What’s the “killer app” for wearables? Think context.

So here’s a good question: What exactly is going to drive the wearables market to the heights that some analysts are predicting? Juniper, for example, predicts 130 million smart wearable device shipments by 2018 while Gartner expects $5 billion in sales for wearables by 2016. But former Apple(s aapl) and Palm exec Michael Mace still isn’t sure there’s a reason to support such lofty figures because there’s no “killer app” for these devices. I disagree, or at the very least, I think the start of such an app is already available.

On Wednesday, Mace penned a great post on the topic, with one of the core thoughts being this:

“[T]he reality is that today’s forecasts of a wearable explosion are based on faith, not analysis. If you believe a wearable killer app is coming, then it’s easy to convince yourself that many millions of these things will be sold. I want to believe that too. But I think I need to see the app first.”

Smart wearables aren’t new and many are stuck with old ideas

I can understand Mace’s skepticism, mainly from the perspective of an early adopter. How many of us can say we spent $150 on a Microsoft(s msft) SPOT watch that got its data from FM radio waves back in 2004? I’m raising my hand. Yup, smartwatches themselves aren’t that new. The capabilities and features of them, however, are. Unfortunately, most of these are simply refined second screens for our smartphones and have little “smarts” by themselves.


Of course, there are other wearables beside smartwatches. Look to the quantified self products for a nearly endless list of examples: the Jawbone UP, Nike(s nke) Fuelband and Basis B-1 just to name a few. And if there weren’t already enough of these available, quite a few more launched at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show from nearly every recognizable industry name as well as others you might not expect.

Mace notes the success of these, again pointing to the “killer app”: These health trackers have one and that’s why consumers are buying them without much of a marketing push.

“We have seen some traction for wearable devices in vertical markets, especially sports and health. Smart watches and other wearable fobs are a great way to track your exercise, and sports goggles are a cool way to make videos of your ski runs. It’s very telling that these devices have sold well on their own, without any need for hype or even a heavy marketing budget. That’s what happens when you find the right app — it takes off on its own.”

So there are plenty of different wearable types: Smartwatches, health trackers, and even wearable displays such as Google(s goog) Glass. Mace thinks the negatives of Glass currently outweigh the positives at the moment.

Pushing the same notifications from one screen to another isn’t that smart

Having worn Glass for the past few months, I can appreciate his opinion. Aside from being one of the fastest ways to get a first-person image, Glass largely provides notifications with the added benefit of voice searches. Smartwatches generally offer the same notifications. And some of the health trackers are or will be doing this too.

For wearables to be truly disruptive though, they can’t just be wearable chimes that sound off every time someone sends us an email, retweets something we’ve said or likes our Facebook(s fb) photos. We need wearables — very personal objects — to smartly separate the signal from the noise.


That’s what Mace is getting at, and I agree. But I’m surprised he doesn’t consider context to be the killer app; particularly because of his current work effort, listed as this on his blog: “I’m cofounder of Zekira, an app that helps you recall context around any bit of info in your life: a name, meeting, file, etc.” Seems like Mace has the killer app idea in mind but it’s not yet in a wearable.

Context is the “killer app”

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: Getting contextual information at the right place and the right time from a wearable can be disruptive. It’s why I’ve repeatedly said I want Google Now on my wrist. That sounds like a smartwatch, though I’d be just as happy if that information were on a wearable display or some other form factor that was glanceable.

pebble google now notification

Instead of having my smartwatch (or whatever device I’m wearing) pester me with information that others want me to see, I want it to display information I want me to see. And there are times I don’t even know what that information is.

Take the traffic, for example. If I normally leave by 4:30 pm for a weekly 5 pm appointment, I really don’t know if there’s traffic unless I check. But that traffic data is contextual to my calendar and my location; that’s where a Google Now (or a similar service) comes into play: It can and should notify me in advance with no interaction on my part.

Google Now Google Search iOS

Here’s another example. Let’s say my wife frequents a particular clothing store chain and one of its locations is nearby as I’m going through my day. We’ll go a step further and say her birthday is within the next 10 days. Wouldn’t it be useful to have that information automatically put into context with an alert: “Hey, your wife’s birthday is in 8 days and you’re near Macy’s, her favorite store.”

Perhaps you’ve ordered something online and it requires a signature. You check the tracking information and expect it on Friday. But wait, there’s great news! It’s scheduled for an early delivery on Thursday. Oh, you didn’t get the memo and planned to stay home from the office on Friday? That’s a problem, right? Not with a contextual app that could have notified you of the schedule change not long after it happened.

Google Now cards

The killer app for wearables is one that ties in all data that’s relevant to me — location, task lists, calendar, important people and such — ties it to sensor data and presents it to me in a way that’s helpful while being unobtrusive. Perhaps context itself isn’t an app and therefore can’t be the “killer app.” Intelligent devices built around context, however, have the potential to meet or exceed expectations for the coming wearables explosion.