Nowadays, when you hear the term “wearables”, you probably think of smartwatches like the Apple Watch, fitness trackers, and VR headsets like the Oculus Rift. However, these gadgets didn’t just appear out of the ether. Several other devices had to crash and burn so modern wearables could flourish.
While the 2010s was the first decade where wearables really took off, these devices actually have a long, storied history. They date all the way back to 17th century China, when scholars invented a tiny wearable abacus — or you know, the world’s first smart ring. Since then, there’s been a lot of trial and error in creating wearable technology that the average person would actually use. But we’re not here to talk about the successes.
Some devices just had unlucky timing — revolutionary technologies that were simply ahead of their time. Others were the victims of corporate hubris and poorly thought-out marketing schemes. But while the history of wearables is littered with countless failures, here are some that are worth remembering.
Seiko TV Watch
Before the iPod Video or smartphones, there was the Seiko T001 Watch. It debuted in 1982 and somehow managed to pack a built-in TV screen on the wrist. This was the stuff of sci-fi and spy movies — literally. The Journal of Electronic Engineering described it as coming “out of the pages of science fiction.” A version of the watch appeared in the James Bond film Octopussy in 1983.
The watch itself was revolutionary at the time: In an age of cathode ray TVs, it used a tiny 1.25-inch mini LCD screen. The problem was it had awful picture quality, and you had to carry around a Walkman-sized receiver for it to work. The receiver connected to the watch via a black connector cable, which Seiko apparently recommended you snake through a jacket sleeve. If you wanted to hear anything, you also had to attach a tuner to the watch and plug in a pair of headphones. On top of that, it had a suggested retail price of $US495 ($635) — more than $US1,000 ($1,283) today if you account for inflation. Cool tech for James Bond, but absolutely ridiculous for the average person.
According to a 1983 writeup in the New York Times, the watch only sold 2,200 units in Japan during the first nine months. American retailers were initially enthusiastic, but sceptics said the watch would likely “appeal only to a limited market.” Another issue was that a Seiko engineer purportedly said the innovative LCD screen would only last for seven years. That might seem great by today’s standards, but back then, planned obsolescence hadn’t reared its ugly head just yet and seven years seemed like a raw deal for such an expensive gadget, especially combined with the fact that Sony and Sinclair research were also putting out their own “pocket TVs” for much less. The Sony Watchman, for example, cost roughly $US80 ($103) and didn’t require you to find clever workarounds for wearing the receiver.
Released in 1989, the Power Glove was an Infinity Gauntlet-esque controller for the NES. Even though it was an officially licensed accessory, it wasn’t actually made by Nintendo. That honour belonged to Mattel. It had an NES controller built into a bulky glove, programmable buttons for commands, and would allow a player to control characters with hand motions. These days, gesture-based, motion control devices aren’t all that rare — but the Power Glove has the distinction of being one of the first to be mass-marketed to consumers.
The glove itself wasn’t originally designed for gaming. It started out as something called the Data Glove, and was the brainchild of an MIT undergraduate named Thomas Zimmerman. At Atari, Zimmerman met Jaron Lanier — one of the founding fathers of virtual reality — and after both were laid off in 1983, the two founded VPL Research around the gadget. The Data Glove drew the interest of scientists, including those at NASA, but Zimmerman and Lanier wanted a wider audience. That led to a licensing agreement with Abrams/Gentile Entertainment (AGE), which in turn led to Mattel. The challenge was to take a high-tech device that cost nearly $US10,000 ($12,826) to make and strip it down into something that consumers could buy for under $US100 ($128). To quote the August 1990 issue of New York Magazine: “To turn an $US8,800 ($11,287) high-tech glove into an $US89 ($114) toy capable of withstanding wear and tear, design compromises had to be made.”
The glove ended up being featured in The Wizard, an ‘80s video game movie starring a baby-faced Fred Savage. The film came out right around Christmas, and that essentially guaranteed the Power Glove became one of the most popular toys of 1989. The problem was it wasn’t quite so cool to use in real life. It had a finicky calibration process that was easy to screw up, and there were only two games that were specially made for the accessory — and one of those didn’t come out until a year later. It was also hard to use with existing NES games. Suddenly, kids everywhere realised they’d been duped and the Power Glove actually kind of sucked. It lasted less than a year before being discontinued. Today, you can see the Power Glove’s influence in Nintendo’s Wii Remotes and Joy-Cons, as well as the controls for the Oculus Rift. As for the Power Gloves that remain, many have been hacked for DIY projects that range from music to stop-motion animation.
Google Glass Explorer Edition
You probably already know about the first iteration of Google Glass.
In 2012, Google dropped a concept video showing the world its vision for consumer-focused augmented reality glasses. It was admittedly pretty cool. When Glass finally launched in 2013, it featured a touchpad built into the side to control the device. It also had a camera to take photos and record video. It didn’t quite project holograms into your surroundings, but the LED display could project and then reflect an image into your eye. It was, without a doubt, one of the most advanced consumer devices ever made.
So why did it flop? On top of being prohibitively expensive at $US1,500 ($1,924), there wasn’t much you could do with it. Sure, you could take hands-free photos and there were some neat apps, but it didn’t have a killer app that justified its cost. Plus, society was not ready for these glasses. Google Glass users were dubbed “glassholes,” and the conspicuous design sparked debates about privacy. In one instance, a pair was snatched off a woman’s face in a bar. The glasses aren’t totally dead — Google just realised that with the current limitations, the device was better suited for enterprise. Other companies like North tried to pick up the mantle and continue the dream of consumer smart glasses, but thus far none have succeeded. However, rumour has it other tech giants like Facebook, Samsung, and Apple are working to develop their own consumer smart glasses. We’ll see what happens.
Fossil Wrist PDA
This smartwatch first debuted in 2003, and ran a version of Palm OS. You know, back when PDAs were a thing? At first, the Fossil Wrist PDA won accolades, including the “best of COMDEX award” in the mobile device category. Reviewers likened it to a Dick Tracey watch, and it could actually run a decent amount of software. However, like many early smartwatches, it was bulky, not particularly nice-looking, and wasn’t much lighter than regular PDAs. The small screen, short battery life, and weak water resistance were also drawbacks.
The Wrist PDA wasn’t the only smartwatch of the early 2000s. Fossil, Suunto, Garmin, and Citizen all placed bets on Microsoft’s MSN Direct SPOT service. It was a clever service based on existing FM radio signals to wirelessly deliver content to a device in the pre-Bluetooth, wifi, and 2G era. As clunky as these watches were by today’s standards, they also were the first to feature custom watch faces and smart notifications for weather, calendar events, traffic alerts, and sports scores.
In a brutal CNET review, the strengths of Microsoft’s SPOT platform weren’t enough. “The smartwatch scene is young, particularly the PDA-type breed, and because of this, the whole genre has some growing up to do. That said, while there’s a lot that we like about Microsoft’s SPOT watches … there isn’t much that we like about the Fossil Wrist PDA.”
These watches, however, were victims of bad timing. While the Fossil Wrist PDA debuted in 2003, it had two years of delays before it became available in January 2005. Poor sales ultimately did the watch in later that year. Likewise, other MSN Direct SPOT watches were done in by the advent of wireless 2G networks. In 2007, the first smartphones had arrived and could do more than these pioneering wearables. So it’s no surprise that these watches ceased production in 2008, and Microsoft shut down the entire SPOT FM system on Jan. 1, 2012.
Xybernaut Poma Wearable PC
Early wearables had a distinct sci-fi vibe — think, the EyeTap developed by the “father of wearable computing” Steve Mann. But while Mann’s creations were more focused on exploring the concept of wearable heads-up displays, the Xybernaut Poma Wearable PC was actually meant for consumers.
The device debuted at CES 2002, and was a streamlined version of Xybernaut’s clunkier Mobile Assistant IV wearable PC. It was basically a head-mounted display (HMD) that ran on Windows CE and was designed in partnership with Hitachi. It was powered by a 128MHz RISC processor with 32MB of RAM, and offered slots for CompactFlash cards and USB. The headset was supposed to allow users to see a 13-inch, 800 x 600 colour screen in front of their face, and could be operated via a pointing device that allowed you to trace a cursor and click on items with your finger. The whole thing was aimed at “workers on the move” and altogether weighed about a pound between the main computing element and the HMD. Battery life was a dismal three hours, and oh, it cost a whopping $US1,500 ($1,924). As Scientific American described it, the Poma was “flashy but not very functional.”
While the Poma looks ridiculous, even today, at the time it drew the interest of law enforcement and NASA as it was capable of real-time recording. Of course, the prohibitive price and the fact that this thing wasn’t exactly practical doomed it to failure. It also didn’t help that Xybernaut, the company behind the device, was accused of fraud. In 2005, the Washington Post noted that Xybernaut was a hell of a lot better at selling stocks than it was selling devices. While it had sold fewer than 10,000 wearable PCs and posted 33 consecutive quarterly losses, the company had managed to sell more than 200 million shares. In 2007, Xybernaut’s founders were indicted for fraud. Yikes.
Back in 2012, the original Pebble Kickstarter smashed records, raising $US3.3 ($4) million in less than a week. Ultimately, the campaign went on to raise $US10.3 ($13) million, which at the time, made it the most funded Kickstarter ever. What followed were some of the most beloved smartwatches in recent memory.
From 2013 to 2016, Pebble sold more than 2 million watches. In the beginning, Pebble had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. Wearables were the story of CES 2014, and momentum for the entire category began to build. Android Wear made its debut later that year at Google I/O, and Fitbit was just beginning to expand its product line. In a field dominated by fitness trackers, Pebble stood out with its 7-day battery life, the ability to pair with both iOS and Android, and a healthy ecosystem of user-developed apps. On top of that, Pebble watches featured GPS, Bluetooth, custom watch faces, and smart notifications — or basically everything you expect today in a modern smartwatch. The devices also had a distinctive E Ink screen, which Pebble fans still wax poetic about to this day. And unlike many other early wearables, the Pebble was reasonably priced.
But although the devices were beloved, they weren’t perfect. There were production delays, for one. The big problem was that Pebble misjudged the market, thinking consumers more or less wanted a productivity device — not one for quantifying health. According to a Wired article on Pebble’s demise, “Apple’s emphasis on fashion and Pebble’s on productivity and third-party innovation were costly detours — the smartwatch market is rooted in health and fitness.” Sure, the company continued to rake in millions in Kickstarter campaigns, but that also triggered concerns. If the watches were selling that well, why did the company continue to rely on crowdfunding to get its products to market? Pebble rebuffed a purported $US740 ($949) million offer from Citizen, and another $US70 ($90) million offer from Intel. Ultimately, Pebble was sold to Fitbit for roughly $US23 ($29) million in 2016, leaving its most loyal backers in a lurch. Support for Pebble watches continued through 2018, and after that, an unofficial group created Rebble to keep Pebble watches going for as long as possible.
Some of what made Pebble great made it into Fitbit watches — the Ionic, for example, which also implemented an Open SDK. But overall, Pebble serves as a reminder that sometimes a great product can’t make up for poor business decisions.