Name me a wearable tech category, and I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. Smartwatches? Not useful enough. VR headsets? Too clunky. Wireless earbuds? Sucky battery and controls. I also lost them while I was writing this sentence.
But all of this is, finally, changing. Here at IFA Berlin, I’ve seen tons of new wearables, and while they’re still far from perfect, the technology has finally matured enough to make them useful.
Take smartwatches, for example. Gone are the days when smartwatch makers tried to peddle them as timeless timepieces that you proudly wear with your three-piece suit. Like smartphones, smartwatches need to be replaced every two to three years, so they can’t exactly be family heirloom.
And even though it’s possible to cram tons of tech inside them, not everything makes sense. Remember Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, which had a built-in camera? Yeah, that didn’t work out very well.
But lately, smartwatch makers have mainly focused on two niches: Fashion and sports.
And that’s perfectly fine. I won’t wear Samsung’s new Gear Sport or Garmin’s Vivoactive fitness watches to lavish dinners (OK, I don’t go to lavish dinners, but that’s beside the point) — I’ll wear it for my evening run (OK, I don’t go on evening runs either, shut up). Now that Samsung, Apple and others have figured out how people actually want to use smartwatches, they can focus on improving those key features. That doesn’t mean everyone will want to get the new Gear Sport or the Apple Watch, but at least people who do get a smartwatch will be happy with it.
VR that’s better looking and easier on the eyes
When I first tried the HTC Vive, I said “wow.” And then I said: “I’m never buying anything that’s this big, heavy, has so many wires and takes forever to set up.” As much as tech companies are trying to sell us the future in which everyone wears a VR headset on their morning commute to work, it won’t happen.
But again, VR headsets are getting better. Here at IFA, I saw several that actually instill some hope that VR won’t stay a niche within a niche — a product for a small subset of gamers. Asus’ Mixed Reality headset is a lot smaller, lighter and more convenient than both Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. It still doesn’t exactly look cool, but the improvement is there.
Dell’s Visor headset, which was announced days ahead of IFA, is a bit uglier but it’s extremely comfortable, and a little cheaper than Asus’ offering.
Even more importantly, both headsets are way easier to setup than, say, HTC Vive, and their dual 1,440 x 1,440 pixel screens should make your viewing experience a little less blurry.
I’m still not certain VR will become commonplace without some radical step forward, and it may need many more iterations to even become bearable for the average consumer. But now this future at least looks possible.
Yeah, even wireless earbuds are getting decent
I have to give Apple credit for turning wireless earbuds into a desirable product. But as good as its AirPods may be, not everyone wants to be sucked into Apple’s ecosystem of products, and the early competing products were, frankly, lacking.
Again, things are looking up. Samsung’s Gear IconX wireless earbuds look the same as the previous iteration, but have double the battery life, which is the best possible improvement one could ask for. They also support Samsung’s Bixby, meaning all their features are just a voice command away.
Sennheiser launched several new wireless earbuds models at the show; perhaps the most interesting is the new Momentum Free. These buds offer 6 hours of battery life and apt-X as well as AAC support for all the hi-fi purists out there.
On the more expensive side of the spectrum, Bang & Olufsen’s new Beoplay E8 wireless earbuds claim premium sound thanks to its 5.7mm dynamic speakers, though the battery life is just five hours (you do get two additional charges from the case). They cost $299, which is a lot more than competitors, but B&O positions itself as a premium brand and its products don’t come cheap.
And Sony’s Xperia Ear Open-style buds — only a concept at this stage — let you actually hear sounds around you while you’re listening to music.
The difference between these products and the ones I’ve seen a year or two ago is that I could easily recommend any of them. The keyword is once again focus: Focus on the features that actually matter, which in this case is ease of use and battery life.
I still don’t think you should go out, buy everything with a wireless sticker on it and adorn yourself with wearable tech like a Christmas tree. But instead of trying to do everything at once, a lot of these products now actually do one or two things well. They’re also getting slimmer, lighter and more convenient. Maybe there’s hope for wearables after all.