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2014 in Mobile: Wearable Gadgets Galore

Wearable technology finally took off in 2014, although some devices fared better than others.

In 2014, the hottest theme in mobile technology was the introduction of wearable gadgets that can track everything from seizures to how much sunlight you soak up. Device makers large and small attempted to make wearables that are both functional and fashionable.

Activity trackers like the Fitbit and Jawbone Up still make up the vast majority of devices worn on the body, but companies increasingly pushed smart watches in 2014. LG and Samsung were among those that released watches running Android Wear, a new version of Google’s Android mobile software tailored for wearable electronics. Meanwhile, companies like Pinterest, Airbnb, and Groupon designed apps for the small screens.

The highest-profile smart watch unveiled this year came from Apple in September. Apple’s first wearable device looks more stylish and thoughtfully designed than most smart watches, with a force-sensitive touch screen and a dial on its side that can scroll and zoom. The gadget, which will cost $349 in its most inexpensive configuration, won’t be available until early next year, however, and Apple only released its WatchKit developer tools and rules in November.

Though smart watches in particular often cram a ton of features into a small package, this year some wearable makers eschewed feature creep for simplicity in an effort to woo consumers. French company Netatmo unveiled June, a jewel-like device on a leather bracelet: it keeps track of the wearer’s sun exposure and works with an iPhone app to tell you when to grab a hat or seek shade. The Hong Kong company ConnecteDevice launched a simple smart watch called Cogito that has a traditional-looking analog face but also shows some notifications.

There was also a greater focus on precise biometric tracking this year. In November, startup Empatica announced a wristband called Embrace, meant for people with epilepsy. It can track seizures and works with a smartphone app to let a family member know when you’re having one. The device combines data collected by its accelerometer and gyroscope with measurements of skin conductance (gathered via small electrodes on the inside of the band), which increases during seizures, according to Empatica chief scientist and MIT Media Lab professor Rosalind Picard. The wristband is expected to be available next summer for $199.

Despite the overwhelming popularity of the wrist, some companies released wearables for other body parts this year in an attempt to make intimate technology both useful and comfortable. Startup OMsignal, for example, started selling shirts that are knitted with electrodes so they can track your breathing and heart rates. A device that snaps into a pocket on the shirt captures this information, along with your movements, and you can view details on an iPhone app.

Still, wearable devices of all kinds—and particularly ones that are more in-your-face, such as smart glasses—have a long way to go before they’re widely accepted.

The bumpy road to acceptance may be best illustrated by Google Glass, the headgear with a small head-up display, which was unveiled in 2012 as an experimental device and still hasn’t been released as a consumer product. Google maintains its commitment to Glass, but by late 2014 the gadget seemed to be taking a nosedive as early adopters—who paid $1,500 apiece—started losing interest, and companies like Twitter stopped working on apps for it.

Regardless of Glass’s fate, the market for wearables will keep growing, buoyed by the impending arrival of the Apple Watch and other new gadgets. Convincing consumers to buy and use these devices will require a lot more work on design, technology miniaturization, and so-called killer apps—all likely to be major focus areas for wearable-gadget makers in the year ahead.

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