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VentureBeat got an exclusive early look at Samsung’s upcoming smartwatch, the Galaxy Gear, over the weekend.
It’s a chunky, ugly block of a thing, even accounting for the fact that the model we saw (and got photos of) is just a prototype, as VentureBeat reporter Christina Farr reported.
But even in its unfinished state, Samsung’s Galaxy Gear tells us a lot about where the emerging smartwatch industry is going. Here are five conclusions we can already draw about smartwatches and wearable tech.
Smartwatches are big devices
According to our source as well as other publications, the prototype is not far from what the real thing will look like. It probably won’t have exposed screws on the front: That’s an unfinished-looking detail that might make sense on a Casio G-Shock watch, but this doesn’t fit in with Samsung’s overall approach to gadget design. It may have different colors and a different skin; it may even have a slightly different shape.
But the basics will likely be just as we reported: a 3-inch-diagonal slab on top of your wrist, with a 2.5-inch OLED screen embedded in it. It will have a camera (4 megapixels), accelerometers, Android apps, and both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for connecting to the Internet and to your phone.
And thanks to recent court decisions, the face of the watch will probably be a rounded rectangle.
Reports on battery life differ: Our source told us it would last about 10 hours, but others are saying 24 hours of normal use and just 10 hours when under heavy use. We’ll have to wait until we have our hands on a production model and can fully test it to know for sure.
It’s not clear who wants to wear a giant, 3-inch chunk of metal and plastic on their wrist. People with skinny wrists, not so much.
That’s why many people have their hopes pinned on Apple’s upcoming news conference on Sept. 10, where they hope to see the Cupertino iPhone maker unveil its own smartwatch. Presumably Apple, even in the faded-glory Tim Cook days, would never embarrass itself by shipping something so huge and blocky as Samsung’s Galaxy Gear.
But even Apple will be limited by physics to a certain extent. As it discovered with its now-defunct square iPod Nano, the smallest you can conceivably make a touchscreen is about two inches square — and even that is a little too small to be usable. But a two-inch-square screen is still going to make for a rather bulky watch, by wristwatch standards.
Wearable tech is fitness-focused
One thing is clear: Samsung is making fitness and health tracking a big part of its push into wearable technology.
It’s a smart choice, since fitness is the route through which wearables have entered the market most successfully so far. To the extent that people are “wearing” technology, it’s been through fitness-tracking bracelets like Nike’s Fuelband, not geek-chic eyewear like Google Glass.
Nike’s Fuelbands are everywhere. Competitors, including the Fitbit Flex and the Jawbone Up, have sprouted up. The Basis watch is closer to a modern smartwatch in that it has a full-blown display.
But while they have their fans, more generic “smartwatches” like the Pebble haven’t taken off to the same extent. The Pebble enhances your experience of using a phone, but it’s not a fitness device.
Samsung’s focus on fitness stands in contrast to Sony, which has its own Android SmartWatch product (which almost no one is using, as far as I know — I’ve never seen one in the wild). Sony’s product does offer fitness apps, but it’s primarily a notification device that enhances your phone by giving you a miniature display that can alert you to incoming calls and texts, help you place calls, etc.
It turns out that people are more willing to put something on their wrist if it helps them achieve fitness goals than if it simply helps them use their smartphones.
Wearable tech is on the wrist
There’s another approach to getting people to wear technology: Embed it into something like your eyeglasses, giving you an omnipresent heads-up display.
But while Google Glass has provoked a lot of excited experimentation and speculation, it has also provoked an equally excited backlash. And “smart glasses” are far less ubiquitous than fitness bands.
The reason for that is clear: Putting something on your wrist is a smaller commitment than putting something on your head.
At a conference earlier this year, Cook made some guardedly positive comments about Google Glass.
But he said, “From a mainstream point of view, this [pointing at his head] is difficult.”
Some day, we may all be wearing heads-up displays that enable us to discreetly Google people as we meet them. But for now, the technology is simply too intrusive-looking and too odd to pass muster with the mainstream — no matter how many Vogue fashion features Google Glass appears in.
In the near term, the wrist is where it’s at for wearables.
Thanks to Samsung and the anticipated entrance of Apple into the smartwatch market, Juniper Research recently estimated that smartwatch sales would jump from 1 million units this year to 36 million in 2018. That’s a typical wild-eyed analyst guess, but it does give some sense of the potential for growth in this market.
Wearables will reshape the health industry
Wrist-mounted computers or smartwatches will eventually prove to be an enormous boon for the health industry, because of their potential to help individuals collect data on their physical activity, motivate them to exercise more, and provide health care companies with real, personal data.
Today, smartwatches and fitness bands can track physical activity through the most basic metrics, such as steps. With more sophisticated accelerometers and algorithms, the Fuelband can make a guess at what kind of activity you’re actually doing. Some devices, like the Basis watch, track heart rate.
Future sensors could enable smartwatches to track things like your blood oxygenation level, muscle activation, posture, and more. In some cases, these may require additional sensors located on other parts of your body: an oxygenation sensor on the tip of your toe, a posture sensor taped to your back, and so forth.
“I envision the iWatch as a sensor network,” Tan Rao, the founder of a wearables startup called Sensing Strip, told VentureBeat recently while speculating about a future Apple smartwatch. “The master sensor will likely be located on the wrist.”
Privacy, of course, becomes a huge issue when devices are gathering such intimate data on what your body is doing. The data becomes valuable for diagnosis, prevention, and fitness when you can share it with your doctor and your personal trainer — but you want to make sure it doesn’t get used to deny you a job, turn you down for medical coverage, or get posted to public networks without your permission.
“No one has created standards around that; no one is digging deep on the privacy side,” said Missy Krasner, an executive in residence at Morgenthaler Ventures, in the same VentureBeat article.
Wearables will need data standards
Finally, with so many competitors in the wearables sector, we need ways to connect them to one another. It’s an issue we already face with the proliferation of fitness apps: I can use RunKeeper on my iPhone, Android phone, or via a web page, but I can’t get RunKeeper’s data to sync with MapMyFitness.
Similarly, if I’m using a Nike Fuelband, I can’t get its obnoxiously proprietary “Fuel” points to translate into data that is usable by other fitness-tracking apps.
After Samsung releases a smartwatch, there will be one more player on the market providing a device that generates data. Is it too much to hope that this data will be easy to integrate into other fitness applications?
The fact that Samsung’s Galaxy Gear is Android-based suggests that interoperability might, in fact, be on its way.
But don’t hold your breath for Apple’s iWatch, if it appears next week, to interoperate with data from the Galaxy Gear — or vice versa.
What this industry needs, if it’s going to grow beyond a few niche products for enthusiasts, is some way to collect all this data, integrate it, and share it — securely, while respecting the privacy preferences of each individual — and feed it into larger health care and fitness-management programs.
Note: A version of this post appeared earlier on LinkedIn Today, where I’m one of 300 “LinkedIn Influencers.” Join the discussion and follow me there!