Wristband Computing: iWatch an Accessory or the Next Big Thing?

Summary:Recent speculation of Apple releasing an "iWatch" sometime in the near future has many industry watchers closely observing Cupertino's activities. Will wearable computing devices finally become commonplace, and are there actual use cases?

Behold, the iWatch.

Well, at least that's what a lot of people are currently calling it. It's rumored that Apple has 100 engineers working on the product , so therefore, it must exist, right?

My colleague Adrian Kingsley-Hughes wrote an excellent post yesterday  about what Apple must do to keep an iWatch "real" and not a fantasy.

I'm not going to speculate on when this iWatch is going to be released, nor will I try to figure out what the thing might cost or even look like.

However, I think it is reasonable to assume that such a device is under development, and that there are certain features and design principles in an "iWatch" or a Wrist Computer that are inherently desirable and make the most sense.

Wearable computing is not a new concept. Aside from voice recognition and AI, it's been sort of the holy grail of the evolution of human interaction with computing devices, going back at least since the late 1980s. Up until recently, wearables have been very much vertical market and highly specialized products, used by the military for things like aircraft maintenance, combat awareness and also to some extent in the medical industry.

Companies such as Xybernaut attempted to commercially market wearable computers back in the late 1990's, combining wrist mounted input devices along with head-mounted eye displays and external, portable CPUs.

These early wearable computer configurations were extremely bulky and obviously very expensive for the time, and the company eventually filed for Chapter 11. 

However, with the advancements on Systems on a Chip (SoCs) used in modern smartphones and tablets, which have allowed for considerable minuaturization and cost reduction of mobile devices, wearable computing is again gaining renewed interest.

The first product that has gotten attention is Google's Project Glass, which is an augmented-reality display unit that is worn like eyeglasses and contains various sensors and runs on the company's Android OS.  

At the moment, Project Glass is a "Developer" platform and will begin shipping in 2013 in extremely limited amounts, at $1500 per device. A consumer version is expected in 2014, although no price has been set.

Augmented Reality glasses obviously would have a lot of potential applications, but it remains to be seen whether or not they would be adopted widely due to social constraints/objections and also initial pricing issues.

I think it is realistic to assume that using economies of scale, something like a Project Glass could be lowered to $1000 or $500 per unit, but that would still be out of the range of most consumers and probably would be used initially for vertical types of stuff, although in much larger deployments of wearable computers that we have seen previously.

Now, a wristband computer, that's another matter entirely.

Personally, I see the wristband device as an accessory to an existing mobile computing device, such as a smartphone or a phablet. Because of its size, there would be a lot of constraints on what you could do with it, however there would still be a wide array of potential applications and there would be fewer social boundaries to using them as opposed to an Augmented Reality device like Glass.

First, I don't see this as a standalone device in and of itself. It's too small to have enough storage for applications and data, and you couldn't put a very powerful SoC or a high-resolution color display on it, because it wouldn't be very battery-efficient.

This is the kind of device where battery life would have to be measured in days to be practical, and I would also assume that the charging mechanism for this type of product would be wireless as well, through magnetic induction such as the 5W Qi standard.

I see something like this running on a low-power microcontroller (such as a chip that uses an ARM Cortex-M reference design) similar to what runs inexpensive E Ink based book reader devices like the Kindle and the NOOK, with a very simple, small touchscreen display.

The wristband could possibly even have an E Ink-based display itself so that it could be viewed in bright light outdoors and use a low-power, short-range implementation of Bluetooth as its primary communications link, with very limited memory and storage.

This device would have perhaps as little as 256MB-1GB of internal storage, 64MB-128MB of memory, and a CPU clocking as slow as 100Mhz if not considerably less. And as Adrian said in his piece, it has to cost $200 or less for widespread adoption.

There are things that I think are natural for a wristband device to have. First, a pedometer/accelerometer and also the ability to take the pulse of the wearer, as well as a gyroscopic sensor, so that any number of fitness and health applications could be developed.

A device like this would take the place of dedicated products like the Fitbit, and be capable of much, much more.

Rather than being an being an autonomous computer in and of itself, I see the Wristband as being a remote display and interaction unit for applications running on a smartphone. These would not be running scaled down smartphone apps per se, but more along the lines of a remote "telemetry" display, and Wristband-optimized remote control UIs.

These "telemetry" apps would be presenting the same kind of information density that say, Windows 8's and Windows Phone's Live Tiles do today. Or even something like the widgets in Android.

Pebble, a startup company is offering "Smart Watches" for pre-order at $150.00 each that run these same kind of simple informational apps. The Bluetooth-enabled smart watch that can interface with Android and iOS devices is avaliable for delivery in April/May of this year.

Like the Pebble, the Wristband would be a Thin Client of sorts, using various API's to talk to the smartphone apps over a Bluetooth connection. This could include things like the notification system, an email reader, stock tickers, or a music playlist and even things like maps and directions, or "local awareness" sort of things for restaurants and shopping.

Certainly I think the use cases are here for a Wristband or even a Project Glass-sort of thing, particularly among the fitness and active/outdoor lifestyle folks. But whether it will gain the sort of traction that smartphones or even tablets have gotten is a big question mark, considering that many people have discarded their watches in favor of simply carrying a smartphone to tell the time.

Will wearable computing devices finally become commonplace? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Mobile OS, Apple, Emerging Tech, Google, Smartphones


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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