2014 has been dubbed “The year of wearable tech” – new products have flooded the market. But how new is the concept?

This handy infographic from Mashable charts wearable tech all the way back to the 1960s, citing its origins in wearable computers designed to cheat casinos. A smile may cross your face as you look down the timeline and see the calculator wristwatch unleashed to the world in 1974 with the tag line:

“For the man who had everything until just now…”

The original wearable tech?

Here in 2014 watches appear to be at the ground-zero of wearable. Apt because there must be a strong case that the first pocket/wrist watches are the original wearable tech, and the most enduring.

Different tech for different ages though and today wearable implies connectivity (with our bodies, our devices, the internet), sensors, complex algorithms, analysis and feedback. It’s a new and exciting landscape that businesses are rushing to stake a claim in. As with all gold rushes there have been winners and losers.

The winners tend to be developing products that are desirable or useful. Or preferably both!

Inevitably Apple has made a splash with its impending Apple Watch. But will it be a long-term success or fall by the wayside. Here are two smart watches that made it to market before Apple – with varying degrees of success.

A tale of two smartwatches

The Pebble website proudly claims “In 2009 Eric Migicovsky totally nails wearable computing.” He famously set a Kickstarter record in asking for $100K and being offered over $10m. And in 2013 his company launched Pebble – an aesthetically pleasing smartwatch. It doesn’t set the world on fire with functionality. It connects to your phone to feed in notifications and has a range of apps that give you information on things like the weather and your fitness. Crucially it is well priced and has a good battery life (seven days). It has been a great success.

The Samsung Gear does more stuff but still doesn’t push the boat out. It has a camera for example and a reasonably impressive array of apps, but has been criticised for being bulky, difficult to navigate, and offering a battery life that struggles to live up even to the specified one day! Chuck in a bigger price tag and it has not delivered on expectations.

samsung gear smartwatch wearable.

Design challenges do not necessarily need to be unique. Many issues overcome in developing the Samsung Gear will have also been faced by the Apple Watch design team.

R&D and wearables

What of the Apple Watch then? Apple has not had much problem with desirability over the last decade. And it seems to be embracing the ‘watch as jewellery’ concept more than counterparts by offering a wide range of combinations of strap, casing, display, size. But is this enough? Seth Godin has some interesting thoughts on this.

It is on functionality that the Apple Watch makes step changes. And this is a great way to highlight different areas of potential R&D in wearable technology:

  • Apple Pay – allows wearers to pay for merchandise in stores with the swipe of their watch. R&D AREAS: DEVICE, IT INFRASTRUCTURE, USABILITY
  • Induction charging – no plugs to charge – just a magnetic clip that is designed to be so easy you can connect it in the dark. R&D AREAS: ENERGY, STORAGE, CONTACTLESS CHARGING
  • The S1 chip – an entire computer’s architecture on one chip – R&D AREAS: MICRO ELECTRONICS, REAL WORLD TESTING FOR DURABILITY
  • Taptic engine – communicates with wearer through ‘taps’ on the wrist. – R&D AREAS: HAPTIC FEEDBACK TECHNOLOGY
  • Force touch –  allows the screen to differentiate between a tap and a push – R&D AREAS: TOUCHSCREENS
  • Digital crown – a blend between a traditional watch crown and the iPod click wheel – R&D AREAS: USER EXPERIENCE
  • WatchKit – a new platform for apps designed especially for the Apple Watch – R&D AREAS:  INTEGRATION, SOFTWARE AND APP DEVELOPMENT

This is by no means an exhaustive list but demonstrates the huge array of R&D across many different fields that could be going into wearable tech products. It’s common for companies developing new products to believe that the work they’re developing will not qualify for relief, on the basis that a particular feature or function is not necessarily brand new. NFC payments are for example not a wholly new technology, but the work undertaken to develop Apple Pay has involved masses of integration work, development and testing. For the development of such a transformative product it’s likely that almost every component within the Apple Watch has included elements of qualifying R&D activity. In the lead up to the product launch, it was reported that Apple was still struggling with perfecting the screen technology, battery issues and ironing out manufacturing process issues – the time and costs associated with overcoming these issues would likely all qualify for R&D tax relief. While R&D budgets comparable with Apple are rare, the unique challenges faced by businesses developing new products are certainly not unique. Many of the issues will have been overcome by other manufacturers many times in the past, but the information about how the likes of Samsung and Pebble have overcome them are not necessarily in the public realm

Not just wrist-wear

That’s enough about watches. Fitness bands are also prime real estate in the wearable tech world, from niche players such as Fitbit and Jawbone to established giants such as Nike and Garmin. But there are other parts of our bodies that play host to wearables other than wrists!

Let’s take a look at some – some offering pure desirability and some offering ‘can’t do without’ functionality.

Want it!

Cute Design have been building a name for themselves in high-end wearable tech. Back in 2012 TV screens and newspapers were awash with images of former Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger wearing the first ever haute couture Twitter dress – from the Shoreditch based fashion house. Katy Perry is also an advocate having worn a number of their creations. The company celebrates its 10th birthday this year and their blend of technologically advanced, ethical and clean manufacturing processes along with their celebrity fanbase put them at the forefront of wearable tech. Cute Design even turned up on a recent episode of BBC1s Apprentice, where contestants were tasked with developing new wearable technology.

Cute Design clearly have desirability nailed!

Need it!

A couple of things caught our eye here. Frog Design recently challenged its eight global studio’s to design wearables that do something new. Some truly innovative products came back but our favourite came from their Munich office was this navigation aid for the visually impaired. Take your traditional white stick and give it sonar proximity sensors, GPS, an accelerometer and haptic feedback. The result is a smart stick to better aid the visually impaired through the urban environment.

And for those of you that spend a lot of time behind the wheel, Vigo will be of interest. It looks like a Bluetooth headset with the exception that it points towards your eyes rather than mouth. It monitors blinks and uses algorithms to tell from the length and frequency how alert you are.

Two wearables that could significantly enhance, or save the lives of their users.

Jawbone UP24 activity monitor

The Jawbone UP24 ™ activity monitor

When wearables go bad

As we said. Desirability. Functionality. Both good bellwethers of how successful a wearable tech product will be. Seth Godin sums it up differently as: “Do people like me wear something like this?” And when the answer is “no” a product is in trouble. Google glass is wrestling with this dilemma – fairly or not the beta testers are referred to by some as “Glassholes.” Will the Glass ever overcome the sentiment behind this label?

Or how about the Bluetooth glove that turns your hand – with little finger and thumb protruding – into a telephone handset? Who will be prepared to stand around talking into their hand? For a look at this glove and some even more bizarre examples of wearable tech (including a smart wig!!) check this out.

Good or bad – there is plenty of R&D going on in wearable tech

The good news for wearable tech disasters is that if you have been innovative in the production, you could still claim some valuable R&D tax credits regardless of whether your product is a commercial success.

So whether you have the next Pebble on your hands or something more modest, if you’re developing a new product, process or service, then R&D tax credits could offer a considerable boost to your bottom line. Our robust process to optimise claims has resulted in millions of pounds of R&D tax credits being awarded to our clients. To find out more, contact us or call our team of qualified tax advisers on 0117 926 9022 for further information.

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