Are smartwatches really smart enough to generate demand and make inroads into the accessorised timepiece and mobile devices markets? And what will they need to deliver to make them 'super smart'?
The recent arrival of several new contenders to the smartwatch scene sees two market sectors on a collision course. Toward the end of last summer, Samsung launched its Galaxy Gear, a tiny touchscreen computer designed for wrists hoping to carve out a new market for wearable smartphone accessories, while Adidas unveiled the MiCoach Smart Run, a souped-up sports watch that shares many of the styling features of more general-purpose smartwatches.
A basic definition of a smartwatch is a computerised wristwatch with functionality that is enhanced way beyond timekeeping, and often aspires to functionality that bears comparison to a personal digital assistant device. Sometimes these wristwatches are described as 'wearable PCs'. In this context they have some resonance with mobile phone makers who see wearable technology as the latest new frontier.
The target market(s) for smartwatch devices is still to be defined. At first sight the most immediate opportunities would appear to lay in the consumer sector; but as smartwatches grow more sophisticated, and even aspire to running applications on standard operating systems such as Android, they may very well attract attention of the enterprise sector, particularly as part of a smartwatch/tablet combo alternative to smartphones. The general growth of the smartwatch market would also spur the electronics industry to move away from using standard ICs and componentry for the inside of smartwatches, and start developing circuitry that is specifically designed for enhanced smartwatch functionality.
Samsung, for instance, accompanied its launch with an advertising campaign that showed design inspiration flowing back to numerous science-fiction demonstrations, including cartoon hero Dick Tracy's two-way radio watch. Having helped popularise the idea of the flip-up phone and the tablet, 'Star Trek' could make it a hat-trick; but, although the device used by Captain Kirk in 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' looked more convenient than the original 1960s series communicators they still had one small but inhibitive design flaw ' everyone around him could hear what was going on.
Samsung's latest attempt to produce a smartwatch that can make and receive calls follows a series of attempts to build something that a law-enforcement agent might use. Similar to predecessors such as the Samsung SPH-WP10, launched in 1999, and the S9110 a decade later, the Galaxy Gear can make and receive calls. However, unlike those earlier attempts, to do so the Gear needs to be partnered with the company's more conventional Galaxy 3 smartphone handset.
Sony's SmartWatch, meanwhile, launched in September 2013, works with some other Android smartphones, and Sony says there are a range of dedicated apps that can be downloaded, providing social media and email support, which opens the way for some limited business use. The SmartWatch has received reasonably positive reviews, and its pricepoint of around '79 is attractive. Meanwhile, Qualcomm's just-released Toq smartwatch is designed to interoperate as an auxiliary device with an Android (4.0 and higher) app-enabled smartphone.
For the most part, the latest generation of smartwatches are designed as accessories for devices that already sit in users' pockets or cars, such as in the case of the Nismo watch made by automotive giant Nissan. Only the sports watches are designed to be used in isolation ' and deliberately so. They also have a head start on their competitors from the mobile-device world. Even five years ago, you could hear a seemingly synchronised 'chirrup' as each group of amateur runners started the London Marathon. The sound of the timer starting was a testament to the attraction of GPS-enabled watches. They now look to be set on a collision course with more general-purpose smartwatches.
Paul Gaudio, head of Adidas Interactive, claimed at the GigaOm Mobilize 2013 conference in San Francisco last October that incorporating the ability to place calls was an early consideration for the MiCoach touchscreen smartwatch. The designers thought the wearer might need to call the emergency services if they got into trouble or take a work-related call while out jogging during weekday lunchtime, say.
'The common feedback we had was that runners get to a point where they do not want to be bothered carrying a phone,' Gaudio explains. 'As much as not having the hassle of carrying it, it's also about not being connected. A lot of people run to de-stress and leave that behind.'
For Eric Migicovsky, founder of Pebble, a smartwatch maker funded to the tune of $10m, and launched before Samsung's decision, says the company saw no need to build phone capabilities into a wrist-based device. 'The thing that changed for us came after 2008 when smartphones were really taking off,' says Migicovsky. 'We leverage the fact that you already have a connection to the Internet. We saw that Amazon was putting cellular connections with the Kindle. But we realised that people would be carrying 3G modems in their pocket. We thought we should take advantage of technology that we are already wearing rather than recreate it on the body. Pebble is really an accessory to a smartphone.'
Where the Gear and Pebble represent a wearable extension to the smartphone, the MiCoach follows a different path, starting with the idea of the watch being a convenient sensor. Adidas's Gaudio explains: 'I do not think that our intention was to compete in a smartwatch market as such. We wanted to provide a service and this location on the body is the right place to do that. Going back as far as the 1980s, we put the first electronic device in a shoe to track speed and distance.'
He continues: 'Then in 2005, we developed the idea of building a network of sensors around the body. It was all in keeping with this idea of providing a service to athletes to help them get better. But having them talk to each other meant it was more stuff. Athletes were telling us for years, 'I just want this stuff on my wrist'.'
A key advance in the MiCoach versus other GPS-based sports watches (such as those made by Garmin) is the inclusion of a heart-rate monitor in the wristband itself, removing the need to wear a separate radio-transmitting chest strap.
Kaivan Karimi, executive director of global microcontroller strategy and business development at chipmaker Freescale Semiconductor, observes that there 'is a category of wearables that is going up real fast. Devices used mainly for 'self-quantification', that let you look at data about your heart rate along with the time of day. This will revolutionise professional healthcare'.
He adds: 'For a diabetic you may be able to go to the doctor once a week, and get checked. But practically speaking you can probably only do it once every three months, and that one sample is used by the doctor to pass judgement on my life. But what if that data was available every 15 minutes? And not only in conjunction with time of day but information from other biometrics that may reveal that I may be angry at that point, stressed or suffering from a bad night's sleep. Armed with that data, you can come up with insights that lead to a better treatment.'
Reducing the number of individual devices needed to monitor heart rate, stress levels, or blood pressure is crucial, agrees Davide Vigano, CEO of wearables start-up Heapsylon: 'If they need to put on a separate device for each measurement it is just one more thing to remember in the morning.'
Olof Schybergson, CEO of Fjord, a design consultancy that worked on the MiCoach project for Adidas, adds that outward product design is very important. 'Fundamentally, when you think about the wearable category overall, it is something that is almost impossible to do,' he believes. 'It needs to be seamless and fit easily into life, and yet be sophisticated... so the marriage of all that complexity with ease of use is a big design challenge ' you are talking about quite sophisticated algorithms being wrapped in something desirable that fits into people's lifestyles.' And by lifestyles read something that proves useful at both work and play.
There is a general challenge in this category. It is an aspect where people are still looking for the main functionality as well as the added value. 'So people are now experimenting with lots of stuff,' Schybergson says. 'Is it about alerts or being a second interface for a smartphone? Is it about lifestyle, checking whether I am sleeping enough or moving enough? People have different takes on it.'
A device that tracks and co-ordinates your work/life balance may not even be the smartest thing to buy, according to Mai-Li Hammargren, CEO of Swedish watchmaker Mutewatch, a conscious reaction to the always-on nature of mobile phones and other smartwatches. Samsung's idea of a smartwatch may be the sign that we are at the peak of personal technology, at least in its current form.
According to Hammargren, for 20 years humans have been adapting to technology, 'The wrist is the frontier of modern technology,' she says. 'You have to be very responsible when you choose what functions you put on people's wrists. We are trying to make people realise that you have to be responsible when it comes to devices that you carry close to your body. More is not always more.'
In terms of features, the Mutewatch is simpler than a Pebble or Gear. It tells the time, and alerts the wearer with a discrete vibration when a timer or alarm goes off. The time and alarms are set using a touchscreen on a comparatively minimal user interface. The idea is that the user decides what alarms really need to be set rather than relying on a calendar application to set them all up. 'You use the vibration to remember what you promised yourself when you set it: go home, check emails, meditate,' says Hammargren. 'The design comes from countless hours looking for a design that's as pure and simple as possible. This does not mean that we don't want to open for connectivity.'
Connectivity takes various forms: the MetaWatch Strata, for example, running off the TI MSP430 (16-bit ultra-low-power RISC microcontroller) is based on Bluetooth 4.0 (see p37).
Searching for the ultimate product
Pebble's Migicovsky says the smartwatch is'a'useful addition to the phone, but developers need to think carefully about what they put onto one. 'Think about the apps you use on your smartphone already. Then think about the display interactions you have with them. Is there a display component that you think you could break-off the main app and put onto a smartwatch or a wearable? As developers do that, the devices become more useful, become integral to your daily life.'
No-one seems to believe that they have yet done for the wearables category what the Apple iPhone did for the smartphone: create the definitive product to beat. The Cookoo smartwatch, meanwhile, is testing the market for iOS-ready smartwatches ahead of the appearance of Apple's own offering.
The wider opportunity is probably there. Take Swatch, initially intended to re-capture entry-level market share lost by Swiss manufacturers to Japanese watch companies such as Citizen and Seiko during the 1960s and 1970s. The Swatch model returned the Swiss as a major player in the global wristwatch market.
One winning element to the Swatch proposition was that the brand produced models that blended into professional environments that could be replaced by a less formal Swatch counterpart when away from the workplace.
'One of the things we have learned is that in wearables there are very few standards set,' concludes Schybergson. 'For tablets and mobile phones today a lot of standards have been set. But in wearables there are few rules to follow: you have to set your own rules and that is an amazing opportunity. At the same time it is a major challenge. It will take a decade to settle down.'