CES Hangover: Rethinking Wearables & the Quantified Self

The Consumer Electronics Show is over, but the enduring story of how wearables will be a part of everyday life persists. Just a month ago was the Indiegogo campaign to fund the production of the Embrace, a smart wristband designed to measure the wearer's electrical skin conductance, among other factors. The technology, spun off from MIT research into systems for autism support, is the latest in year full of wearables launches and announcements. A non-exhaustive list: 

  • Apple's iWatch. 
  • Google's Android Wear< http://www.engadget.com/2014/03/18/google-android-wear/> (actually a platform for a variety of wearables to come)
  • Fitbit's three new offerings: http://www.wired.com/2014/10/fitbit-charge-surge-wearables/
  • Garmin's Vivosmart < http://www.wired.com/2014/10/garmin-vivosmart/>
  • Misfit Flash < http://www.wired.com/2014/09/misfit-flash-fitness-tracker/>
  • Polar's smartwatch < http://www.wired.com/2014/09/polar-m400-smartwatch/>
  • Intel's MICA smart bracelet < www.nytimes.com/2014/11/20/fashion/opening-ceremony-and-intel-mica-smart-bracelet.html?emc=eta1>
  • Plenty of ink has been spilled about how, since Dick Tracy's wrist communicator made its first appearance in Sunday comics pages, we have yearned for communications technology as easy to consult as a wristwatch. Now, big tech firms and venture capital alike are finally betting serious money on the assumption that that's the case. From where I'm sitting, a major part of the hype is the assumption that wearables will change the lives of older adults, making it easier for them (and the adult children who care for them) to track their fitness and vital signs, manage households, react to emergencies, communicate with loved ones, and more. 

    But I wonder if some of the hype is just that. After all, Dick Tracy promised us videophones too, and although we now have that capability, video calls haven't revolutionized the way we talk to each other. But you know what has? Texting. If you're anything like me, you make a video call maybe twice a month. But I now use my cell phone more to text than to call, and I'm not alone. Americans send far more text messages than they make phone calls, let alone video calls. The Jetsons and Dick Tracy got it wrong: the job we want telephonics to accomplish is more often a simple information transfer than a full social interaction. We voted with our thumbs, and texting won.

    What I'm getting at is that it can be hard to predict what consumers will want until it's in front of them. And so, regarding the older adult market for wearables, I think some of the heightened level of excitement surrounding their incipient use is well founded, but I have some questions. One big one, actually: what is the value proposition?

    After all, wearable technology designed to keep older adults safe has been around for decades. Remember "I've fallen and I can't get up"? That commercial is from 1989. 

    We all understand that wearable blood glucose, heart rate, blood pressure monitors can help people stay healthier for longer. People need things like these. My question for the makers and marketers of wearables is: Will people want them? How will your device not only do a serious job, but also excite and delight the older consumer (or the adult child buying such tech for her parents)? 

    I think there is a way to pull it off. Whatever the technology is, it must do the job that the consumer wants—kind of like how texts turned out to do the job of mundane communications better than video calls. In the case of wearables, one job that can't be overlooked is the reinforcement of the consumer's identity. After all, we're not talking about some PC tucked away at home, or even a phone hidden in your pocket, but accouterments that are visible on your person. What we wear conveys a message about us—and if an accessory sends the wrong message, it stays unsold. 

    So how do you make sure your wearable is on-message for your consumer's identity? One way is to approach a specific market segment that has defined interests. My sense is that Fitbit has taken this approach to an extent: appealing to people who wish to present themselves as active. On the other hand, I wonder about Intel's MICA smart band, which conceals its technology in an attractive but low-tech-looking wristband. I have a suspicion that the people who'd want their wearable tech disguised—almost like they're ashamed to be wearing it—are the same people who simply won't buy wearables at all (let alone perform the requisite upkeep and data management to get any utility out of them). I hope I'm wrong, but I have my doubts. 

    But the opposite of hiding wearable tech away—nerd chic—may be just as problematic. Now, I firmly believe older adults are tech-savvier than they're given credit for, and that will become more and more obvious as the boomers age. But there's a difference between "tech-savvy" and "wanting to look like “RoboCop." Google Glass falls on the RoboCop side of things, and there are now serious indications  that Glass may not catch on in its current form. I think there's a simple reason: although many adore nerd or geek chic, many more avoid it. Most consumers simply aren't looking for that kind of look. Tech designers may be wise to take a page out of Arthur C. Clarke who suggested that the best technology works like magic…and is invisible.

    Where is the middle ground?

    I believe that while only some may want to present themselves as nerdy or fitness-oriented, many more will simply want to give the impression that they are competent and up-to-date on the latest trends. Now consider a device that does that and allows for expression of individual passions—fantasy football fanaticism, for instance, or an up-to-the-minute Twitter fixation. A sleek watch with the capability to support a fantasy football coach's fandom, but also track heart rate, is more likely to be worn on a daily basis than a dedicated heart rate monitor.

    There are a number of other considerations to weigh—ease of use, battery life, etc. Regardless of the factor that excites the older user, the point is: The world will be a better place if older adults get more support from technology, and that will only happen with older adults' blessing. That means designing technology that people will buy because they want to, not out of obligation. Wearables, therefore, need to feel more like a watch—a useful engine of self-expression—than an ankle monitor.

    MIT AgeLab's Luke Yoquinto contributed to this article

    Image: Shutterstock/tereez

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    Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

    Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

    Strange Maps
    • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
    • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
    • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

    Dramatic and misleading

    Image: Reddit / SICResearch

    The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

    Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

    The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

    Let's zoom in:

    • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
    • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
    • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
    • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
    • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
    • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

    "Frightening map"

    Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

    This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

    • "The end is near."
    • "The idiocracy grows."
    • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
    • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
    For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
    • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
    • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
    • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
    • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

    Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

    • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
    • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
    • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
    • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

    "Old people learning to Google"

    Image: Google Trends

    CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

    But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

    • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
    • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
    • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
    • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

    A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

    The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

    One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

    Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

    It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

    CNN, Fox and MSNBC

    Image: Google Trends

    CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

    For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

    • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
    • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
    • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

    And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

    The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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