Smart watches and wearable computing

Samsung are rumoured to be announcing their Galaxy Gear smartwatch on September 4th and Apple is widely expected to release an iWatch within the next year.

So smart watches are hot.

But will they fly as mainstream devices?

To my mind that’s an open question.

The Galaxy Gear sounds great. It’s likely to be a second screen for your phone that also has the features you get in a Fitbit or Jawbone Up. That’s quite cool, and reading through the specs in the GigaOm article I liked to above had me thinking ‘I want one of those’. A Fitbit with a proper screen and tighter integration with my phone would be great, and Samsung have added some nice touches to the second screen experience, e.g. if you are reading an email on your watch and take our your phone the same email will come up.

But I’m an early adopter with three Fitbits and a Jawbone Up, and I’m not sure how valuable these features are to the mainstream consumer. As Jack Gold wrote on VentureBeat this morning, there’s a good chance that:

there will be some niche users that want to buy one so they don’t have to take their phones out of their pockets or purses frequently. But for most users, having yet another device — and potentially an expensive one at that — while still carrying a smartphone around will be too much.

Successful technology that is truly helpful and transparent is what most consumers want. But a smartwatch as a remote screen coupled to a smart phone is not in that camp. The additional utility to make users spend their money is just not there.

At the end of the day taking a phone or of your pocket isn’t a big hardship.

For me the more interesting vision for connected devices has the phone as a personal server connecting a bunch of other devices. These devices will have novel functions rather than duplicate those in the phone, the most obvious of which is sensors that inform us about our bodies. I watched a BBC Horizon programme last night which showed some amazing stuff. There was an implantable glucose monitor which sends stats to the phone every minute (I really want one of those, imagine seeing the impact of what you eat in real time) and a suite of tools for athletes that predicts illness and injury before the patient feels anything.

It’s very early days though, largely because the technology is only just getting good enough. It will get there though and in a small number of years we will see wearable computing cruising the chasm. That makes now an interesting time to start companies in this space.