As the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) draws to a close for another year, we've seen a wide range of new gadgets and tech capabilities that could transform our daily lives in the near or not-so-near future. From drones, AI robots and virtual reality to a whole clutch of "smart" devices, we're now left to debate which of the items debuted at CES will enter the mainstream.
The problem here is that it's all too easy for the line between potential and reality to become blurred. Although the tech-savviest and wealthiest individuals might be quick to adopt new gadgets, the "typical" consumer tends to be much more cautious. Just look at the performance of smartwatches to date; several months after Apple's much awaited device entered the market, the sector has still not exploded in the way that many had hoped. In most countries, our data in fact shows that only a small minority of consumers have purchased one (with 16-24s being priced out of the market and the 45+ age groups showing hardly any enthusiasm at all). Certainly, smartwatches are still in their nascent stages and so we shouldn't judge their performance too harshly. Even so, with the marketing efforts of Apple, Samsung and other major global names having failed to spark widespread interest, this seems to be a case of supply considerably outpacing consumer demand.
It's the price-tags of smartwatches which are usually cited as the biggest sticking point. However, look at consumer behaviours elsewhere and you start to wonder whether that tells the whole story. Health and fitness apps are a particular case in point. Among the items coming out of this year's CES, health-monitoring gadgets were a mainstay - whether as stand-alone tools or integrated within smartwatches and smart wristbands. But while no-one would doubt the positive contribution that these devices could make to our lives, especially as the data they provide becomes hyper real-time and personalised, it's worth noting that just 15% of online adults in our research say they're using health & fitness apps on their mobiles or tablets. That's a number which has barely risen over the last two years, despite huge increases in the numbers who own/use these devices as well as significant advances in the number and quality of apps available.
Of course, there are some notable (and predictable) peaks in the usage of health apps. Our numbers show that it's 16-34s who lead the way, while the top income quartile are nearly twice as likely to be engaging as the lowest one. However, given that the overwhelming majority of adults now have a smartphone, it must be telling that it's almost impossible to find a country or demographic group where more than 20% are using health & fitness apps. Even among current smartwatch owners - who you might pick as the most potentially receptive audience of all - it's still just a third who say they're engaging.
All this begs the question: is the industry developing technology because it can, rather than because there's a genuine need or desire for it among consumers? If we're not really using health & fitness apps on our smartphones, would we really start using them if smartwatches became more affordable? For all the fanfare being made about smartwatches, are they actually little more than the next Google Glass - an undoubtedly cool and intriguing device but one which failed to find a mainstream application? Are smartwatches destined to remain niche, rather than becoming devices for the masses?
This question becomes particularly relevant when you consider the sheer number of new gadgets being debuted at CES 2016. Even if most people could be convinced to purchase an item on display at last week's expo, the price-points mean they would probably confine themselves to just one or two. That suggests the majority of items being showcased at CES don't have strong immediate prospects in terms of consumer adoption. In short, there just aren't enough people out there who are willing to buy them. While you might expect that for some of the more outlandish and futuristic devices (hoverboards, anyone?), it's rather more sobering to think the same could be said for some of the devices being positioned as rather more mainstream.