“The Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated”

“The Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” – Mark Twain

SXSW 2019 seems to be making overly pessimistic tech journalists from prior years look a bit foolish.  Wearables in particular have thrown many tech pundits for a loop. Remember these articles: “Wearables Are Dead”  and “Wearables aren’t dead but they deserve to die”? Let’s face it, steady growth stories are boring. Just like all media in the 21st century, tech media finds itself struggling in the attention economy. It’s basically a massive battle for eyeballs and ears on flat screens such as mobile phones, laptops and tablets. The pressure to exaggerate is immense and everyone seems to love the drama. So, it’s no wonder we rarely read headlines that declare the status quo: “everything is going fine, business as usual.”  It’s hard to see the growth in wearables because over the years so many wearable startups have died (examples: Jawbone, Pebble, Ring, ODG, and Meta). But, where some have failed, others have thrived… albeit more slowly than the tech media had hyped and hoped.

In 2019, we’re seeing an explosion of augmented reality headsets, new smart glasses,  headphones and finger jewelry. These wearables are not just glorified sensors on the body, they are augmenting our reality with sight, sound and feel. Bose Frames are an excellent example of this and they have pop-ups at SXSW showing off the “augmented reality” sunglasses. To be clear, they don’t have a visual display; they are “sound only.” The irony here is that the way we consume media is being changed by wearables. Another amazing breakthrough is the #Hololens2 from Microsoft. Early reviews suggest that it is the best head-mounted AR device so far. Magic Leap might be getting a little jealous of all the good press Microsoft is getting, but at least they are showing up to SXSW2019.

Perhaps the best evidence of wearable uptake are the SXSW interactive attendees themselves. Subtle and fashionable smartwatches and wireless earbuds are everywhere. I’ve also spotted a few Oura rings, a shiny silver-looking ring with a distinctive angular ridge at the top, often worn on the index finger. The Oura ring is commonly used for step counting and sleep tracking. Kaiku is also here at SXSW, showing off their incredible music gloves at the Vox Media “Deep End.”  The gloves have 18 capacitive sensors whose outputs can be programmed to trigger midi sounds. They claim to be the “fastest instrument to learn and the easiest to master.” Another really cool use of wearables was the art installation at the Samsung activation: they have a massive generative art display being controlled by the motion sensors inside smart watches.

The bottom line is this: 360 million headphones, 1.2 billion wrist watches and nearly 2 billion eyewear-ables were sold in 2018. One has to wonder: how quickly will 50% of those be “smart” with features such as internet connectivity, embedded AI, directional microphones, ECG, and motion detection? As is almost always the case, the growth curve is exponential and relentless and to bet against it is foolish. You might be right about one specific product, but the tidal wave of wearable innovation is unstoppable. It’s about time we stop letting people get so confused about how technological progress is made when it comes to the evolution of human/computer interfaces. Let’s put it this way: do you, the reader, work for a big brand that’s struggling to innovate? If yes, tell your local office pessimist to think twice before proclaiming an entire technology vertical is dead. Augmenting our reality with sight, sound and feel through wearable devices is a megatrend and it’s not going away.