Computers

Paul Gilster: Trying to guess where the wearable device market is headed

CorrespondentFebruary 9, 2014 

2014 is supposed to be the year of wearable devices, but don’t expect this confusing category to be sorted out by December. Any time we move into a new product space, choice abounds, and the technology changes rapidly. Figuring out whether you want a smartwatch may not be the problem as much as figuring out just what a smartwatch is supposed to do in the first place. So let’s talk about where we are with wearables and where we’re going.

Google Glass, a “smart eyewear” product, is going to be a hit out of sheer novelty at first. Later, as the price comes down, it should remain popular because the ability to visually merge digital data with the real world makes emphatic sense. Imagine needing a quick fix on your location and popping up an immediate display without reaching for your phone or turning on a separate GPS device. Or think about visual overlays for new environments, tagging restaurants, museums, drugstores with visual directions built in.

Points of confusion

Mention Google, though, and you realize that no one player will dominate the wearable market the way Google is likely to dominate eyewear. Apple will be coming out with a smartwatch, most likely sometime this year, but Sony, Samsung and Pebble are all in the market as well. If I were a CEO trying to figure out my next move, I’d look at where wearable technology is today and extrapolate from there. It’s not a tough call: Most wearable sales are going toward health and fitness products, wristband tech like Fitbit, which tracks health metrics on your daily round.

Apple’s product, surely to be called the iWatch, is said to be rich in health features. Giving some punch to that rumor is a recent New York Times report that Apple has been studying how to connect smartwatch health technologies to the iPhone. Moreover, there are reports that the next version of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS8, will have an app called Healthbook that will do Fitbit-like things, tracking your calories, watching your blood pressure and glucose, etc.

But now we’re at the next point of confusion. Will wearables all be tied to a smartphone? I like the idea of being notified when a key email comes in – the watch is nonintrusive, and I can all but forget that it’s there. But if all I’m getting is a brief squib that tells me to pull out my smartphone to read the actual message, then I’m not interested. You wear a Pebble smartwatch on your wrist, but it needs a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone to work. Wearables are going to have to break that link to reach their potential.

Solar power an option

For that matter, how will we power up smartwatches, given that the more technological smarts we put into them, the more power they’ll need to run all their features? The word in computing circles is that Apple is studying how to put solar power to work, testing it along with wireless charging methods for the iWatch. I doubt the matter has been resolved, because other methods – like charging through the movement of a user’s arm – are in the mix. Apple even filed a patent for this kind of technology a few years ago, pointing to its interest in alternative charging methods. The choice is a big one because charging should happen behind the scenes.

We’ll need more than one year to get all this straightened out. Wearables need to be fully functional on their own and able to deliver something unique rather than acting as relays for smartphone data. We can expect a flood of new products from small companies anxious to see what concepts take us beyond health and fitness. Everyone is looking for the breakthrough app that will justify mass adoption and make the devices we wear something more than a curiosity.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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