. I believe I’ll live to see this.”
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A correction to the name of the pet tracker was made on 15 January 2014.