Sensors Could Prove the Savior of Smartwatches

After Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch was roundly criticized by some reviewers and analysts after its unveiling Wednesday, it seems to fair to ask: Will the technology be a hit or a dud?

After Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch was roundly criticized by some reviewers and analysts after its unveiling Wednesday, it seems to fair to ask: Will the technology be a hit or a dud?

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If, as some predict, smartwatches won't be a hit, why are major companies like Samsung, Apple, Microsoft, Google about to release such devices? Each of those companies spent years developing smartwatch technology.

One possible answer: smartwatches will become a primer to a whole new category of wearable devices.

Analysts say that along with wearable headset computers like Google Glass, future devices will include more technology -- likely even computerized clothing and tattoos -- that can sense body functions and a user's location and movements. Such technology would offer more than simple communication functions, such as making phone calls or answering text and emails, and include various biometric sensors.

Some analysts are lumping such wearable technology into a large, vague category called the Internet of Things.

Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps a year ago said sensor-laden devices are part of a phenomenon she calls " Smart Body, Smart World." In that category, devices themselves are not as important as the data they collect, how it's interpreted and how it's used used by human to make decisions, she says.

"If we change the discussion from communications to sensors, I think smart wearable devices have a huge future--especially at reasonable price points that large volumes could bring," added Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates.

Wearable computing is a nascent market so far with just 25 million devices, mostly for health monitoring and fitness, expected to be sold in 2013, according to Gartner. The consulting firm projects 40 million wearable devices will be sold in 2014.

Such products can include sports bras and compression shirts with sensors woven in to provide EKG data to athletes. "We're looking forward to how the wearable space evolves, with the inclusion of analytics and software, which puts humans at the center of computing, instead of devices getting all the attention," said Gartner analyst Angela McIntyre.

At the unveiling of the Sony Smart SmartWatch2 in late June, company officials projected that some 41 million smartwatches will be sold in 2016. By comparison, analysts at Gartner and IDC estimate 1 billion smartphones will be shipped or sold in 2013.

Gold and several other critics of Galaxy Gear said its $299 price tag is too high and that the device is too limited, lacking body sensors to measure heart rate, respiration and other body functions. It also offers only one day of battery power.

Critics are also concerned that tying the Gear device to the Galaxy Note 3 and a few other Samsung devices via Bluetooth 4.0 doesn't leave it open to the large world of Android smartphones and tablets made by other vendors.

Qualcomm also chose Wednesday to unveil the Toq smartwatch with a Mirasol display. The device is slated to ship in the fourth quarter.

Pricing plans for the Toq weren't disclosed, though some reports say it will cost more than $300. Toq has a major advantage over the Gear in that it will be compatible with mobile devices running Android 4.0.3 and above, and will offer "days of battery life," through wireless charging, according to Qualcomm.

Some early reviewers of the Galaxy Gear smartwatch noted that the device includes a voice dialer, a microphone and a speaker that relies on a Bluetooth-connected smartphone to make and take wireless calls. But with no headset, the Gear doesn't allow very private voice calls -- the user must hold the smartwatch up to an ear, meaning that people nearby can overhear what the calling party is saying.

By comparison, the Toq has wireless stereo headphones for listening, but doesn't include a microphone.

McIntyre defended the Galaxy Gear as both a communications and sensing device. She cited its limited sensors -- an accelerometer and gyroscope -- though it lacks biometric sensors.

"Different vendors have different motivations for wearables, and when I think about what Samsung and even Sony are doing, they are driving more interest for their smartphones and phablets with their smartwatches," she said.

Samsung's new Galaxy Note 3, with a 5.7-in. display, as well as the new Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 tablet, will work over Bluetooth with the Galaxy Gear smartwatch.

"With a bigger-size screen like a tablet or phablet, one inhibitor to buying it is that customers need to pick it up constantly to check for a message or a call, which can be unwieldy," McIntyre said.

Surveys show that smartphone users check their devices an average of 20 times a day. "Having a smartwatch with those messages [transmitted via Bluetooth from the tablet or smartphone] is going to be quite convenient for consumers and a gives a great reason to drive sales of tablets," she said.

McIntyre also said there's room for U.S. carriers to bundle the Galaxy Gear with a new Note 3 and a data plan to lower the $299 cost.

"The $300 price sets Gear off as a premium device which has cachet and is not a utilitarian extra. But I would expect bundling deals so that if you sign a high-end data contract, you might get the smartwatch bundled for half or potentially zero," she said.

Gold and Rotman Epps are not impressed with a smartwatch that primarily extends the communications functions of a smartphone or tablet.

"What need does a smartwatch serve that isn't already met by all the other devices I have around me?" Gold asked recently.

In a research note, Gold wrote: "Smartwatches could be hugely successful if we change our expectations. We need to change the conversation and address the whole notion of wearable devices in general. We should not be looking at duplication in functions worn on another part of your body. Rather, if I look at wearable devices as part of a personal sensor network and not just a remote window to my phone, that would have far great value and one I'd be willing to pay for."

A personal sensor network could monitor a person's health while working out or the status of a person with a medical condition. The data could easily be transmitted to a doctor, Gold said. Sensors could let users see how many calories they consume or burn, and they could be used to monitor blood pressure, sugar and oxygen levels.

Also, sensors can work with GPS and other location technology to offer driving directions or even directions inside of a large building. The smartphone would remain the communications hub, Gold said.

Smartwatches are not the future, but wearable tech "could be a huge success," Gold said.

"As Apple, Samsung and others bring devices to market and support real standards for interconnection, hopefully [wearable technology] will be where they direct their investments," he added

Gold's prediction is as stark as can be: "I'd bet many upcoming smartwatches won't be around a year after they are released, while true wearables offering additional benefits will."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

This story, "Sensors Could Prove the Savior of Smartwatches" was originally published by Computerworld.

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