Last year at CES 2013, there was hype about wearables that didn’t quite deliver. While multiple companies did show off plans and prototypes, there were precious few ready to actually ship a product. Through the rest of the year, we saw those wearables and more trickle out slowly with varying purposes, designs and degrees of success. Jump ahead to CES 2014, and dozens of new entrants were ready to enter the wearables space. We saw some compelling products here and there, but it didn’t seem like anyone made a tremendous leap forward. Many were simply iterating on the fit and finish of their existing product or making clones of products already on the market. The main takeaway from the wearables at CES, for me, was that this space is still in its very early days. With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at what we have seen over the last year in wearables and highlight some of the best ideas and speculate a bit on where things might be headed.
Notification or Quantification?
There are two primary categories that have been carved out thus far. We have the smartwatches on the side of notifications that are, for the most part, seeking to push information to your wrist to save you time and in situations when you otherwise might not have access to your smartphone, due to social or physical limitations. The other side of the coin holds the fitness trackers in either bracelet or clip-on form, which offer a quantification of your daily (and in some cases nightly) activities. The waters have started to muddy here already, as we have seen devices from both sides crossing over to some degree. While the pure fitness trackers are unlikely to disappear completely, I expect this cross pollination to continue; smartwatches are capable of handling both tasks with minimal alterations. And once you have committed to wearing a device on your wrist, why compromise on the feature set? My preference lies with the notification side of this equation. I think those devices are in a better position to usurp the functionality of the quantification side, so smartwatches have the edge in the short and the long run in my mind.
The five main players here are LED, e-paper, Mirasol, OLED and LCD. I suppose the sixth player is no display at all; a number of the fitness trackers go without. But referring back to the previous section, I don’t think foregoing a display is a viable strategy.
While an LED display is limited in its capabilities, it still allows for the delivery of some glanceable information. Again, if you’ve accepted the premise that you are going to be constantly wearing a device on your wrist, why not leverage it for more than glorified pedometer duty?
E-paper has established something of a foothold in the smartwatch market due to its battery savings, always on screen and daylight visibility. The downside of e-paper is that, while the refresh rate is improving, it still falls short of some of the other options out there.
My current king of the hill after CES remains Mirasol. It offers all of the benefits of e-paper with greater speed and the ability to render color.
The newest competition on the block is OLED. It’s difficult to say how it will hold up in practical use, however. In some ways it is striking a middle ground between e-paper and Mirasol, but my initial impression is that it isn’t quite as crisp as either. And on such a small screen, that is a significant drawback.
Finally there is LCD, which offers full color and likely the widest range of possible functionality. But it is a fundamentally flawed option for wearables, in my opinion, as the battery life compromise necessitates daily charging of your device. While Qualcomm’s Toq remains the lone option for a Mirasol screened wearable today, I hope it sees greater adoption going forward. It seems a proper pairing for wearables.
Touchscreen or hardware controls?
I live in the northern portion of the US and can see the value in having controls that work equally well with and without gloved hands. That said I think a mobile device without a touchscreen today just feels antiquated. We are accustomed to having that direct interaction with our information, and purely hardware buttons feel like a step back. I can see an argument for something like we see in smartphones now, with a limited set of hardware controls in addition to the touchscreen. Toq, for example, has areas above and below the frame that power on the backlight and take you to the homescreen, respectively.
Battery life and charging
Battery life is a simple matter; more is better. We all (well most of us) have come to accept that our smartphone needs to be charged daily. If you are a tablet user, it is more likely a once every two days affair. With wearables you are talking about something that is both less critical than your smartphone and is most useful when it is on your person at all times. This necessitates days of battery life at a minimum. The best-in-class are currently offering roughly a week on a charge, and that feels right.
The second piece of this equation is the charging mechanism itself. There is no standard here yet. Magnetic chargers, separate charging apparatus, microUSB with protective covers and wireless charging are all in play. My sincere hope is that this is finally the moment and category for wireless charging to catch on. Being able to simply drop your device onto a recharging plate without fumbling with anything extra is a fantastic experience and allows for seamless hardware.
What about glasses?
Frankly, while wearables in general are in early days, the glasses are in their gestational period. There are far too many pieces that need to fall into place for them to be worth consideration. They are currently still throwing every possible function at the wall to see what sticks. Even assuming the issue of functionality is resolved, the privacy concerns and “what the heck is that on your face?” problems remain. Glasses may well find their way in the future, but in the near term wearables will be defined by wrist-based devices.
So where do things go from here with wearables? Well, most of the devices we saw at CES won’t actually launch until well into 2014, so we’ve already seen the immediate future. As I said at the outset, I saw nothing at CES that, from a hardware perspective, eclipsed the Toq. The Toq isn’t perfect, but it still checks the most boxes for me as a wearable device. There’s little doubt that other major players will join the market this year, but regardless of their success in other categories almost none of them have a history with wearables that suggests they can knock it out of the park. I’ve outlined what I think the future of wearables should be from a hardware perspective, but the software side is likely the tougher nut to crack. I wish I had the magic solution to that one, as I suspect whoever does will be enriched greatly over the next several years. In my mind it will remain a companion notification device with some limited standalone functionality such as what is offered by current fitness trackers. But perhaps we haven’t seen the true breadth of functionality that a wearable can offer. I look forward to covering this segment of the market in the years that follow.
“Sponsored by Qualcomm(R) Toq(TM) — The smartwatch that’s always on, active and visible in any light.