Difficulties in Making Wearables, Because Hardware is Hard

A number of reports on Nike restructuring their FuelBand division came out this past week. The fitness giant confirmed layoffs in its Digital Sports division and as CNET reported, “As early as this fall, Nike planned on releasing another iteration of the FuelBand — an even slimmer version — but cancelled the project. And it appears to have shelved all future physical product projects under the Digital Sport helm, the person familiar with the matter added.” Re/code wrote about the matter on Friday, with their sources saying that “the decision over what to do has been debated for months within the company, due to high expenses, manufacturing challenges and the inability to make adequate margins on the business. In addition, sources note that Nike has been unable to attract as high a level of engineering talent as the business has grown.”

Jawbone’s 2011 recall of its first UP band, and Fitbit’s recent recalls of their Force band are other indications that making small wrist wearables isn’t easy.

Over the weekend, I played around with an Arduino, creating a ‘wearable’ by hooking up a display, 3-axis accelerometer, temperature sensor, vibrating motor, pulse sensor, and battery. With help from the team at iRoboticist, I was able to put together a working prototype. Thinking through all the parts in these devices gave me new appreciation for all the work that wearables-focused hardware and software engineers do – while balancing high consumer expectations (battery life length, water resistance, size, display quality…and the list goes on). Aside from building, there’s also managing the supply chain and handling the manufacturing aspect of the product cycle, which can often be tedious and unnerving.

Here are some neat teardowns of common wearables from iFixit (Fitbit Flex), Chipworks (Nike FuelBand), and iFixit (Pebble smartwatch). These sites give you a great inside look at all the components jammed into the thing you are wearing on your wrist.

The technology here has come a long way. Kudos to all the companies that continue to prioritize and innovate on wearable devices.

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