Wearables were all the rage at CES 2014, the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas. But was there anything truly new under the sun? I think there was: the dual-display Razer Nabu.
It’s not that the Nabu does anything ground-breaking. It tracks your fitness-related activities such as steps taken and hours slept, integrating the data with fitness apps on your smartphone. It tracks the places you’ve visited and lets you know if there are deals in the stores or restaurants you frequent, again by pushing that info to apps on your phone. It “gamifies” your life through apps by giving you points or badges for accomplishments such as (literally) walking that extra mile. If you’re out at a bar, it lets you know when other Nabu wearers are around and allows you to exchange information with them through a handshake or a high five. And it lets you know when you’ve received a phone call, text or email on your smartphone, among other notifications.
That’s a lot of functionality, but there are a number of other devices out there that perform some or all of these same tasks. There are other bracelet-like wearables such as the FitBit or LG Lifeband, and then there are smartwatches like the Pebble and Samsung Galaxy Gear. You’re seeing a trend, right? They’re all worn on the wrist, a handy location on the human body for strapping something on and being able to look at it. The problem is, everyone else can see what you’re looking at, too.
This is the innovation of the Nabu with its dual display. The top of the bracelet shows one of ten types of notification with a subtle 32×32-pixel icon, such as a phone receiver (for a call), an envelope (for email), or a bell (for a reminder). When you turn your wrist, the inside 128×32-pixel screen shows the message. This is a clever innovation for a number of reasons. The most obvious is the privacy aspect — your messages aren’t broadcast to the world. Moving messages to the inside is also an elegant solution to the social distraction of messages popping up on your wrist when you’re talking to someone or your hand is on a table at a meeting or you’re eating dinner. Yes, the appearance of an icon will attract attention and distract from the social interaction, but it’s a much smaller distraction, easier to visually process and then ignore.
In fact, this was the idea behind the Misfit fitness tracker. Their device is a small metal disk that was originally designed to be attached to your clothing. According to a recent article in Wired magazine, Misfit specifically designed their device not to be worn around the wrist because their research discovered that 30 percent of women wouldn’t wear a device on their wrist, “either because they already own a watch or bracelet they like or because they refuse to wear anything there at all.” So Misfit designed their fitness tracker as a different kind of accessory, one that would be more discreet. Unfortunately, it looks like some sort of macho brooch or an oversized version of the admission pins they used to give you at the Metropolitan Museum, only less colorful.
And it’s interesting to note that they’re now offering the option of attaching the disk to a wrist strap, perhaps because they’ve discovered that people are so accustomed to putting things on their wrists that it’s not as much of a deterrent as they thought. Or maybe it was their plan all along — part of diversifying their product. Who knows? What I do know, is that when the disk is attached to a wrist strap, it looks like a faceless watch, which is somehow disconcerting.
But Misfit’s original intent was a step in the right direction. They were taking the “wear” in wearables seriously. They thought about the fact that people wear accessories as fashion statements. Where they erred was in trying to sidestep the issue by making a device they hoped would be unobtrusive.
The thing is: nothing you wear is unobtrusive.
Wearables are a tough nut to crack, harder than the smartphone. Yes, a smartphone needs to feel good in your hand, which is similar to the problem of achieving a nice feel for a wrist device. It needs to match your personal style — your taste and the way you want to be perceived by the outside world. But a smartphone doesn’t need to match your clothing. If you like the way your smartphone looks, you’ll like it just as much when you’re slumming around in sweats as when you’re tapping around in heels and a little black dress or walking tall in a sharp suit. Because your smartphone can be hidden in your purse or your pocket. A Nabu wristlet or chunky Pebble smartwatch? Not so much.
Except the Nabu could be a fashion statement. In fact, it would be interesting for Razer, Nabu’s maker, to team up with an accessory designer. I can imagine all sorts of skins that could be made for the device, similar to the range of options available for phone cases. Then it could be the sort of thing you’d wear to work out at the gym and then to go out on the town.
Of course, none of this addresses the issue of whether or not people even want wearable devices. As for fitness trackers, many people use them for about sixty days, then stop wearing them. And is it so hard to pull out your phone? Only time will tell.