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December 3rd, 2014

How The Future Of Smartwatches Is More Than Just A Phone On Your Wrist

The confluence of health and technology could bring us the transcendent smartwatch.

The race to smartwatch gold is on.

Smartwatches are the it fad of 2014. Samsung started the hype cycle by announcing several smartwatches running the Tizen operating system at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February. Google ramped up the speculation of about a flood of smartwatches in March with the announcement of the first design principles of Android Wear. In June, Google delivered on its promise with Samsung and LG delivering the first Wear watches and Motorola would later present the Moto 360 to eager smartwatch buyers.

Apple then did what it does best in September: lather the entire world into a foaming, rabid froth with the announcement of the Apple Watch. Granted, the Apple Watch has no set release date and the software to build apps for it is less than a month old, but already analysts are predicting that Apple will sell 24 million smartwatches in 2015.

See also: How To Design Apps For The Apple Watch

Guffaw all you want, but the smartwatch is now a permanent fixture in the consumer electronics industry. Given its preeminence in the news cycle, a person could be forgiven if they thought that all smartwatches were all perfect devices that every gadget-loving technophile should rush out and buy right away.

Of course, that is not the case.

Smartwatches—and wearables in general—are an extremely young product category. To date, wrist-based wearables tend to fall into one of two product categories: notification-based watches or fitness trackers. The fitness trackers have a head start on the watches and have a clearer purpose for consumers. Notification-based watches tend to fall into the category of smartphone accessory, mimicking the capabilities of a smartphone without providing a clear use case (or even much fashion sense).

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Where does the line between health/fitness and smartphone meet for the smartwatch? The Apple Watch will take a good stab at that question when it is released in early 2015. But the Apple Watch is really a complicated watch that—more or less—looks like a way for Apple to sell more iPhones. The Apple Watch has all the normal smartphone-based sensors for health such as a heart rate sensor and pedometer and is tied to the Apple Health app that aggregates fitness data. In terms of the basic mobile approach (sensors tied to cellular services and the cloud), the Apple Watch is not yet the revolutionary watch, fitness tracker, communication device we are looking for.

Research Towards More Useful Health Trackers

samsung_simband_sensors

In November, Samsung announced a new device called the Simband. The Simband is a modular watch band with a variety of replaceable sensors from Samsung that is intended for researchers trying to make wearable tech more thorough and functional. Simband is essentially a reference design for the future of smartwatches and health tracking.

In combination with Simband, Samsung has software for writing new algorithms of health related data and a cloud-based health data exchange called SAMI. Samsung calls this package of research and reference material Voice Of The Body.

“Voice of the body is different than anything else in the industry today. It is not a commercial product,” said Ram Fish, VP of mHealth at Samsung at the company’s developer conference in November. “One of the key aspects within Simband is its modularity. The idea was to build Simband using the entire band.”

Researchers can use the Simband to use a variety of sensors designed to penetrate the mysteries of the body through technological and software-based means. The modular nature of Simband means that researchers can build sensors and place them in the band to track a variety of body-related data.

Examples of sensor technology that the Simband can use include not just standard infrared but red, green, blue, yellow and green LED sensors to allow for multiple layers of infiltration of light. In addition to the multi-colored LEDs, the Simband can employ electric, acoustic and optical sensors to track health information.

An example of what researchers can do with Simband is below, a sensor module implementation that Samsung calls Simsense.

samsung_simsense

The sensors on the Simsense module include:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) for recording the electrical activity of the heart.
  • Bio-Impedance (Bio-Z) sensor which is a method for estimating body composition, especially body fat.
  • Photoplethysmogram (PPG) is a volumetric measure of an organ obtained by using a pulse oximeter that illuminates skin and measures change in light absorption.
  • Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) used to measure the electrical conductance of skin through sweat.
  • Accelerometer is a standard sensor found in many smartphones which measures tilt and motion.
  • Thermometer measures skin temperature.

In health science, these sensors are fairly standard in hospitals and clinics. In the world of wearable technology, these type of sensors are brand new and offer a world of possibilities for the confluence of health and technology available to researchers, medical providers and even everyday consumers.

Researchers at Voice Of The Body hope that new techniques can be created for health tracking that are more efficient and personal than ever before. The holy grail, one Simband researcher said, was to create a non-invasive technique for measuring blood/sugar levels to help treat diabetes patients.

Samsung’s Role In The Future Of Smartwatches

Samsung is not a company that is often known for its research prowess or altruistic endeavors. This is the same company that staged a Broadway show at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan for the announcement of its Galaxy S4 flagship smartphone. It is surprising to see such a rational, open source approach to improving wearable technology from a company like Samsung that releases new products to the market every other month to see what sticks.

simband_sensors

What is undeniable is that Samsung is pushing the smartwatch into the popular marketplace. So far, Samsung has released two Android Wear smartwatches, three Tizen-based smartwatches and a fitness tracker band (that also runs on Tizen) since autumn 2013. Apple has yet to make a dent in the smartwatch market and other manufacturers have released one or two smartwatches. Pebble—the independent smartwatch startup—may be able to stake claim to the first popular smartwatch among early adopters, but the wearable trend is just starting to reach the mainstream consumer.

The multi-device approach is the same that Samsung took with the smartphone business, starting with its Galaxy line of Android devices starting in 2010. As yet, Samsung has not seen the same type of success in pushing smartwatches to consumers as smartphones. What Samsung is doing is setting the bar for functionality high enough that it can drag the rest of the industry up with it. For instance, the Gear S is a large, pretty device that has its own SIM card and can basically function just like a smartphone on your wrist (it is, granted, a severely flawed device as well running Tizen instead of Android).

The future of wearables is being decided now. The question becomes whether or not the likes of Samsung, Apple, Google, LG, Pebble, Qualcomm and Motorola can get passed the idea of the smartwatch as a crippled smartphone on the wrist. Samsung’s Simband is a good example of a line of thought that can help make smartwatches truly useful and transcendent devices.