By Martin Kracheel, Walter Bronzi and Hamed Kezemi, from SnT - Interdisciplinary Center for Security and Trust, Université du Luxembourg, winners of the ICT Editorial Contest, Luxembourg ICT Awards 2014.
A Wearable Revolution: Is the smartwatch the next small big thing?
How the watch became smart
When watches were introduced in the 15th century they served as portable time telling tools. This role has evolved as watches became a piece of jewellery and an object of self-expression. Nowadays, with the arrival of smartwatches, we redefined once more the role and functionality of watches. When Pebble Technology in 2012 started its crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter in order to raise 100k dollars for the production of a new kind of smartwatch, they never expected to end up raising more than 10 million dollars. Samsung, Motorola and Sony later followed and at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas the wrist revolution was declared. Apple followed, using the same strategy as for the iPod, iPhone and iPad, by spotting a product with a huge potential that did not yet have a real breakthrough mostly because it is not easy to use and accessible for the end-user, and making it attractive and fashionable. All smartwatches currently available on the market however, be it the Samsung Gear S, the Motorola Moto 360 or the LG G watch, currently have only one look, one size with one type of wristband and overall a single style in each case. The smartwatch, to be successful, has to combine two requirements: provide digital information and individual expression presented by traditional watches. Apple understood this and made their new product, the Apple Watch, customizable with different wrist bands and cases as well as two different screen sizes. When the Apple Watch was announced, it generated a buzz that had not been since the announcement of the first iPhone.
But what is the real potential of a mini-computer on your wrist?
Unlocking the potential
We are currently living in a new era of smart pocket watches where people pull their phone out of their pockets just to check the time. The smart pocket watch can tell the time but also provide a multitude of other information, such as calendar notifications, emails social media and so on. But just as the arrival of wrist watches led to the decline in popularity of pocket watches during the 20th century, the smartwatch could soon replace the traditional wristwatch. The smartwatch can excel in a new category of "smart" devices to be used instead of our smartphones for simplifying and speeding up activities such as reading a message, checking the weather, traffic directions or your agenda. And it also tells time.
The breakthrough of the smartphone was not only dependent on a smooth interaction with the device, but also on the app developers and the community support. The same will be true for the smartwatch. What it is possible to do today with our phone will be possible with smartwatches as well. This will include mobile payments, wearer identification, health, fitness and lifestyle personalization.
Various use scenarios emerge, from finding and booking taxis to searching nearby restaurants and checking public transport schedules.
We also expect a leap to more sophisticated voice control, like Siri or OK Google, to enhance the user experience with a smartwatch.
Let’s take a closer look at three fields of application.
E-Business on the go
The introduction of credit and debit cards in the 20th century changed the way we pay for things. Soon, physical cards will be replaced by digital payments using "smart" devices.
Apple Pay was not by chance announced simultaneously with the Apple Watch. We live in an era of mobility and speed. We do not want to carry around multiple credit cards, nor remember multiple PIN codes or even take out the wallet if not needed. Apple Pay, for instance, combined with a smartwatch provides an instant and easy in-store payment solution. Just like online banking made bank transfers easy, now digital payments will make shopping easy without even touching the pocket.
When it is all about easy, fast and reliable, then the users validates the ticket while hopping on the train, and does not queue to buy or prints it out. It is about making the fastest pit-stop, filling your tank, grabbing a coffee and not even having to put it down in order to pay before hitting the road.
If a smartwatch can be useful as a key to approve payments, we can also imagine it as a key to unlock and lock doors, as well as your car and computer or whatever requires some sort of authentication. BMW recently announced, in parallel with their new range of electric vehicles (i3/i8), an enhanced interaction with the car via smartphone and smartwatch. BMW "Smart Connectivity", on both phone and watch, will allow monitoring battery charge and available range, location of the vehicle and route planning as well as pre-climatizing the car and even open door and windows.
We could also use the smartwatch as an authentication token using cloud services. For example, at work we could be remotely allowed to access a certain meeting room at a certain time and be able to unlock and access such a room with our watch. Using our watch as a digital key, able to download different profiles from the cloud, offers a great deal of flexibility and a wide range of applications for personal and professional interests.
Smartwatches can be part of an individual, modern lifestyle. They can monitor health, keep track of sports activities and even monitor sleep. Doctors might want to use the smartwatch data instead of performing traditional cost intensive monitoring. A study with obese children for example has shown that smartwatches might be a better monitoring tool than traditional health recording devices.
Insurance companies can reward users that improve or keep a healthy lifestyle. The reward system may be gamified, as it is with the pedometer today. For 5000 steps, you receive the bronze medal, for 10000 the gold medal. The watch can show you at the end of the work day, that you did not achieve your daily steps goal and suggest you to walk to the next station, where you can hop on the next bus or train. It can be integrated with social network accounts, so that sharing is easy. Imagine you go shopping, you lift your arm to reach for a product, and your watch shows nutritional information or displays possible reductions or promotions.
The two biggest challenges for smartwatches today are the limited display size and the battery life. The display size is a problem for interaction with the device, as it makes text hard to read, even harder to type and nearly impossible to browse a website. Apple addressed this problem with the digital crown, a small wheel at the side of the watch for zooming.
However, other solutions are on the verge of being market-ready. For instance flexible touch displays that can be part of the wristband and thus resolve the limited surface of interaction whilst also providing a bigger surface for potential personalization. Imagine that the colour of your watch changes, according to what you wear. You can adapt the look of the watch to your own taste!
Another very innovative approach is to project virtual buttons on the skin of the user. The watch recognizes which action you take and reacts accordingly while the screen stays free to display information.
Maybe the battery problem is still the most pertinent one. There is some interesting research in this field and for future smartwatches, we can hope to recharge the battery with body heat or kinetic energy, just by moving normally in our everyday life.
Although the market shows no rapid growth of sales yet, smartwatches are now at our door and have the potential to enhance our digital lifestyle. When a major player, like Apple with the release of its watch in 2015, overcomes smartwatches usability challenges and design limitations, this could change rapidly.
The support from the community of developers will play a major role in deciding which platform will progress further. The Apple Watch for instance will have a great developer support and provide a platform that customers are familiar with and will have an easy time adopting.
Other big players, like Microsoft, Samsung or LG are also working on the field of wearables, so it’s really only a question of when will smartwatches become the next big thing.
Martin Kracheel, Walter Bronzi, Hamed Kezemi
Publié le 11 décembre 2014