Brace yourself for a new wave of Android wearables

March 12, 2014
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samsung galaxy s5 aa gear fit neo smartwatches

The long predicted dawn of wearable technology has arrived. Both CES and MWC this year were packed with new wearables offering a wide range of different functions in a huge variety of form factors. Smartwatches and smart glasses are hogging the headlines, but they aren’t the only game in town. The success of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter has enabled all sorts of other ideas from would-be inventors to spring from the realms of imagination into reality.

Now Google is getting in on the act with a new, free Android SDK specifically for wearables. SVP of Android and Chrome Sundar Pichai revealed the plan at SXSW a few days ago. He talked about the need for a standardized way for Android to gather information from sensors before revealing that the new SDK will be released within the next couple of weeks so Google can gather “plenty of feedback” before Google I/O rolls around.

Android powered Internet of Things

Google has an insatiable thirst for data and it’s looking to put Android in every device it possibly can. When devices can’t run Android, Google’s looking at how to better integrate them, so they can talk to Android devices. We’ve seen Google’s plan to put Android in cars. The acquisition of Nest signals a fresh attempt to get into homes, initially through smart thermostats and smoke alarms, but you can bet more hardware is coming down the pipeline. Other manufacturers have already produced a wide range of appliances and other consumer electronics running Android or compatible with it.

Successfully bringing wearables into the fold would potentially cover the full range of human activity. Google would be able to track virtually every aspect of your physical activity enabling it to strengthen its predictive powers and find new ways to pre-empt your needs and serve you targeted advertising.

nest-thermostat

How soon is now?

The analysts are tripping over themselves to predict huge things for wearables. In a recent Gartner press release, research director Brian Blau suggested “in the next three to four years, apps will no longer be simply confined to smartphones and tablets, but will impact a wider set of devices, from home appliances to cars and wearable devices. By 2017, Gartner predicts that wearable devices will drive 50 percent of total app interactions.”

No one really knows how quickly wearable technology will take off. If a must-have device is launched that captures the imagination of the general public then it could explode overnight. So far what we’ve seen is fairly underwhelming. The majority of wearables are offering up a subset of what our smartphones currently do. Saving you from having to take your smartphone out of your pocket is not going to be a compelling enough reason to buy.

No one really knows how quickly wearable technology will take off

The first wave

Fitness trackers are dominating the early running. The practicality of a lightweight, weather resistant device that can track our exercise and sleep is obviously appealing. The barriers are being breached as manufacturers find ways to make sensors smaller and smarter.

Developments like Bluetooth LE (Low Energy) are also a vital piece of the jigsaw. If you glance down the Android 4.4 KitKat feature list, you’ll find that Google has already been working on the power problem with built-in step counting: “when you use fitness apps like Moves on Nexus 5, the phone acts as a pedometer to count steps. Android 4.4 and updated hardware make this a more battery-friendly way to measure your activity.”

Smartwatches are also hitting the market in increasing numbers. Samsung’s Galaxy Gear is probably the highest profile release yet, and it has already been followed up by a sequel. It’s arguably not the most successful, though. The Pebble smartwatch has grown from humble Kickstarter beginnings to widespread success with new models and its own app store.

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The wearables horizon

Jumping back to Sundar Pichai, it’s clear Google sees more untapped potential — ”when we say wearables, we are thinking much more broadly,” beyond fitness trackers and smartwatches to “smart jackets” and who knows what else.

If people have a good enough idea then success stories like Pebble show that it can be realized. In fact you don’t need anything like the $10 million plus backing that Pebble won, which was way beyond its initial fundraising target of $100,000. Take a look at the Smarty Ring or the MEMI bracelet.

It’s also a space that the big players can’t afford to ignore. Sony’s tiny Core tracker will initially serve in its SmartBand feeding a Lifelog app, but it’s designed to be able to slot into other hardware. Down the line it might go into your shoe, your golf club, or your tennis racket, and feedback data on your performance. There have also been some pretty interesting reference designs. Intel’s smart earbuds, headset, and wireless charging bowl highlight possible directions.

Sony Smartband Hands On Red White Yellow Black CES 2014-9

All of that comes before we even mention Google Glass and its many competitors.

Functionality before fashion

One of the biggest criticisms leveled at wearable technology is the fact it makes you look like a cyborg. If you want people to wear it, then it has to have some style. The first release that delivers on both counts is going to clean up, but there are some early players that understand the importance of aesthetic. Check out Epiphany Eyewear, the Misfit Shine, the Navigate jacket, and the aforementioned MEMI bracelet.

There’s obviously a trade-off to be made between what devices can do and how they look. It remains to be seen where the sweet spot is for consumers.

Sadly, this is just a smartwatch concept created by designer Gábor Balogh

Sadly, this is just a smartwatch concept created by designer Gábor Balogh

Google sets an example

There have been rumors of a Google smartwatch for well over a year, but there was no mention of a new wearable from Google to launch this new SDK. Pichai was keen to point out that the aim is to get Android into wearables “at a platform level.”

Of course that was the aim with smartphones and tablets as well, and there was still room for the Nexus line. You could definitely argue that early Nexus releases were intended to be reference devices to give developers something to work with and inspire manufacturers to create new designs. The same approach could work well for wearables.

A reasonably-priced, Nexus-branded wearable could be a big hit, but if Google’s caution with Glass proves anything, it’s that it won’t be rushed into releasing something half-baked. On the other hand, the Nexus Q was a thing, so who knows?

Have you already splurged on wearable tech? What would tempt you to buy? What are you waiting for? Post a comment and tell us.

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