The five critical lessons CES taught us about wearable tech

If you begin to see smartwatches dangling from tree branches, and activity-tracking wrist bands collecting in rain gutters, then you can thank the Consumer Electronics Show for belching out something akin to a pyroclastic flow of wearable tech over half the earth's surface.

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If you begin to see smartwatches dangling from tree branches, and activity-tracking wrist bands collecting in rain gutters, then you can thank the Consumer Electronics Show for belching out something akin to a pyroclastic flow of wearable tech over half the earth's surface.

Every CES needs a pre-packaged narrative, and this year the hardware industry decided wearable tech should dominate the script. Wearables are novel. They're visual. And manufacturers are juicing the category with R&D and capital, so we need to scrutinize the hell out of wearables, and figure out exactly how and where they fit into our lives.

I'm leaving CES with five key takeaways. Your data analysis may vary, so aim your contrarian tweets in the direction of @jonphillipssf. Together we can stay ahead of the curve before the wearables ash cloud covers us completely.

 1. Big tech needs wearables even more than you do

At this year's show, Intel showed off a smart earbud concept that can monitor your heart rate, and cajole you into harder workouts. Sony demoed an activity tracker called the Core that can align steps, geo-location data, and life events in a single, strikingly visual timeline. And LG announced an activity tracker, the Lifeband Touch, that offers phone call notifications, call silencing, and music controls.

To varying degrees these wearables are intriguing, but what's really telling is their pedigree. The wearables conversation has been hijacked by the biggest names in consumer electronics while "traditional" wearables companies (think FitBit and Pebble) have been nudged to the second row. Indeed, at this year's CES, big tech almost seemed desperate to check off their wearable boxes, as if some greater claim to relevance was at stake.

Two factors are in play here. First, the bigger the name, the more sophisticated the story craft. All these companies know what moves headlines, so wearables had to be part of the 2014 narrative. But just as importantly, the hardware titans aren't dummies. They see the future, and it is wearables. Intel in particular needs new territory for Intel Inside.

2. The activity tracker space is painfully overcrowded

For rice cakes, how many different ways can a wrist-worn device show us our daily step counts? Accelerometer-based activity trackers run the risk of becoming the commodity hardware sub-category of the wearables space, and in some cases it's painful to watch new wristbands come to market with such dubious raison d'etre.

Take the new Garmin Vivofit. It doesn't need constant recharging every 10 days, as it remains juiced for a year thanks to a replaceable watch battery. It's a great feature. But is it enough to sway my vote when 10 other activity trackers are vying for my attention?

Still, we did see flashes of niftier innovation under the CES tent. The Basis tracker looks better than ever in Carbon Steel Edition trim, and exposing REM sleep patterns is a trick that piques my quantified self. I'm also super intrigued by Sony's Core life event graphing. Sure, it may not surprise and delight us when the product finally ships, but it's an approach that advances an activity-tracking space that threatens to enter a bubble of me-too mediocrity.

3. Smartwatch vendors still don't get design

If you gathered up half of the smartwatches on display at CES 2014, and threw them inside a clear, plastic sack, you'd see a close approximation of what the Brits have traditionally called a Bag of Tat: A loose collection of cheap, gaudy trinkets that provide almost zero value individually, and specious value in aggregate. 

OK, I'm exaggerating. Probably. Maybe just a bit. But I got up close and personal with almost every smartwatch of CES 2014, and found way too much industrial design that I would never want attached to my wrist. Some CES watches looked gaudy enough for gumball machines. Some looked like they were designed by circa-1970s digital watch companies--and not in a good way.

And, yeah, I like the "idea" of the mega-large Pine smartwatch. I'm glad at least one smartwatch company dared to create something akin to a tablet that you wear on the end of your arm. Someone had to do it. I'm just doubtful this is the fashion statement for me.

Now, I actually have great faith in the basic smartwatch concept despite the fact that heavyweights like Samsung and Sony have let us down. In fact, I think both Google and Apple are perfectly primed for smartwatch success, and I hope they bring life to smartwatch rumors that remained at a slow boil throughout 2013. But for now, as we wait for others to figure out the smartwatch market, designers really need to get their visual ID under control.

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