Wearable devices

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The Apple Watch launch gave me a chance to go back and revisit the development of wearable computing and my experience with wearable devices.

Wearable computing had it’s genesis in academic research; some of it government funded. For instance DARPA had a hand in the US Army Land Warrior programme. France has it’s FÉLIN programme and Germany IdZ. All the programmes sought to provide soldiers with location data  and in communication with their colleagues.  Unsurprising  key issues for the soldiers involved included:

  • Weight
  • How cumbersome the equipment was
  • Battery life
  • Reliability / robust product design
  • Value of information provided

It is worth bearing in mind these criteria when thinking about wearables in a consumer context.  SonyEricsson’s LiveView remote control for Android handsets launched the current spurt in ‘smart’ watches. Sony made a deliberate decision to position the LiveView as an augmentation to the smartphone. Think of it as a thin client for your wrist.

Samsung and Apple in some of their communications have looked to muddy the water in the way that they presented their devices, despite the fact that both of them rely on the smartphone  in a slightly more sophisticated way than LiveView.

Much of the early drive in wearables has been around health and fitness where the likes of Nike and Jawbone reinvented the kind of service provided to dedicated fitness enthusiasts by the likes of Polar and Suunto. These devices are primarily about simplification of design to democratise the technology.

By contrast Samsung and Apple have a greater ambition for their devices in terms of the what they can do. I don’t know what the killer app is for a general purpose device and I suspect neither do Apple or Samsung.

Wearables are not particularly robust by design. I have had three Nike Fuelbands fail in 12 months or so. Compare this to the Casio G-Shock and IWC watches that I generally wear. I don’t have to think about wearing my watch; I didn’t worry about washing my hands or stepping in the shower or the swimming pool with it on. You couldn’t do that with a Samsung Gear.

A second unknown factor is how often consumers would be willing to upgrade a smart watch? When one thinks about the expected price point of Apple’s premium watches, it is similar to the products coming out of Switzerland. The cases and straps are well made, but the price of buying an Omega watch is also about buying into a service centre that will keep the watch going for decades to come. Apple’s iPod Classic barely lasted 13 years. The electronic innards of an iWatch would be built from components that would become obsolete, even if Apple wanted to service them.

Would Apple compromise with a modular design that could make it easy to swap out smart watch innards in a case as an analogy to having a watch serviced? I don’t think so, if one looks at Apple’s design move over the past decade towards sealed computing appliances: the iPod, the iPhone, the MacBook Air and the Retina MacBook.

More information
FÉLIN | Army Technology
SonyEricsson LiveView remote and the changing face of mobile computing | renaissance chambara