Wearables: 2014 and Beyondby Stephen Barrett on January 15, 2015 11:50 AM EST
Wearable Use Cases
Inevitably in any wearable discussion with friends or family, one of the first questions asked is “why?” The general public sees the value provided by smartphones clearly, but with wearables that is not always true. In an effort to describe wearable value in general, I will present the top two use cases – fitness and smart watch. Hopefully this provides some context of where wearables are now and where they can go in the future. Future device reviews at AnandTech will have use cases like these in mind when evaluating the quality of a wearable.
Today, fitness wearables have typically provided the most benefit to runners, walkers and cyclists, or just about anyone moving a distance through their own effort (kayaking, canoeing, rollerblading, etc). This is due to a good match of user needs and wearable technology’s specialized ability to meet those needs. A summarized list of care-abouts yields:
- Notification when reaching distance markers – to keep track of progress toward goals
- Notification of speed traveled at each distance marker – to make sure to achieve pace goal
- Overall speed – to make sure to hit pace goal
- Elapsed time – to help schedule a day or meet people at certain times
- Length traveled – to help meet personal fitness goals
- Heart rate – to measure body strain and assist in pacing
- Calorie counting – to aid in personal fitness plan goals
- Map of travel detailing pace – to review pacing and share via social media
- Make calls – to handle an emergency
- Listen to music and podcasts – for motivation and entertainment
- Elevation tracking – to review effort and share via social media
- Connectivity – to interface to other devices like a cyclist’s power meter or a treadmill’s display
Solving all of these with a wrist-worn wearable provides unique value, as the form factor is significantly better than the girth of increasingly large smartphones. Additionally, the display is more conveniently accessible than an arm-band mounted smartphone. However, running or cycling while looking at your wrist is still inconvenient so Bluetooth audio notifications and connectivity to gym bikes and treadmills is desired.
Mapping wearable features to this list yields an imperfect but good result. Note that distance traveled is actually a fairly difficult thing to compute indoors or without GPS assistance, and relies on sensor fusion of compass + gyro + accelerometer passed to a pedometer algorithm.
- Notification when reaching distance markers – Sensor fusion / GPS, Bluetooth audio, Vibration, Display
- Notification of speed traveled at each distance marker – Sensor fusion / GPS, Bluetooth audio, Vibration, Display
- Overall speed – Sensor fusion / GPS, Display
- Elapsed time – Display
- Length traveled – Sensor fusion / GPS, Display
- Heart rate – Pulse oximeter
- Calorie counting – Sensor fusion
- Map of travel detailing pace – Sensor fusion / GPS
- Make calls – Cellular, Microphone, Bluetooth audio / Speaker, Phone contacts sync
- Listen to music and podcasts – Bluetooth audio, Large data storage
- Elevation tracking – Barometer / GPS
- Connectivity – ANT+ / Bluetooth Low Energy
Nearly every need is met by the hardware technology available in wearables on the market today. However, there are a few missing hardware pieces. Cellular functionality has yet to become widely available (outside the Tizen based Samsung Gear S) due to power consumption, miniaturization, and cost constraints; ANT+ support meanwhile is mostly missing. There are a few ANT+ enabled wrist-worn wearables, but none from Apple, Microsoft, or Google’s partners.
As cyclists commonly have ANT+ chest-mounted heart rate monitors, ANT+ power output meters, and ANT+ cycling computers, the lack of ANT+ on a wrist worn wearable seems like a missed opportunity. For example, a cyclist could replace their cycling computer and chest-mounted heart rate monitor with an ANT+ enabled wrist-worn wearable but retain their investment in the ANT+ power meter. The same goes for the many gyms that have ANT+ enabled equipment.
In my experience with the movement use case and today’s wearables, the hardware is very close but the software has not yet come up to my expectations. This is an incredibly competitive target at the moment that has not yet seen a clear winner or consolidation.
While fitness has been a key marketing point of many wearables in 2014, the products involved have yet to pertain to a key demographic of fitness conscious people: weight lifters. This is what I would consider a forward looking wearable target.
I certainly would not consider myself a body builder or gym rat but I do enjoy lifting weights much more than any moving exercise – and I am not alone. There are plenty of people in the world of gyms that spend their time using weights and not treadmills. Therefore, I find myself somewhat annoyed when wrist worn wearables are marketed as fitness devices but have a fraction of the value (or no value) to a weight lifter versus a runner. Personal thoughts aside, compiling a list of a weight lifters care-abouts yields a quite different list that highlights why this demographic has yet to be successfully targeted:
- Heart rate – to measure body strain and assist in pacing
- Exercise tracking – automatic detection of weight usage and exercises performed to provide historical tracking of gains and loses
- Personal record tracking – keep personal records (PRs or ‘bests’) data for each exercise
- Body fat and muscle measurement – keep track of body fat burn and muscle build over time
- Suggested exercises – utilize historical exercise data and muscle atrophy over time and provide intelligent suggestions for today’s exercises. Customizable to constrain suggestions to available gym equipment
- Suggested weight – when starting a new exercise, suggest a starting weight based upon personal information
- Fatigue tracking and warning – track muscle fatigue by muscle at the gym and over time. Utilize data to provide warnings when to stop lifting and when to revisit the gym
- Social features – compare and track with friends
The number one issue here is the lack of technology for automatic weight and exercise tracking. While there are weight lifting smartphone apps with manual data entry, these do not compare to the simplicity of automatic tracking runners and cyclists enjoy. Part of the reason products such as Fitbit became popular is their convenience. There is little more needed from the user than to wear the device and review the acquired data.
This is a solvable problem. Gyms of the future could contain NFC or Bluetooth enabled weights and machines. A wrist-worn wearable could track usage and movement of your body compared to the weights and conclude which exercises you performed and what weight used. Once that data is available, analysis based upon body type becomes possible and suggestions can be made. Combined with today’s heart rate and body fat sensors and weight lifters could find their perfect wearable and their favorite gym. There are efforts in the weight lifting wearable area now (see Push), but without automatic tracking they are currently second fiddle to the moving use case.
The smart watch use case is what I would consider immature. After some failed efforts from 2003 to 2009 from Samsung, Palm, and Microsoft, Pebble awoke the market in 2013 with a Kickstarter campaign. In 2014 the major players of Microsoft, Google, and Apple each targeted this market but none have perfected it. One of the main problems of this use case is parameterizing it. What unique value does a watch offer over a smartphone? Thus, many times smart watch functionality is combined with fitness functionality that can only be offered by a wearable.
Compiling a list of smart watch care-abouts yields:
- Time – need to replace a basic time telling watch
- Customizable watch face – need to replace the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of basic time telling watches
- Physically attractive – if I am going to wear it every day, it cannot look like a toy
- Comfortable – if I am going to wear it every day and sleep with it on, it cannot hurt or bother me
- Water resistant – to survive washing dishes, hands, weather. Ideally IPx7 or greater
- Rich smartphone notifications – keep track of what is happening even if the smartphone is not directly available, such as across the room or in a purse. Optionally dismiss or respond. All notifications should arrive to prevent missing some by relying on the smart watch
- Voice assistant – quick answers like what is the weather or when is the Cowboys' game
- Alarm clock – vibrate function to avoid waking up a partner
- Calendar – easily display my next meeting details such as where it is located
- Messaging – easily send quick messages and replies with SMS or other apps such as Facebook messenger
- Tasks and Reminders – create Exchange / Google tasks by voice and reminders
Nearly all of the actual features of a smart watch come directly from smartphone use cases. The difference is they are slightly tweaked toward the wrist-worn use case. When using a smart watch, the main benefit is getting things done even quicker than with a smartphone. It only takes a moment to rotate your wrist and say “OK Google, Wake me up at 7am” versus finding wherever your phone is, activate it (if no passive listening exists), say the same thing, and put it down somewhere safe. It is amazing to think that shaving these seconds off each interaction can have value, but when you add up each time you touch your smartphone every day it does quickly add up.
However, as many point out, these devices lack the killer app. There isn’t much they can do that your smartphone cannot. The vibrate alarm is one example, but there has to be more. Apple examined some ideas during their Apple Watch keynote such as pairing multiple watches. Taps on a watch sends a corresponding taps to others – useful for spy movies and tense corporate meetings. Until a smart watch specific killer app releases, AnandTech will evaluate the execution quality of the essentials listed above.
Fitness and smart watches were the clearest targets for wearables in 2014, however there are a variety of other wearable technology targets such as personal trainers, hair pieces, eye pieces (Google Glass), and clothing that will be interesting as they mature in the future.