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Wearable Challenges

Well, it’s finally come to this.


After more than a year of walking around New York with my AirPods, I finally gave in and bought these silicon hooks from EarBuddyz to keep the darn things from slipping out of optimal sound position, or worse, falling out of my ears altogether.[1]

I had remarked when I first got my AirPods that they were not exactly a snug fit. Over time, it seemed like they were actually getting looser, if that’s possible. My ear holes have gotten bigger over the past year, I suppose[2]. Factor in obstacles like scarves, hats, balaclavas, and other accoutrements of winter, and you can imagine a scenario where AirPod “incidents” were on a sharp rise over the past month.

Fortunately, these sleeves do their job, and now I can move around as much as I want without worry. The AirPods not only stay in my ears now; they also stay in the optimal position for sound, which is great. I can finally lie in bed on my side and my AirPods stay put, which is also great.

What’s not great? Having to take the sleeves off to put the AirPods back into the charging case. And then having to keep the sleeves somewhere safe while the AirPods are charging.

More importantly—the very notion that these sleeves are necessary is a big problem in my mind, because it speaks to Apple's design team overlooking basic variance in human anatomy. The experience of wearing these, being constantly reminded that my ears are bigger than what Apple considers “average” takes a bit of the sheen off an otherwise phenomenally executed product.

Lots of criticism has been lobbed Apple’s way in recent years regarding computers. I never pay much attention to these nitpicks. Apple knows how to make computers, and despite not being able to make absolutely everyone happy 100% of the time, the computer business is going to go just fine for Apple for many years to come. Tech is not Apple’s problem.

But if wearable technology becomes a huge part of Apple’s future—and I believe it will—Apple has some design challenges ahead of it. First and foremost, Apple needs to acknowledge that human bodies come in all shapes and sizes. So making one size of any wearable device is never going to fly.

Apple did a better job with Apple Watch, at least, offering two different body sizes and various watch straps that adjust to many different wrists. There are still some bands that I can’t quite get to fit perfectly, and I’m sure even more sizes would be welcome for some. But at least there’s an acknowledgement that not everyone has an equal-sized wrist.[3]

I’ve been hearing rumors that Apple’s next big wearable will be eyeglasses. Think Google Glass, but done by Apple, which could be a compelling product.

But then I think about the last time I went shopping for new glasses. I literally tried on fifty to sixty different frames before I found one I didn’t hate. Even with companies like Warby Parker allowing you to virtually “try on” several pairs, I have yet to find a pair in their collection that looks good on me.

I wonder just how it will be possible for Apple to mass produce glasses that are the right fit for the entire population. And how will they keep enough stock of all the various varieties in a retail store?

Nevermind what the technology can do. If it looks terrible or doesn’t fit properly, people are not going to wear it. And there’s no such thing as one or even ten pairs of glasses that would cover everyone comfortably. So either Apple needs to partner with frame makers to incorporate their technology into existing frames (which is doubtful, given Apple’s tendency to want to control the entire widget), make a product that somehow attaches to any frame (also doubtful, as it would likely be clunky), or be prepared to design and manufacture hundreds of frame designs and build each Apple Glass product to order.

Considering unique prescriptions, it becomes clear that Apple Glasses would have to be made to order for most people, anyway. Is Apple prepared to become experts in creating prescription lenses? Are they prepared for the extra complexities of customer service and regulations surrounding that industry?

To me, the entire tech sector needs to seriously rethink its approach if technology is meant to become wearable. This is new territory. Industrial design is starting to merge with fashion design in a big way.[4] Manufacturing bespoke wearables for the individual instead of one product that fits all is not something Apple or any other computer company has had to do before on a mass scale.

I hope Apple is hiring accordingly. This is a real opportunity to not just innovate in the tech space, but to bring Apple’s skills in mass production to other realms.

Maybe the first generation of AirPods was just a test balloon to see how sales went? If that’s the case, I think by now Apple can justify an expansion into new sizes. I’ll be watching with curiosity this year to see what develops. Getting a few different sizes of AirPods would be a good sign that Apple is getting more serious about wearables in general. And it would mean I could go back to not needing any hacks to enjoy listening to music again.

  1. I actually tried two other silicon sleeves first. The ones that just go over the buds and don’t provide the extra “hook” for the lobe, and the super-thin ones that fit inside the charging case. Neither kept the AirPods in position for me, so they ended up being failed experiments. ↩︎

  2. It is true that while our heads eventually stop growing, our ears continually get bigger as we age. I don’t know whether that applies to the ear canals, however, or just the outer ear. ↩︎

  3. Even my own wrist continuously expands and contracts throughout the course of an average day. I find myself adjusting loop bracelets two or three times daily. And my Link bracelet will go from snug in the morning to loose on my wrist in the evening often. ↩︎

  4. And the fashion world hasn’t even solved these sizing issues to anyone’s satisfaction. Don’t get me started on how “rack” clothes are cut vs. what actually fits most people. ↩︎