This is supposed to be the Year of the Wearables, devices like smartwatches, activity trackers and other accessories that can give us data about ourselves and are often connected to the Internet.

And just in time, too. The tech industry needs something novel to sell, with smartphone sales slowing and personal computer sales dropping. Last year, Samsung introduced the Galaxy Gear, making it the first major hardware company to enter the market, and Google is expected to start selling Glass this year.

Sure, the market is small, but it's growing. More than 17 million wearable bands will be shipped in 2014, Canalys forecast, although that's assuming Apple's long-rumored watch comes out this year and that other devices come out using Google's Android Wear. That's up from 7.1 million in 2013.

But a new study throws cold water on the wearable category as a solution looking for problems. While the report by Endeavor Partners found that 1 in 10 Americans owns a wearable fitness device, about one-third stopped using it after six months. By 18 months, half are gathering dust in drawers.

It's not surprising that the novelty wears off, particularly tied to fitness goals.

But the trend is troubling, since it's the early adopters who talk up new gadgets and build excitement, said Daniel McCaffrey, a behavioral scientist and one of the study's authors.

"You typically don't see user engagement rates drop off like this," he said. After a few months of wearing the fitness tracker, "the data isn't telling them anything valuable."


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There are other concerns about the category. Battery life isn't good. There are potential privacy and security issues.

But it's too early to write off the wearable market. Here's why.

First, the premise of the wearable category starts with a good question: Are there different ways for us to interact with technology than a screen? Could those other mediums allow us to interact more with those around us, rather than distract us and take us away from our immediate surroundings?

"We are getting more intimate with technology and there is nothing more intimate than what you are wearing," said Bob O'Donnell, the founder and chief analyst at TECHnalysis Research.

Second, the promise of the sector is not to just add more beeps and buzzes to your life. The goal is to sell you something that is novel, yes, but actually offers ways to improve your life.

So, you wake up to learn you slept five hours, and your smartwatch takes in the data from the past week to calculate your cumulative sleep deprivation, taking into account factors like age and gender. It recommends a nap at 2 since it sees an opening in your calendar, or an early bedtime.

Whether you find this akin to adding a digital nag to your life, or useful, is a matter of taste. But maybe there are areas of your life that could use a little analysis?

"People will want insight, not just data," said Chris Jones, a vice president and principal analyst at Canalys. "It won't be how many steps you have taken today but how you can use that information to improve your life."

Third, everything in tech seems ridiculous until it's a hit. People made fun of phones in cars as another way for the rich to show off. And why do I need Facebook exactly?

The road to success in Silicon Valley is littered with failures that did nothing wrong except to be ahead of their time.

Remember Apple's Newton? It was the precursor to the wildly successful smartphones that have upended our lives.

One thing that may change this year is if Apple introduces a smart wearable line. As Apple did with music listening devices, smartphones and the tablet market, it will likely set the pace for the entire sector to up their game, Jones said.

There are some signs of success. Pebble sold 400,000 smartwatches last year and expects to double revenue in 2014.

"A smartwatch has to be simple, useful, and mesh seamlessly with your everyday life in order to stick," said Myriam Joire, Pebble's chief evangelist. "That's why we designed Pebble to have a battery that lasts a week and be an extension of your iPhone or Android smartphone, not an attempt to replace it."

That's the right strategy. Wearables will take off if they are truly something new, not a smartphone replacement. And there are great possibilities in digitizing real world sensory data to give us information we can use.

Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and mquinn@mercurynews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/michellequinn.