Visitors of this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona have probably all noticed an explosion of wearable devices compared to last year. Many large device vendors, including Samsung, Sony and Qualcomm, have implemented smart watches and wristbands, small clip-on camera’s and life logging necklace devices. The simpler and smaller models are used as a notification extension of the smart phone that is connected via bluetooth low energy. They display notifications from apps that appear in the smart phone notification center as well. The larger watches have more subtle interactive apps on colourful touch screens that also work without connection to the smartphone.
What might surprise is that these watches are not primarily focused on sports and often don’t have GPS (yet). The use cases displayed are more centred around more general areas of fitness and health. It can interface with built-in or connected body sensors for e.g. heart rate or blood sugar level. A small camera on the wristband can be used to take photo’s. Carefully tailored apps for all kinds of niches using specific algorithmes and personal settings are intended to make life easier.
The OS and the development of apps on these wearable devices is similar to smartphones. The Samsung Gear SDK for example offers an easy way to develop webapps on the Tizen OS of the Galaxy Gear 2 watch, whereas Android run on its predecessor. The functionality and UI of the apps is so simple that development and installation hardly needs any coding. It is therefore to be expected that a rich plutora of mini apps will become available from a large community of contributors. Unfortunately lack of interface standardisation currently couples the smart watches pretty hard to the smartphone or OS manufacturer, limiting choice of your favorite watch. Personally, I stopped wearing a traditional watch years back, when the smartphone took over the clock and alarm function of the watch. And so did a whole younger generation. Bringing back smarthone functions back to the watch might well be the way to revive the habit of wearing a watch. With new, innovative and distinctive designs, this may well become the new fashion item of the decade.
The explosion of wearable devices is actually part of a larger explosion of mobile connected devices, often refererred to as ‘the internet of things’. Gartner predicts that the Internet of Things will add $1,9 trillion to the global economy by 2020. At MWC various connected cars with hypermodern app touch screens were emphasising this trend. Qualcomm showed use cases for a Connected Smarthome where doorbell, fridge, lights, speakers etc. can be all interconnected via Wi-Fi and the open source AllJoyn API from the AllSeen Alliance. A smartphone app being the remote. All the Wi-Fi radiation felt heavy on my body during the demo, but this year low power Wi-Fi becomes available that should be less oppressive. AllJoyn can also run over Zigbee which is a much lighter protocol and specifically designed for connecting smart home devices.
Short range mobile technology is also used for Indoor Positioning, which is reaching maturity and opening many new valuable possibilities. With Bluetooth Low Energy Beacons that are placed in a mesh of around 20 meter intervals someone can use a smartphone app to determine his or her position with 1 to 2 meter accuracy. Indoor location platforms are currently rolled out in airports, shopping centers, stadiums ans museums.
Another real breakthrough can be expected from LTE Direct, also displayed by Qualcom. By using the smartphone as a transmitter, mobile devices and objects can let eachother know that they are within range of eachother with a radius of 500 meters. The LTE network is used for synchronizing the signals, so polling for nearby friends or events doesn’t drain the battery. The obvious use case is social, but also geofencing children or elderly and location based marketing can become reality with this technology. It will take some years before networks and handsets are upgraded, but pilots are starting.