We don't know when Apple will make its wearable technology debut, or if the widely rumoured iWatch project even exists. But let us hope that it does, and that it is announced soon. Because wearables are at a crossroads, and Apple's product philosophy and approach to the user experience are exactly what the market needs right now.
The advertising industry has a long and ignoble tradition of co-opting any trend that attracts a significant following. Quite a lot of the time it then proceeds to drain whatever made the movement good in the first place.
Long before ageing Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten took Country Life's cash, the punk look and sound had regularly been deployed whenever an advert needed to come up with a 15-second shorthand for teenage rebellion. And devotees of skating, surfing and even videos of musicians dancing on treadmills will be familiar with that awful feeling - that the thing you love has just been systematically ruined to get someone else to buy car insurance.
There's quite a good chance that advertisers' next target is wearable tech, which stands for nearly everything the agencies most admire: wealth; status; youth and innovation; exclusivity (at least in the case of Google Glass, which remains limited to a pilot programme); and, most importantly of all, the capacity to capture vast quantities of consumer data.
Yet it's hard to be sure of wearables' future because one of the biggest players has yet to even join the game. We are still awaiting Apple's take on the concept; whether (as is most commonly supposed) that will take the form of a smartwatch - the long-foretold iWatch - or a headset, or even a ring, it seems unlikely that Cupertino will be able to keep its hands off wearables for long.
Ciccarese Design iWatch concept image
If so, it will be interesting to see how Apple differentiates itself in a market that is filling up rapidly. In the case of the iPhone, famously, the company's bosses sat down and groused to one another about everything they disliked about their mobiles, then set out to fix it all. It's almost become an Apple trademark: the flawed, immature market, the brainstorm, and finally the market-changing product. But it hasn't happened for a while. And if the iWatch truly is the next project, the question is this: what is it about wearables that needs fixing?
A future filled with adverts
One clue to that will be provided by the next few steps taken by Google's Glass headset - a stunning and potentially landmark product that nevertheless offers possibilities that are thrilling (to advertisers) and ominous (to the rest of us). Its ability to sense not only where you are, but what you're looking at, combined with knowledge of your buying habits and control of a screen you carry around on your face all day long, makes it pretty much the technology that a wealthy advertising-themed supervillain would build in his moon lair.
An early example of the way Google Glass could host advertising has been offered by Blippar's Blippbuilder, a clever image-recognition app that spots coded pictures and turns them into augmented reality video, adverts or similar. Look at a film poster with your headset on, for instance, and it might automatically play you the trailer. It's available for smartphones, but wearables are where the technology will thrive.
And smartwatches aren't far behind on advertisers' wish lists, as Todd Wasserman recently warned in Mashable.
Smartwatches - like watches generally - are far more intimate than phones, and more integrated into our lives; they're literally on our bodies at all times. Which makes advertising on this format far harder to ignore. (Being ignored, of course, is the only thing an advertiser fears.) Passed a branch of Banana Republic? Perhaps they would like to remind you about a sale they're running. Did you post about your running times on Twitter earlier? Would you be interested in some of our lovely running gear?
As often with technological advances, sci-fi got there first - one horrifying future offered by Minority Report and its unctuous virtual shop assistants. Could we end up in a world like Minority Report? The thing is that, unlike in most of cinema's dystopias, it's up to us - the market will go where users lead. If nobody uses Blippar, Blippar will die out. But the evidence suggests, sadly, that most of us would happily sign up to the most intrusive of ad targeting if it's presented as a way to get something for free.
The dangers of intimacy
The key thing for tomorrow's wearable-tech advertisers to consider is intrusiveness. Wearable tech is unprecedentedly personal and intimate; and for any overt advertising message to intrude into the user's relationship with the device runs the risk of appearing crass.
As Wasserman observes, smartwatch notifications need to be trimmed back to the bare minimum; it's not like smartphone alerts, which are relatively easy to ignore. If you keep tapping your users on the wrist, asking for their attention, you're headed for trouble.
But the most crucial influence on where wearables are heading could come from a company that hasn’t even announced a wearable tech product. While Google has pioneered as a provider of free services funded by harvested user data, Apple has continued to focus on the premium user experience; and something as intimate as a wearable device might be the perfect platform to showcase why Apple's approach is still relevant.
Lead image credit: ADR Studio