The acquisition rate of wearable devices continues to rise, according to a study tracking more than 1700 consumers, but alarmingly one-third of these new owners abandoned their devices within six months of purchase. The findings come from strategy consulting firm Endeavour Partners’ report, Inside Wearables (Part 2).

The study also revealed the struggle for companies to deliver products that provide a sustained benefit to the mass market. Today’s devices are generally considered just convenient rather than being genuinely useful.

The report defines smart wearables as those with advanced functionality that connect to the Internet, and are designed to be worn on a persistent basis. Such wearables include activity and fitness trackers, smartwatches, and augmented-reality (AR) glasses, but not devices like those specific for exercising or healthcare applications (i.e., heart-rate straps, glucose monitors, hearing aids).

Inside Wearables found that the largest growth area within the market comes from the increasingly visible products presented through mainstream media, and their prevalence in brick-and-mortar and online stores. As mentioned, though, while smart-wearable purchases climb the ladder, consumers quickly become disenfranchised with them due to their limitations.

Success for the industry, therefore, depends on five main developments:

  • Improvements to the consumers’ value proposition for smart wearables
  • Enhanced, more diverse design aesthetics
  • Large original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) adding resources and capabilities into the space
  • An expanding ecosystem that brings in new business models
  • Improvements to the underlying technology

To increase value proposition, a variety of use cases have presented themselves as valuable options. Appealing to consumers’ health is a major factor:

Through better bio-sensing and processing capabilities, emerging devices will be able to help consumers with a broad array of wellness-related issues, from stress and anxiety management to helping people optimize wellness, through a better understanding of physiological patterns.

Long-term, highly visible benefits will ensue, specifically by tracking an important aspect of the user’s life over an extended period of time. This, in turn, provides contextual intelligence—wearing the device longer makes it possible to gather more information, leading to higher-accuracy results. Control and automation is also important; if the device isn’t easy to use and intuitive from the very beginning, adapting and learning as it goes along, it will wind up on the scrap heap.

“Hiding” the technology within the device under stylish guise will also bring about a wider appeal. Most of today’s devices have a technology-heavy look due to component-centric design and material technology limitations. The most successful wearables are those that don’t look like a full-blown computer on a person’s wrist—they can essentially “pass” as a typical watch, etc. To achieve this style, companies like Google (with Google Glass) have reached out to fashion designers to create more aesthetically appealing products.

Large OEMs positioned to leverage current large developer ecosystems will become key role players in the success of smart wearables, specifically wrist-based smartwatches. Although companies like Samsung with its Galaxy Gear smart devices have prospered to some degree, brands like Apple and Google could generate a whole new wave of consumer trust with a wider array of capabilities and benefits. If that occurs, it would expand the overall ecosystem, populating the market with differing business models. According to the report:

Despite known data-privacy concerns, a surprisingly high number of consumers who own smart wearable devices are already connecting [them] to other applications and services that can provide benefits above and beyond what they are getting from their wearable devices, and the apps and services provided by the OEMs.

By opening up the application programming interfaces (APIs) behind the devices, something more easily done by larger OEMs, wearers of the devices can do more useful things with the received data.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, it’s imperative to make improvements in the underlying technology. The report notes that the two biggest problems in component technology limitations are batteries/energy and bio-sensing technology. The conundrum is smart wearables should keep size in check, but limited battery space often flies in the face of their need to be extremely powerful. As a result, designers and engineers typically face tradeoffs between battery life, capabilities/functions, and size and aesthetics.

To address the battery problem, designers are focusing on three potential remedies. First, due to limited space on these devices, work is underway to boost power capabilities of smaller batteries. The second concerns optimization of lower power components for use in wearables. Third, software needs to be optimized so that the devices consume as little energy as possible. Although energy-harvesting technologies such as solar, kinetic, and thermal show some promise, the technologies aren’t likely to mature quickly enough to become useful in the near future.

Measuring biological signals, such as heart rate and perspiration, in a robust manner presents its own set of challenges. Physical constraints, as well as differing variables like body composition and body hair, limit where these parameters can be effectively measured. Moreover, typical bio-sensing technologies are only reliable under certain conditions. For instance, optical heart-rate monitoring is virtually unreliable when users move their arms. Companies such as Analog Devices continue to forge ahead with sensor-technology advances, but a wide variety of solutions must arrive before an omnipresent fix becomes apparent.