With Android Wear devices beginning to land on people's wrists, and the Apple Watch just around the corner, we've been looking at what's coming next...
If you’ve been keeping an eye on the tech scene for the last 18 months, you’ll know that wearables are big news. Every major manufacturer is now in on the act, each brandishing smartwatches and bands that track your life, show you notifications and help take some of the strain off your phone.
2015 looks set to be the year that smart wearables really come into their own, so we’ve been speaking to Vodafone UK’s innovation guru, Patrick Harrison-Harvey, about where they’re headed, and exactly why technology is about to leave your pocket and land firmly on your body…
A new breed
“I’ve been trying the Moto 360 out for a while,” says Patrick, pointing to the shiny metallic disc on his wrist, “and I think it’s the first really credible smartwatch experience. Earlier Android ones that didn’t run on Google’s Android Wear platform didn’t do it for me.” So what’s different this time round? “Just the way it works, and the fact that it’s a lot more open, means you can start to customise it because developers can add features. And every week there are new phone apps that work better with Android Wear.”
Android Wear is Google’s smartwatch operating system, and its launch has sparked a new wave of smarter, sleeker smartwatches that do more by streamlining the experience into bite-sized chunks:
“I think it’s the future,” says Patrick. “And in terms of change coming up, I’m quite excited to see what Android Lollipop brings to the platform. There’s a developer community there, and it means you don’t have to build a bespoke app – it’s just about how the watch interprets what’s already on your phone.
“LG has done two watches now, Moto has done one, Samsung has its first watch running on Android Wear too, but I think this only round one proper. The Moto 360 I’ve been using is a really good product, but I think there’s more to come yet. I’ve seen round two,” adds Patrick, “along with the upcoming Apple Watch, and I think they’re getting ever closer to what smartwatches need to be, which are fashion items, rather than just computers on your wrist.
“Bite-size information is needed, along with better voice interaction,” he adds. “You don’t want to interact with a screen that small just with touch control – you just want little bits of information that are relevant to you. Getting all of your alerts to it, and being able to control your music more smartly, is great.”
Going beyond the wrist
So that’s the state of smartwatches now, but what about the wearable scene next year, the year after, and five years further on from that?
“When there are more watches out there, the developer community will be able to get really riled up and into gear,” says Patrick. “And it’s the imagination from that community that will make or break these devices.
“Watches are just one part of the overall story…They’re one part of the ‘internet of things’ ecosystem…”
“Watches are just one part of the overall story, though. They’re one part of the ‘internet of things’ ecosystem – the connected lifestyle that we’re moving towards. There’s a lot of competition in that area; no one’s cracked it yet, so it’s a bit of an arms race at the moment. There are lots of watches, but what’s the next type of device? There are portable devices out there that have lots of different wireless protocols, but maybe what they’re missing is that mobile-on-the-move factor.
“If you look at smart cameras, for instance, Samsung has made SIM-embedded cameras, but what about the extreme sports action video camera market led by GoPro? HTC is entering that space, and we could soon see SIMs in those devices too, so you can upload stuff straight to your social networks wherever you are over 4G. I can see it coming.”
That’s definitely a cool idea, but based on tech demos he’s seen, Patrick believes that things are about to get a lot smarter than just watches and cameras. And a lot more personal, to boot…
“The other stuff that will come through in terms of innovation in wearables will be sensors,” he says. “There are more and more sophisticated sensors coming to detect different things like sweat on your skin, or your heart rate, or muscle movement. Our devices will be able to use those things to detect emotions.”
“They’ll be smaller and more focussed, so you might be wearing a ring that can detect movement in your thumb, for example. And it will understand that differently from raising your whole hand.” So if you can detect that, what do you do with it? “There’s all sort of ‘controlled’ tech out there,” he explains.
“I’ve got a Smart TV at home with gesture control that’s more frustrating than usable, but if you have a level of accuracy that comes from a hardwired sensor that you wear on your wrist, as a skin patch, or even in your clothing, then you could customise a whole set of really subtle commands, like pointing to change the channel.
“I’ve seen that in practice,” he says, “and it does work. And it will take the wearable concept and put it on a completely different track.”
What’s the next step for smartphones? For more about the future of mobile tech, check out our talk with Patrick about how our phone screens are about to flex, bend and fold here.