For the next wave of wearables, context will be king

After many years of struggles to find the right match of features, size, and pricing, the wearable device seems to have broken into the mainstream in the last 18 months. From the refreshed Jawbone up to Armour39 and a whole family of new Fitbits, what were once stand-alone devices are getting smarter and better connected very quickly.
The most successful wearables have carefully pursued a limited and very clear mission: Fitness trackers focus on motion sensing, and wearable displays relay smartphone notifications discreetly to wrists or less discreetly to your glasses. But this restrained approach has as much to do with technology constraints as it does with visionary product planning. The Pebble smartwatch, the break-out Kickstarter hit in 2012, used e-ink and low-power Bluetooth to achieve week-long battery life, but those design choices that preserved battery life also limited the on-device functionality, especially when it gets of range of it’s smartphone mothership. Once the watch moves out of range of the paired phone, it loses much of the brainpower and connected notifications that make it so valuable. Though it’s not useless, it is more a smartphone accessory than a stand-alone smart-device.

omate smartwatch featured

The Omate smart watch comes equipped with GPS, 3G, WiFi, Bluetooth and a dual-core processor with 1 GB of RAM.

But the next wave of wearables won’t be so constrained. Continued advances in low-cost and lower-power computing mean that it’s now possible to put a fully connected, independently smart device on your wrist, on your glasses or in your shoes. The Omate TrueSmart watch recently blew through its fundraising goals on Kickstarter, promising a fully connected smartwatch with GPS, 3G, WiFi, Bluetooth and a dual-core processor with 1 GB of RAM. While some may debate the wisdom of putting so much computing power and connectivity in every device, freeing wearables from their smartphone tethers will enable richer and faster interactions and speed their spread into daily life.

The next frontier: Context-awareness

Novelty aside, these smart wearables will present new opportunities for product developers to create great new product experiences. Today, most wearables gather or display data, but they do not provide opportunity for significant interaction or take the context into consideration. Take the fitness monitor, one product area that will surely need some fresh thinking in 2014. Whether it’s a Nike FuelBand, Fitbit, Jawbone Up, or some other device, the world has adopted these monitors in huge numbers, but there’s not much evidence that they really work. A quick survey of my fellow IBMers using fitness trackers showed that while activity might be rising, waistlines were not shrinking — and I’m no exception.
Context awareness holds the promise of changing that interaction. A more interactive approach to wearable fitness tracking might detect when I’m driving to my office and give me a timely reminder to park at the back of the lot. I try to take my conference calls standing up and walking around, so a fitness monitor could look at my calendar activity to remind me when I should put the phone on speaker and get moving.
Additional features could help with the context-awareness. For example, a camera takes pictures, but it can also identify dark and light. Combine that with a clock and a microphone, and a wearable device could determine when I am in a movie theatre, say, or a meeting, and therefore “know” when it is appropriate to interrupt me and when it isn’t. I love the new Reporter App and how it quantifies information about my day, but why do I need to tell it I’m awake or going to sleep? Wearables will soon know without having to ask.

Smart wearables will increasingly resemble smartphones

If these functions sound a lot like what smartphones can do, it’s because independently intelligent wearables are increasingly going to resemble, at least technically, smartphones. The key difference is that they will be ever closer and more intimately connected with the user and so better suited, in many ways, to deliver upon the promise of context-aware computing.
Though the technical constraints on what a smart wearable can do are lifting, the challenge of great design is never going to go away. To paraphrase: with great computing power, comes great responsibility (and limited battery life). Great designers will leverage intelligence without delivering complexity. Here’s hoping.
Paul Brody is the global industry leader for the electronics industry at IBM. You can find him on Twitter @pbrody, on sina weibo @pbrody and on LinkedIn at