Why Smartwatches, Glasses and Other Wearable Tech are No Gimmick

Executives, product managers, analysts and others from wearable-technology companies spoke at MobileCon 2013 about the current state of "wearables," challenges and barriers to success, as well as why wearable tech is here to stay.

Thu, October 17, 2013

CIO — When you hear the term "wearable technology," you very likely think of one, or all, of these things: Google Glass, fitness trackers such as Fitbit and Nike+ or smartwatches including Pebble and Samsung's new Galaxy Gear.

CTIA MobileCon 2013 entrance

There's good reason for that; these gadgets are some of the most popular examples of wearable tech today. But they're far from all the category entails. And the many analysts, VPs, product development reps and evangelists who spoke at a panel on wearable technology at CTIA's MobileCon 2013 event this week all believe that wearable tech, or just "wearables," will become a part of everyday life as much as smartphones and mobile apps have.

The specifics and timeframe on the predictions in the panel varied widely, but every speaker is confident that wearable technology isn't a passing fad.

Redg Snodgrass, co-founder of Stained Glass Labs, a "group of forerunners for the wearable computing movement," spoke during the MobileCon panel. He breaks the current wearables market into three divisions: Smart clothing, smart glasses and smartwatches.

Snodgrass, who was wearing a BASIS smartwatch during his presentation, says the wearables markets will face some of the same challenges the smartphone space did in the past years, including fragmentation. But unlike in the consumer smartphone world, Apple isn't leading the charge.

In the wearable market, "instead of being follower, Samsung is the leader. Apple is going to be the follower." (Samsung recently released its Galaxy Gear watch. Read my take on that device here.)

Putting User Data to Use via Wearable Technology

The MobileCon Wearable Tech panel was broken into two parts: one based on data collection via the various sensors embedded within wearable gadgets (the "input") and the second on presenting the data to users in valuable and, perhaps more importantly, actionable ways (the "output").

Most popular wearable gadgets today are based on the principle of collecting data from the users and then presenting it via the gadget itself in real-time or via a Web interface later on to show more granular information or trends over time. The gadgets available today are also fairly simple, packing similarly simple sensors such as pedometers. Most are companion devices to smartphones. Some take advantage of other sensors built into those devices, including accelerometers and GPS.

The majority of panel members seem to agree that for the time being, and for the next few years, wearable technology will come in the form of "companion devices" designed to work with smartphones. The Galaxy Gear and Pebble smartwatches, two of the most popular devices in the category, are both designed to work with smartphones, as are Fitbit fitness trackers.

"It doesn't always make sense to replicate the sensors in phones," according to Marco Della Torre, VP of business development at BASIS Science, maker of the BASIS smartwatch.

BASIS Smartwatch
BASIS Smartwatch

Della Torre says his company's watch is unique in that it's not just about motion sensors. BASIS is working hard to make a device that's functional but also aesthetically pleasing while focusing on how to truly motivate and engage people with the data its device collects.

Users have varying degrees of health and wellness levels. Some are very analytical and want granular data, while others just want very simple metrics, according to Della Torre. The challenge is providing value to the full range of users, he says. The BASIS watch itself provides real-time metrics at a glance, and the associated Web interface lets users dig into data as they see fit.

Sam Massir, director of business development, wearables, at InvenSense, says his company is working on developing smarter algorithms. One significant area of focus for InvenSense is activity recognition. The idea is for devices to automatically recognize a user's current activity so they don't constantly have to interact with a watch or other wearable.

"We're trying to solve activity recognition on the wrist," Massir says. "We don't always want to be looking to the phone. Algorithms can help. The smarter the algorithms, the higher the classification can be."

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