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An in-depth look at how wearable technology will develop in 2014

If you didn’t join the horde of gadget-hungry would-be cyborgs in 2013, it was probably because the nascent wearables market is cluttered with incomplete thoughts and unfinished projects.

2014 promises to be a year of polish, with products that offer real benefits to their users, so if you’ve been casually interested now might be the time to sit up and pay closer attention.

In 2013 we witnessed an explosion of smartwatches, fitness trackers, face-mounted computers, and smart rings. We’ve seen this technology show up in just about every colour, shape, size, and price tag, and very few of them have actually been worth owning.

There are lots of companies shooting wildly into the dark in the hopes of hitting something, but in each of these wearable categories there hasn’t really been a single all-encompassing idea that is meant for everyone in that niche. 2013 was filled with guesses and re-calibrations based on those guesses, and as a result 2014 is going to be an amazing year for wearables.

Smartwatches: Notification dumpsters no longer

Regardless of which smartwatch is your personal favourite, none of them can hold a candle to Pebble right now. After an explosive Kickstarter campaign and continued sales success, the Pebble community has reached a place where the competition will resort to imitation moving forward.

This is mostly a good thing, as there’s a lot of positive stuff happening in the Pebble community right now with user submitted features and watch faces. Perhaps most important of all, however, is the next version of the OS. Apps are coming to Pebble in a big way, and it is going to be chaotic and fantastic and terrible all at the same time.

A successful workflow on a smartwatch depends on one painfully obvious thing, and it’s something that is very easy to mess up depending on which side of the development process you are on. Plain and simple, there are exactly zero times where it is acceptable for a task on your watch to take longer than the time needed to pull your smartphone out and complete that task. Apps for smartwatches have incredible potential as long as they follow that rule, no matter who the manufacturer or developer is. As long as it is actually more convenient to perform the action on the watch, it will be worth doing so, obviously enough.

Everything that is happening in the smartwatch world right now is in preparation for the big companies to get involved. Samsung’s strange and awkward Galaxy Gear and Qualcomm’s fantastic Toq project are prime examples, but the sleeper in the mix will show itself in a big way this year. Google’s “Gem” watch has been in development for quite a while now, and it shouldn’t shock anyone to see this pulled out on stage during Google IO 2014. Coupled with a wearable specific SDK that allows wearables to play nice with Android, this whole landscape could wildly change for the better this year.

Fitness trackers: Function inside form

Apple and Google both made quiet but significant efforts to move your fitness tracker into your phone towards the end of 2013. Both iOS 7 and Android 4.4, coupled with the iPhone 5S and the Nexus 5, included the necessary software and hardware means to replace separate hardware for casual users. Fortunately for the people who make fitness trackers, there’s still a whole lot more these devices offer. In 2013, the thrust for fitness trackers was all about making the devices so comfortable to wear that you never thought about having them on your wrist. With the form factors available now, the next generation of these devices will be all about features.

The problems that surround fitness trackers right now can be placed into several different categories. The batteries don’t always last as long as they need to, they don’t all collect the same kind of information, syncing isn’t always seamless or convenient, and the software is rarely available on every device you are likely to own. Most fitness trackers picked one or two of these areas to focus on in 2013, but no one really nailed every category. This is going to be the next big step for these devices, in order to demonstrate that they can’t just be replaced by a smartwatch or a motion-sensing smartphone.

FitBit, Jawbone, and Misfit are all leaders in this market already, and they will undoubtedly continue to be successful here as new features become available. The Misfit Shine is particularly impressive, as it has been on the market for significantly less time but has improved dramatically since it was launched. These three companies will continue to compete in 2014, and regardless of which one you own the competition will only serve to make your hardware better.

Face computers: Still kind of awkward

Of course, the big name everyone pays attention to right now when it comes to wearing a computer on your face is Google Glass, but the truth is there are quite a few of these devices being worked on, and this year they will all come to market. None of them will be ready for the mass market, and all of them will be just a little awkward in terms of usage and appearance, but it is clear that 2014 will be the year we see some clear rules and purposes for face-mounted computers.

Glass has made a huge amount of noise for something that isn’t yet available to the public. The response so far has been mostly positive, but there’s still a lot of work left to do. Now that app development is in full swing, we’ll see that slow controlled trickle of features from Google grow into a stream of ideas. Most of them will be unfinished thoughts as developers grope around in the dark trying to figure out what the best workflows and use cases are for their services. While all of this is happening, Google will continue to release monthly updates that polish the UI just a little more each time. Eventually, we’ll see a retail price tag and the world will decide whether or not this is the next step after smartphones.

While the world is focused on Google’s public dance, there will be plenty of other groups working on releasing a competing product. We’ll continue to see things from Vuzix, for example, which has been dabbling in this market for quite a while. These companies will start to address users with glasses, displays for both eyes, and more slender form factors that don’t stick out quite as much. 2014 will be a defining year for the concept of face computers, but it won’t be the year that face computers become so cool that everyone thinks they have to own one.

Rings and things: NFC and Bluetooth trinkets

These shiny baubles probably don’t get as much attention as they should, but they will become a great deal more important this year, especially for people who aren’t interested in constantly wearing their technology. 2013 saw a rise in NFC-pair Bluetooth accessories, Motorola’s introduction of “Bluetooth trusted” profiles for added security on your phone, and Qualcomm doubling down on accessories for geofencing and localised data transfer. These aren’t things that you constantly use, and if you do they just sort of exist without you thinking about it. This doesn’t make them any less important, and you can bet we’ll see more of them this year.

While the NFC ring is not going to be the must-have gadget of 2014, users who have embraced the technology will find more and more places where NFC is going to be important. Maybe attached to a backpack, your wallet, or inside your car, small Bluetooth and NFC gadgets are going to be great playthings in 2014. As we move closer to smarter homes and smarter phones, these little accessories will begin as stop-gaps for features we want to bolt on, and then end up being deeply integrated in our lives.

Final thoughts

Any way you look at it – regardless of what technology you are interested in or what mobile platform you are attached to today – 2014 is going to be filled with wearables. Some of them will be good, most of them will be terrible, and a handful will be great. I’m looking forward to figuring out which is which, and watching this category evolve from such an early state into a series of polished products worthy of mass adoption.

And of course, stay tuned to our CES coverage this week, as we're bound to see some interesting announcements on the wearables front (for starters, CES 2014 has expanded its digital fitness show floor space by 30 per cent compared to last year).