Wearable tech at CES 2014: Many, many small steps

Lots of interest, a lot of caution, and not much worth buying...yet. This is what we saw in wearables at this year's CES.

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CES 2014 could have been called "The Wearables, Appliances, Cars, and Bendable TVs Show." Like "the cloud" a few years ago, "wearable tech" was an unavoidable catchphrase, a show floor fever dream, a vague future strategy that nearly every company seemed to toss into their press conference. But what really happened at the show in wearables?

When you boil it down, wearable tech as of January 2014 falls into three categories: Notifiiers, Trackers, and Glasses. The notifiers are any devices showing off information from the world around you ( Pebble Steel , and also gadgets like the Razer Nabu ), trackers use sensors to record data (cameras, audio recorders, and every fitness-tracking accelerometer-driven pedometer), and glasses...well, lots of companies continue the dream of having an augmented, virtual or otherwise heads-up display on your face.

Was there an overall top product here at the show? It seems like that distinction would go to the Pebble Steel, but I don't think this show's about products. It's about trends. This is what I saw.

The Razer Nabu: suddenly, new companies are into wearables. Scott Stein/CNET

Everyone wants in on wearables
Grasping, perhaps, on future technological directions, or hoping on an "internet of things" to make a connected world of devices work together in some sort of smart home utopia, companies that hadn't been in wearable tech before made statements at the show. Razer, LG, and Intel , just to name a few, tried to throw ideas -- mostly in the form of products -- for what wearable tech might become.

Josh Miller/CNET

Style matters
The Pebble Steel is a great-looking watch, but it's mostly the same under the hood as the last watch. What's changed is its far more fashionable design. Other companies like Meta and Martian are striving to make geek tech feel more like something fashionable. The Netatmo June UV-tracking wristband for women looks like jewelry. Lots of fitness bands showed off spectrums of color options. In a world of similar-looking activity trackers, style helps wearables stand out.

A bit smarter: Watches as fitness trackers, fitness trackers as watches
There were watches that started included fitness and sports-tracking, like the Sapphire Wellness Watch , Salutron LifeTrak, Hot Watch , ZTE BlueWatch and Casio STB-1000 Sports Gear . But, there were also a lot of fitness bands that tried to get smarter: the Razer Nabu and LG Lifeband Touch look like Nike Fuelbands, but also receive incoming phone calls and messages. The Nabu has dual screens and a handshake system for socially sharing Twitter and LinkedIn profiles, while the Lifeband hopes to do things like mute calls and control music. It's inevitable that fitness trackers and watches will become one and the same.

Epson's Pulsense. Scott Stein/CNET

Heart rate monitors everywhere
Epson, LG, and many others were throwing heart rate monitoring into their bands, watches and even earphones . Why? Because the technology has gotten easier to make on a wristband, and because there just aren't many other interesting health sensor technologies yet. Those are bound to come, but heart rate seems like the next step...I'm just not sure how many people need their heart monitored.

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Everything trying to be a bit smarter, but with caution
Some basic activity trackers are trying to build better software, or control more things in your life. Others have added sensors. The Pebble watch is finally adding an app store. But most companies are taking a gentle step forward. Why? Is this what people want, or is it company caution? Traditional watchmakers, like Casio, seem to be clearly waiting out and taking tiny steps before making defining products.

Glasses galore
Thanks to Google Glass and Oculus Rift in 2013, eyewear was everywhere: augmented-reality glasses, virtual-reality goggles, and new ways of projecting data onto glasses. Nothing was as eye-popping as Google Glass or Oculus Rift were when they debuted, though, and the variety of confusing, intriguing smart glasses were the least-fully-baked part of wearables at the show...but they were fun to try. Oculus Rift has some key improvements, too, that made its VR immersion even more compelling. GlassUp and Lumus offered some Glass alternatives for heads-up displays.

The biggest 2014 wearable products have yet to arrive
This is why. The biggest products we're anticipating in wearable tech -- an iWatch, newer Google Glass, a Google watch, and maybe a Microsoft device -- aren't here yet. More importantly, those companies are bound to build services and software that transform wearables as a platform the way the iPhone influenced Android and rewrote the smartphone industry. Once those players emerge, the wearables game will change again...so, for now, it looks like nobody wants to make a bold and foolish splash like the Samsung Galaxy Gear . Things will change once Google, Apple and Microsoft stake claims.

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Is there anything other than watches, bands and glasses?
Smart clothing hid around the show, but most wearable tech boiled down to wrist-worn and glasses-based devices. It seems like the wrist, and the eye, have settled down as the preferred spaces for gadgets. There's only one problem: we only have two wrists, and two eyes. Wearable tech will have to win these body parts to survive.

It's all a glorious mess
Nothing is settled in wearable tech...and nothing's even truly begun. In five years, we'll look back at January 2014 as either the beginning of a tech fad, or, more likely, the confusing baby steps of an industry that'll look a lot different later on. Apps, services, technology and standards have yet to be defined or universally established. It's a free-for-all. It's fun if you like little gadgets, but it's exasperating for anyone looking for a must-have, stable product.

CES 2014 is a landscape of small steps for wearable tech. Lots of them. But by the end of 2014, expect that most of what we've seen here will feel like a long, long time ago.

It should be the beginning of a very interesting year.

 

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