With its launch of the Galaxy Gear smartwatch alongside the new Galaxy Note 3, Samsung is staking its claim in the emerging wearable tech space. As I’ve previously discussed, mobile devices are long overdue for some real innovation, so I admire Samsung for having the guts to bring a functional smartwatch to market this quickly. Unfortunately, despite relocating a few phone capabilities from pocket to wrist, the Gear is nowhere near a genuine paradigm shift. Until a wearable tech device provides an entirely new kind of user experience, rather than simply porting old functions to a smaller screen, traditional smartphones are the only game in town. Someday soon, though, a company will redefine how we interact with technology, and just like the smartphone, it will create myriad opportunities for developers and advertisers to capitalize on that redefinition.
At a hefty opening price of $299 (not including the required phone), the Gear isn’t exactly a cheap accessory. Samsung is counting on customers to see enough utility in the device to justify the pricetag, but I don’t buy it. Wait, you're telling me I can play music, take pictures, use third-party apps, and (gasp) even make phone calls, all from a small touchscreen? Ten years ago, those features would’ve sounded otherworldly, but we’ve become tougher to impress. Considering the fact that people have been wearing iPod Nanos in watchbands since 2010, even the James Bond aesthetic appeal isn’t a novelty anymore. In its attempt to beat Apple and Google to the new hardware punch, Samsung has essentially given us a “gadget for your gadget.” Some early adopters (like Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak) might jump at the chance to try out the new toy, but the average consumer is unlikely to pay $299 for a nice-to-have. Don’t take my word for it, though. Just ask the unnamed Samsung official who admitted that the "Gear lacks something special."
Companies pursuing wearable tech need to stop thinking of new ways to accomplish old tasks and start thinking of new tasks entirely. Modern technology charms us most when it gives us something we didn’t realize we wanted yet, or maybe even something we previously thought we’d never want. Who knew sharing our personal lives with hundreds of acquaintances would become a constant part of our existence? Who knew we’d grow so attached to the internet that we’d demand its instant accessibility anywhere, at any time?
Venture capitalist Josh Elman says that the key to success in modern tech is to “define a new set of behaviors or verbs.” Google this. Retweet that. Snapchat me. It was gibberish not long ago, but now those words are worth billions, because they’re just ... what we do.
Wearable tech could easily provide a goldmine of exciting new human behavior. Unfortunately for those who fear dystopia, I believe the most profitable devices will be those that capture and use as much information as possible about this behavior.
Facebook, like so many others on the Web, makes money for one primary reason: We are both their users and their product. Our online behavior is valuable information for advertisers eager to personalize consumerism. What will happen if or when millions of people become literally attached to technology? Well, a lot of data will be produced, analyzed, and used to figure us out. The GPS, pedometers, heart rate monitors, and numerous other technologies already in our devices will become more accurate and more diverse. The gadgets on our bodies will interact silently with the emerging “internet of things” and its legion of intelligent sensors on inanimate stuff. Advertisers will package all this new behavioral data to nudge you toward products and services that you’re likely to want, when you’re likely to want them. While you make tin foil hat jokes, Google is busy patenting ways to track your emotional response to ads through your eyes. Just like society reinvented privacy norms for social media, it will reinvent them again for wearable tech.
That world is still a few years off, and Samsung’s Galaxy Gear is not a major breakthrough in this story. It is, perhaps, a signpost, one that marks technology’s march toward our physical reality.
Whether this trajectory is good for the human race is a very different discussion.