Mumbo jumbo: Wearable tech

Nic HodgesIn a new regular column Nic Hodges busts some of the jargon and mystery around ad tech, starting with the wearables phenomenon.

If you’ve spent any time on the internet recently, you could be forgiven for thinking Apple just invented the smartwatch.

Despite the fact they’re actually more than a year late to the watch party, Apple have managed to put wearable technology front and centre in the mainstream.

So now that wearables have transitioned from science fiction to dinner party conversation, what exactly are they? And what do they mean for brands and agencies?

The term “wearables” has been appearing more and more over the last few years, mostly thanks to the development of hi-tech pedometers like Jawbone’s UP, the Fitbit Flex, and the darling device of agency strategists worldwide, Nike’s Fuel Band. According to Wired magazine, “wearable tech will be as big as the smartphone”, and Deloitte estimates that 10 million wearable devices will ship this year.

Are wearables taking off?

It’s tempting for brands and agencies to jump in and “wearify” every campaign, but wearable as a concept is still in its early days.

google glass

Google Glass

The Guardian recently wrote of the first generation of smartwatches flooding eBay; hundreds of devices abandoned in a way that was unheard of when smartphones or the iPod were first launched. It also seems unlikely that Google’s Glass will ever make it on to the shelves of Dick Smith – the wearable camera- and-screen device is now more frequently used as the punchline of jokes than a vision of the future.

Wearables for health & fitness

Nike + Fuelband

Nike + Fuelband

On the fitness tracking front, the future looks a bit healthier. Although Nielsen reports that 15 percent of consumers are using some type of wearable technology, research firm Endeavour Partners says a third of people stopped using their wearable device within six months of purchase. Meanwhile, agency trend decks around the globe need to be updated to show that Nike actually ceased production of the Fuel Band in April 2014.

The most interesting applications of wearable tech for advertising so far have emerged from the health and fitness space. There are clear benefits for health providers in both keeping their customers healthy and having access to their data.

Oil and gas company BP (who provide health insurance to their US employees) was one of the first companies to venture in to this space; last year they offered all staff a free Fitbit in exchange for access to the wearer’s data. 14,000 employees took up the offer, an idea which has since been implemented by several other health providers.

Data creep

It’s easy to see how ad campaigns that use wearable data could quickly become creepy and unethical – evidenced by the fact that manufacturers are already thinking about what advertisers won’t be allowed to do.

For one, the ability to beam a video or discount offer to a user’s Apple Watch as they walk past a retail store simply won’t exist. Apple are also taking preventative measures with their HealthKit app, instructing developers that they cannot sell any consumer health data to advertisers.

Even Google, a company that relies on advertising for over 90 per cent of its revenue, has explicitly banned advertising from Glass, and any data collected by Glass cannot be used for advertising elsewhere.

What about brands?

DurexFor brands, the initial success stories of wearables will be those that provide specific technology for specific experiences. Sydney-based tech company We:Ex has already prototyped some encouraging examples including the Alert Shirt for Foxtel, which allows wearers to “feel what the players feel” as they watch the footy; and Fundawear for Durex (you’ll have to follow the link for an explanation on that one). However, with the pace of innovation in this space, the expensive hi-tech prototypes we’re seeing today could likely be next year’s free gift-with-purchase.

Retailers and brands with a physical presence should keep an eye on the role of wearables in payment and identity processes. While payment systems requiring a smartphone have struggled to gain traction, it may be that simply tapping your Apple Watch or Ringly at a register is a behaviour that does take off. The ability for wearable devices to also transmit identifying information is also going to be gold for CRM and loyalty programs.

The future

When it comes to how brands should be using wearable technology, we need only look to Google Glass, whose aim is to be “there when you need it, gone when you don’t”. Advertisers would do well to understand and adopt that mantra.

Wearables are here to stay, and while it is still early days, it’s safe to say that interrupting consumers with advertising messages will not win brands any fans.

But providing utility and function when and where people need it? That very likely will.

  • Nic Hodges is the founder of creative technology consultancy Blonde3

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