Why Apple’s wearable technology will be personal technology

Marco Tabini
8 April, 2014
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There is no shortage of signs that wearable technology is the next big thing in the world of personal electronics. Tech giants like Samsung and Google have already made heavy investments and are rushing all sorts of products to the market. Indeed, given that Pebble – a pioneer in this space – has reportedly sold 400,000 units of its smartwatch, it’s clear that the time of wearable tech is upon us.

Still, one tech giant has, so far, sat out this trend. Despite the frenzied doomsday predictions from analysts, Apple hasn’t made any noise about a new device in this space. CEO Tim Cook has repeatedly indicated that, while Apple is interested in the market, it’s nowhere mature enough for the company to wade in – yet.

The wearable conundrum

As someone who has had to wear spectacles for his entire life without managing to look cool for even one day, it’s hard for me to fault Cook’s point of view – and not just because Pebble’s sale numbers, while impressive, are a mere fraction of the tens or hundreds of millions of units that Apple products typically sell.

The main problem is that the products that have made it to market are, essentially, engineered backwards. Glasses are something we are all familiar with; it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination, however groundbreaking the technology, to simply strap a camera and computer to them. Ditto for adding a Bluetooth connection to the wristwatch, a device that has been part of humankind’s apparel for hundreds of years.

google glass

Devices like Google Glass barely scratch the surface of what wearable technology can do – and, in a sense, limit our ability to envision what the future will bring.

When you look at it this way, the wearable devices market is eerily similar to the smartphone market, circa 2007. The technology to create a product that is truly revolutionary is more or less all here; it just hasn’t been put together the right way yet – and that’s something that Apple excels at.

Gear with a purpose

When Apple introduced the iPhone, the folks from Cupertino made the striking the decision to do away with a hardware keyboard altogether. They realised that screen real estate was all-important in a device that was meant to fit in your pocket; getting rid of it meant overcoming the really hard task of making an on-screen keyboard that would work well, but the result was well worth the effort.

When it comes to wearable devices, the likely target of Apple’s innovation is in the realm of sensors that will allow the company to record vital information about its users, like their blood pressure, oxygenation levels, glucose concentration and so on.

nike fuelband

Even though it is a niche product, Nike's fuelband is a good example of wearable technology that has a clear purpose and is relatively unobtrusive.

These types of sensors are already available on the market, but they are generally cumbersome or intrusive. If they were instead built into a device that fits unobtrusively on a person’s body, they could potentially revolutionise the entire world of personal medicine. Even just being able to measure the user’s blood pressure throughout the day could provide early warning of many common diseases, potentially saving thousands of lives (and millions of dollars) by providing doctors with a more complete picture of a person’s health

Command and control

On a more mundane level, wearable tech could improve our lives merely by being attached to our bodies. For example, a wearable device could very easily double as a TV remote, thus saving you from having to keep track of where your actual TV remote is, or whether its batteries are charged.

passbook thum 100004488 large

Despite some cool applications, Passbook still has to come of age – possibly by becoming the central hub of Apple's wearable device strategy.

Or, perhaps, the technology behind Passbook could be extended to allow your wearable tech to identify you, making it easier to unlock your doors, pay for your groceries, turn on your car or get through security at work. Unlike a smartphone, a wearable device is always at hand (or maybe at your fingertips) no matter where you go, making these kinds of interaction much more organic and convenient.

In all these cases, Apple’s huge advantage is its complete control over the iOS platform. Like Android, iOS is in the hands of hundreds of millions of people. Unlike Android, however, it’s tightly controlled by a single entity that has, so far, only allowed limited fragmentation of its ecosystem, and it also tends to find its way into the hands of users that actively engage with everything it has to offer.

This places the company in the unique position of being able to offer manufacturers of sensors and other personal-tech devices a common platform on which they are forced to make their products work well with one another – a major problem in today’s market – in exchange for access to a community of eager users that like to invest in their electronics.

Much as it has done with CarPlay, Apple could leverage its market position to make its wearable device interact with a wide range of external systems, from TV sets to security systems, and dramatically improve the quality of our lives by removing all sorts of inconveniences.

Let form follow function

Far from the doom-and-gloom scenarios painted by industry analysts who claim that Apple must introduce an ‘iWatch’ before competitors eat its corporate lunch, the future of wearable technologies is still entirely up for grabs.

This makes the current batch of watches and glasses little more than a distraction; by focusing on form, rather than function, they limit our ability to envision the kind of changes that the wearable-tech equivalent of an iPhone could bring.

Nobody but Apple knows what the company’s wearable device will look like; it may well wrap around your wrist, or possibly around your finger, or perhaps take some other form that makes it less visible and yet equally functional. Either way, I can’t wait to find out what this new technology will do for us, whatever its form.

by Marco Tabini, Macworld

2 Comments

2 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Kartik says:

    Clearly Mr. Tabini has not done enough research on this topic. And he contradicts himself a number of times. For example, he has entirely missed the point about Android Wear. Android wear is an always available extension of all your devices. You can use it as a remote to control virtually all your devices, just by voice or touch. This is not a simple addition of a Bluetooth chip to a watch.

    Neither is Google Glass just a camera and computer slapped on to your glass. If he had really taken the time to research Wear and Glass, he would have realized the possibilities it brings. For example, I closely work with traffic data, and driver behavior. The difference that one single unit of Glass made to our research efforts is phenomenal. Recording driver head movements is so much more convenient, and unobtrusive. Moreover, we can actually push information about the distance to the forward vehicle, speed, etc. directly to the driver’s eye, without having to make the driver look away from the windshield. Ironically, this is exactly what the hyped CarPlay does. I am sorry to say this, but CarPlay in its current form can be called CarCrash, as it is nothing but a distraction.
    To illustrate, speaking to a device in your vehicle, and hoping that it has understood you costs valuable brain power. Under a critical situation, it can be a fatal distraction. Unlike Glass, which gives the driver information right where he is looking, and whatever he speaks gets converted to text right in front of his eyes, where he can see it. Meaning, less distraction.

    Secondly, Apple is a closed ecosystem, and as such has to rely on external services to do the work for it. Although it is getting better, it is nowhere close to the integration offered by Glass and an Android device. Google Now helps tremendously in this regard, as the most critical information is just one touch of Glass or voice command away, including direction service. Which is something that Apple can never offer, as it has to rely on third party software for searching, indexing and after the user selects the destination, routing.

    Google hopes to bring this convenience into watches and other wearable devices. And again, like the open system Android is, what devices will sport Wear is everyone’s imagination, not a bunch of people in Cupertino. This is again something that Apple will never be able to achieve.

    Thirdly, if you really believe that a watch can accurately measure body stats, you could not be more mistaken. How tight do you wear your watch? As tight as you have to hold your wrist to measure a pulse that is mostly beneath a ligament? Or even tighter perhaps to measure your blood pressure? The most you can get from it would be body temperature, but you cannot do much with that.

    Here again Android Wear triumphs. Just the fact that it is not limited by a group of people’s imagination means that it can do so much more. One needs to only look at the Wear introduction video to know that just by using an accelerometer and an intuitive app, the device can guess, and thus react in affable manner to the wearer’s actions. Just by knowing that the person is dancing, the song identifying software is invoked; running, similarly calls a fitness app; and so on, the possibilities are endless.
    And, of course you probably have no idea about Google’s georeferencing abilities. I can instruct my Android device to remind me to do something just by location. For example, “Remind me to take out the trash when I’m at home” is a perfectly sane and understandable command to my device. And when I reach my house, it will automatically trigger the reminder notification system. So imagine that it will open my garage automatically when I near my house, switch on the lights, and the music system. Which is probably the only thing that Apple can compete on an even footing.

    Lastly, the devices that Mr. Tabini touts as being integrated into Apple’s wearable tech, like blood pressure monitoring, etc. are clearly what he refers to as “backwards engineering” and “focusing on form, rather than function”. Which is where I see the irony in his write-up. Because, honestly, unless you suffer from blood pressure and heart problems, how frequently do you need to monitor them? What is the function that I get when I pay dollars to buy a blood pressure monitor built into my watch? And how does this forward engineer a new technology or use or device? Anyway, the bottom line remains that most users are not going to tie their watches tightly enough to accurately measure blood pressure and pulse rate (which is why serious body monitoring devices have a strap that goes around your chest).

    I conclude with the observation that this article was written by a brand fanatic. An iSheep, blind to the rest of the world (or at least lazy enough to not look thoroughly enough at the rest of the world). And Apple saying that the market is not mature enough is utter nonsense. The one that is not ready is Apple itself. Comparing sales of a 7 year old device to Pebble, just a few months old is also equally nonsense. If anyone here really wants to gauge people’s interest, and thus market maturity for these kinds of technologies, must take time to actually sift through user comments and opinions on reviews, videos, photos, etc. The level of demand and maturity of the market will then become apparent.

  2. udi . says:

    I hardly think Apple is the only company that can pull off something new in the wearable tech arena. Other companies have started and there is already a lot of promise in their offerings. I do agree that Apple is in no danger of being left out of the market. They are a big company with plenty of resources and they have a good track record of waiting for others’ ideas to mature a little before marketing their own polished product.

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