What the future of Apple’s wearable devices could look like

The next iPod (s aapl) you buy could wrap around your wrist and be Siri-controlled through speech commands, according to a New York Times report (s nyt) on Sunday. That’s because Apple is actively prototyping wearable computing devices, sources told the newspaper, in an effort to stay on top of this emerging tech trend.

Besides the description of a “curved-glass,” wrist-top iPod with Siri controls, the NYT‘s report is light on specifics, saying mostly a “small” team within Apple is tasked with dreaming up and prototyping wearable computing devices. But forming a picture of what Apple could do with wearable tech, based on the examples of other early pioneers in the space, Apple’s own patent applications, and recent changes in the tech it uses in its mobile devices.

Plan for the PAN

Apple will almost certainly try to exploit the onboard connectivity technology of its mobile devices to make users and their gear walking personal area networks of real-time feedback and communication. It took another definite step in that direction with the addition of Bluetooth 4.0 to the iPhone 4S, MacBook Air and Mac mini, and its recent efforts to promote the low-power, low-latency Bluetooth tech among iPhone, iPad and iPod accessory makers.

Bluetooth 4.0 is key to Apple’s wearable device strategy, because it could potentially allow wearable devices to talk to a central command device, in all likelihood an iPhone or iPad, without taxing battery life to the point where using it entails more pain than gain. If it’s promoting the tech heavily to outside developers, you can bet it’s betting on it internally, too.

Keep your smartphone close, but your data closer

Existing wearable computing devices hint at what could be on the horizon from Apple, albeit probably in a much more roughshod form than Apple would ever ship. Devices like the Meta Watch and inPulse smartwatch already deliver wrist-based notifications of messages, calls, emails and more from your smartphone. People already keep their smartphones no further than three feet away in most situations, on average, says the NYT, but smart watches bring the information and communication they provide closer still.

If Apple is indeed working on a curved-glass, wrist-wearable iPod, it’s also likely testing ways in which this device can talk to your iPhone to provide a steady stream of meaningful information. The iPod nano, with its countless watch-band accessories, is basically already crying out for this kind of functionality.

Patents and prototypes pave the way

Apple rarely takes breaks from filing new patents and working with supply chain partners on mysterious products, and some of those designs paint a picture of a wearable device future. The NYT‘s description of a curved glass iPod, for instance, resonates with a report from September that claimed Apple was getting ready to release products with curved touchscreens early in 2012.

Apple also has some general patents in play that could come in handy for small, wearable devices, like one for making portable devices out of lighter-weight materials with new, advanced construction methods, and descriptions of methods for using non-physical, non-visual control schemes (of which Siri is just one example) for future devices. That last patent talks about providing tactile feedback, which could be very useful for a computing device strapped to one’s person.

Mobile gets personal

Wearable computing is definitely a trend, and though right now it’s in its infancy and running into early-stage problems (the Jawbone UP recall, for example), it’s quickly accumulating momentum (the UP’s success despite its shortcomings, for example). Apple may not be on the cutting edge of this trend right now, as the relatively non-communicative iPod nano hardly counts, but it has the ingredients to take wearable devices mainstream: a massive existing iOS user base, and the right tech, both currently shipping and in active development.