A Primer on the Up-and-Coming Smartwatch Market and What It Means For Healthcare

If Samsung has proven one thing this week, it’s that the company is incapable of keeping a secret. Not only was the release date for its soon-to-be-launched Galaxy Gear smartwatch leaked, but so were pictures and full specs. That has been a common theme across the smartwatch industry as rumors have independently surfaced to suggest that Apple, Google, and Microsoft may not be far behind in smartwatch development efforts.

Here’s a recap of the latest rumors from across the smartwatch sector and how it fits into the bigger healthcare IT picture.

Sony, The True First To Market Smartwatch

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Sony launched its first smartwatch in 2007, the same year Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. The company is on its third-generation smartwatch, an Android-powered device with a 1.6 inch color display, touch and swipe capabilities, and 3-4 day battery life. The model has been announced and will be generally available this fall.

The watch pairs with a phone via BlueTooth, after which it acts as a second screen for the phone. It can take calls, send and receive text messages, and display apps. The device is backed by a first-of-its-kind smartwatch app store, which has 200 apps and over one million downloads to date.

The Sony line of smartwatches has received lukewarm reception. Users complain that outdated BlueTooth technology turns the watch into a battery hog on any synched smartphone, and that the device only comes out of the box with a clock display and a timer and everything else needs to be manually configured. From a mobile health perspective, Sony’s smartwatch brings little to the table that a $15 Timex doesn’t.

Crowd-funding Ushers In Additional Options

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Pebble and KREYOS are new smartwatch options that trace their roots to successful crowd-funding campaigns. Pebble raised an astonishing $10 million for an iOS and Android compatible smartwatch, seen above, that allows users to receive notifications, accept or decline incoming calls, control smartphone apps, customize watch faces, and connect with a growing Pebble app store that claims several thousand apps. The Pebble display is flat black, similar to the original e-book readers that were designed for outdoor use and the resulting solar glare. The Pebble’s battery is reported to last five days.

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Pebble takes consumers closer to realizing the health potential of a wearable device by housing an accelerometer that can integrate data with third-party app developers. mHealth offerings are already cropping up. The image above is taken from an app that walks users through a daily seven-minute workout regimen.

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KREYOS, which just closed a $1.5 million Indiegogo campaign, brings voice control and gesture control to the smartwatch market. Want to change the song on the car radio? Simple wrist gestures can be assigned to accomplish these everyday tasks. KREYOS also packs a heavier punch from a healthcare perspective. With a built-in activity tracker, KREYOS can track walking, running, and cycling and serve this data up to third-party app developers.

Apple

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Persistent rumors have Apple unveiling a smartwatch in 2014. As would be expected, Apple appears to be bringing in industry heavyweights to ensure that the first-generation iWatch is as broadly embraced as the iPad, iPhone, and iPod. The device is rumored to be built around a flexible Gorilla Glass band, similar to the 80s era slap bracelets.

This “nothing short of the best” attitude has extended well into the mobile health and biosensors segment. Apple has pulled in key personnel from one company that manufactures sleep analysis devices, another that creates sensors that map veins in the body, and a third that specializes in blood monitoring and other biometric sensors. Apple also recently recruited Nike consultant Jay Blahnik, who worked on the Nike+ ecosystem.

Google

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Google confirmed last week that the company has acquired CA-based smartwatch developer Wimm Labs for an undisclosed price. Wimm graduated from the Pillar Ventures incubator program in 2009, then went on to launch the Wimm One smartwatch in 2011, seen above. Shortly after the launch, Wimm announced that the company had “entered into an exclusive, confidential relationship for our technology,” after which the Wimm One was pulled from the market. The confidential relationship, as we now know, was with Google.

Google’s recent acknowledgement of the acquisition means that the company has been secretly working on a smartwatch since mid-2011. Little is known about Google’s plans, though the company did file for a smartwatch patent in late 2011 that included a description of dual-screen flip-up display.

The Google smartwatch is a non-Motorola project, similar to Google Glass. Like Glass, there are rumors that Motorola could eventually be looked upon to handle mass market device manufacturing.

Microsoft

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Microsoft has struggled to make a meaningful splash in the consumer technology field in recent years. The company, a technology giant that should be more than capable of holding its own in any tech market, has stamped its name on a product portfolio of smartphones and tablets that have failed to compete with Google, Samsung, and Apple in any meaningful way thus far. Rather than returning to core operating systems and enterprise solutions, Microsoft has shown determination over the years in sticking with its effort at breaking into consumer devices.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Microsoft is also working on a smartwatch. Rumors have Microsoft constructing a 1.5 inch translucent aluminum smartwatch which is said to be three times stronger than glass. The device will complement its Surface ecosystem, which powers both tablets and smartphones and and integrates them across Windows 8. Interestingly, the smartwatch prototype was originally developed by the X-Box business unit before being moved over under the Surface team as part of Microsoft’s recent reorganization.

Samsung’s Galaxy Gear

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VentureBeat leaked photo’s of Samsung’s new smartwatch this weekend. The device is large, estimated at 3 inches diagonally, much bigger than all others in the smartwatch space are rumored to be pursuing. The watch has Wi-Fi capabilities, so that it can still operate even when it is not tethered to a smartphone. The watch includes both speakers and voice command software. There is also a four-megapixel camera. It looks like (and the technical specs read like) a miniaturized smartphone strapped to a watchband.

The smartwatch is rumored to include a full activity tracker capable of measuring steps walked, run, cycled, and heart rate throughout the workout. The watch includes core apps to support calorie counting. The app store has reportedly been busy adding plenty of new health and fitness related additions.

The Galaxy Gear packs enough mainstream functionality into a new form factor that it may win over existing Android fans. The size is not ideal and may be a deal breaker for some, especially women, as it is a good deal larger than an average men’s wristwatch and way overboard compared to an average women’s wristwatch.

Smartwatch Market Recap

Because there are no dominant smartwatches currently sweeping the market, manufacturers can only make educated guesses, based on focus groups and market research, to determine what consumers might want in the new form factor. As a result, there will likely be a wide range of functionality, but little innovation in the first-generation models we see emerging through 2013 and into 2014.  As manufacturers race to bring first-generation watches to market, most will look to include popular smartphone features, but few will have the time or inclination to work on truly innovative features until the form factor has proven itself with consumers.

As a core set of functionality, there are some common themes emerging. Smartwatches are all reporting plans to tether the device to a smartphone through a BlueTooth connection, allowing app notifications, calendar reminders, text messages, emails, and incoming calls to display on the watch. Third-party apps are also being heavily pursued to extend functionality on the watches. Most manufacturers are reporting a two or three day battery life, and average screen size appears to be between 1.5 and two inches.

Beyond this, little is known about the functional specifications of what a typical smartwatch will deliver. One would expect most vendors, like Apple and Samsung, to include basic activity tracking sensors, but certainly at first not all will. Still, if smartwatches do catch on with general consumers the way that smartphones and tablets have, it will undoubtedly represent a turning point in healthcare.

Weight is the only metric most adults regularly track as an indicator of their general health. Widespread adoption of a device that would deliver a host of new health metrics, such as blood pressure and physical activity, will result in lots of people having much more quantified health data about themselves. mHealth developers would also then have access to more data to pull into apps. Patient portal and EHR integration might follow shortly after as family physicians start asking for access to the information. There may even be implications for population health, which if it could aggregate and deidentify the data, would be able to make impressive location-based health maps and would be able to add physical activity monitoring to population risk modeling.

In any industry, information is power. This may be especially true in healthcare. If consumer technology giants like Apple, Samsung, and Google are all targeting a next generation of devices that can collect and display significantly more quantified health data about each of us, the potential exists for it to be an important technological advancement for healthcare.

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