If you already feel lost when you hear the word “wearables,” don’t sweat it. The term at the moment is a catch-all. Wall Street calls a GoPro a “wearable,” even though seeing how an Apple Watch and a POV action-sports camera fit under the same heading is a bit of a mental stretch for anyone actually working and playing in the active lifestyle industry.
Likewise, we’re just now scratching the surface of what we think wearable technology should be. Billions are being dumped into development, but how much battery-operated clothing are you really going to sell?
The near-term answer is likely not that much. But as with GoPro, action cameras are far more important today than they were when the category debuted a decade ago — and wearable tech promises a far broader application for most outdoor fitness fans than filming their antics. You need to understand how wearables work, what features consumers want, and what will and won’t change over the coming year and beyond.
Wearable vs. Timepiece
You probably sell ABC watches (altitude, barometer, compass). These have advanced over the years, adding features such as extraordinarily accurate GPS tracking and sync with atomic timekeeping, so they don’t require an update to be accurate. These are fine attributes, and consumers still want that tech, but that’s not what people mean by “wearables.” How come?
First and foremost a wearable is updatable. At least it should be. That’s one of the chief advantages of wearables that don’t get ditched six months after purchase. The best ones evolve as new technology comes along. Pair your wearable with its companion smart phone app and its capabilities expand. If you have a wearable that has an app, it should always be update-ready.
One of the chief reasons smartphones caught on is because of apps. Apple made a user-friendly device, Samsung and others have followed suit. But it’s not the devices themselves that won. It’s that Android and iOS smartphones continue to evolve and because you can always renew their “freshness” by buying new, cool apps, you stick with the device ecosystem.
That’s the idea behind several devices you’ll see at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market such as the Garmin Vivoactive, which allow users to download apps they want to run for the sports they participate in. Yes, that information bounces from phone to watch, but if you’re out on an afternoon run you probably have your phone with you anyway – and this way you can see both fitness and communication (texts, calls) on your wrist without breaking stride.
Further, wearables let you get whatever app comes next on your wrist as well, and that’s why a wearable isn’t a watch. It isn’t fixed technology from the date of purchase, it’s tech that keeps improving.
Ditch The Heart Rate Strap – And The Phone
There are areas where old technology is still superior. One of the leading features that fitness fanatics want is heart rate tracking, but ideally customers (especially women) want to ditch wearing a heart rate strap.
But on-wrist optical heart rate sensing is still only semi-accurate – save for the tech from one brand, Mio Global. And that’s why Garmin partnered with Mio to build their first running watch that doesn’t need a strap, the Forerunner 225, which does accurate on-wrist heart rate tracking.
Unlike many wearables, the Forerunner 225 has built-in GPS (Fitbit’s Surge also has GPS). That enables you to leave your phone behind and go for a run, or a hike, because the wearable doesn’t need another input to calculate speed and distance. This is a huge distinguishing factor and one that’s increasingly discussed from brands small and large in the wearables space. Giants as big as Intel and Google have explained they want wearable technology to move beyond the phone, and that means, ideally, you can exercise independent of your smartphone and sync information after the fact (and update the wearable’s apps as needed via Bluetooth with the phone).
Which still leaves a big question: Can consumers have both untethered information and the info they want from their phones?
The Push-Pull Of Consumer Desires
There’s a lot that consumers want that they cannot get – yet.
In September, Apple will unleash its OS 2 Apple Watch, promising more freedom to run apps, without bringing your phone along. Behind the scenes, Apple spokespeople explain that the number-one reason for this is fitness. Running or pumping iron in the gym, you may not want to have your phone around. While the Apple Watch uses its accelerometer (as does Garmin’s Forerunner 225) to calculate stride length, and therefore, distance, which allows running indoors and still getting an accurate gauge of your speed, users want more metrics – even when they leave their phones behind.
This makes it critical to ask potential buyers from the outset if they intend to keep their phones on them for exercise or not.
For instance, the Magellan Echo Fit, $199, is a lightweight tracker that takes information from over a dozen fitness apps including popular ones such as Map My Run, Map My Hike, Strava, Wahoo and Runkeeper. But the apps don’t live on your wrist on the device. The device bounces the apps from the phone, enabling you to see your metrics on the fly, then have the tracking information live on the phone and be shared within those apps’ own ecosystems. That’s a big negative if you want to exercise minus your phone.
On the plus side, the Echo Fit can port texts and calls to your wrist from your phone, just like the Apple Watch (and the Vivoactive), which, again allows users to see information during exercise and decide whether to respond or not. Leave the phone behind and you can’t use the Echo Fit. Then again, leave the phone behind and you cannot get text alerts, regardless of which device you use.
Downside To Wearables
One metric you hear discussed by many tech companies is the dreaded “time to drawer.” If you’re a retailer selling wearables, a lot of customers may skip the drawer and bring the device back to you because they get sick of needing to recharge it every night. Yes, many a wearable needs to be plugged in and charged frequently. And unlike our phones, we’re just not in the habit of charging wrist-worn devices.
But just as critically, wearables tend to be big and clunky still. Apple Magellan Echo Fit, the Pebble Time and Garmin’s Vivoactive are all of a shrunken, second-wave scale that’s far more appealing as a daily wearable. Even if you’re a large man with big arms, especially GPS-enabled trackers have huge faces and stand too far off your wrist to be comfortably worn under shirtsleeves. And if the entire point of a tracker is to “track” your daily steps and calories, not just your fitness, the device has to be worn to be effective.
Just getting the size right isn’t enough. And just tracking isn’t enough, either. Knowing how many steps you took is perhaps useful if you’re not that physically active and would like to be more, but an already actively fit and fitness-focused customer wants insights. They want their resting heart rate information and PRs to be translated as information that can be used to help them plan their next three-month phase of training. And that, in turn, means that the process of getting information from their wrist to their phone, and possibly to the web, must be relatively painless and deliver insights they can truly use.
For instance, Suunto’s Ambit 3 Run features not just activity tracking but recovery tracking. By measuring heart rate variability (a broadly accepted way to determine whether or not you’re overtraining) the device can help you wisely plan training – so you’re not just tracking, your getting smarter about how you work out.
For wearable tech to truly get beyond the buzz and become integral, it has to deliver deeper fitness advice. Advice? Yes, the information should be gathered and, ideally, act like a personal trainer, not just telling you what you did, but what you need to do next.
The Future: Connecting Devices
The future of wearable tech for outdoor brands will stretch well beyond the wrist. And you’ll likely see this first from smaller brands such as running shoe maker Altra, which has teamed up with device maker iFit to debut both a connected shoe and iFit’s new Ridge and Peak wrist-worn wearables, both of which have GPS (meaning you won’t need a smartwatch to track speed and distance). Pair a Ridge and Peak with Altra Adapt with iFit shoe, $180, and you’ll get live gait analysis that measures foot strike, force of the strike, leg-to-leg imbalances, as well as footfall cadence.
All of which is just the kind of actionable information that makes wearable technology useful and, like the smartphone, addictive. That last part is key, because smart technology is only going to sell if it actually makes us smarter.