Check-In CES: Smartwatch Startups

The all-purpose wrist device is proving a more difficult proposition than expected

Wearable technology is presented as a single trend, but it is in fact the convergence of two trends – fitness tracking and smartphone connectivity. The next wave of wrist technologies is trying to bridge this divide with broad-spectrum, multipurpose devices. The problem is that these devices are marketed for two very different consumers – fitness enthusiasts and technology geeks. The Galaxy Gear is far too bulky to wear during rugged exercise, and fitness trackers lack the depth in functionality expected of smartwatches. While I prefer the simplicity of fitness trackers, I have learned not to underestimate consumer appetite for additional screens. Even though fitness tracking is the more established trend of the two, the smartwatch will eventually consume it and become the hub of wearable technology.

Unfortunately, the all-purpose smartwatch is proving to be a more difficult proposition than expected, as evidenced by the tepid receptions to early products from Samsung and Sony. Samsung attempted to put nearly all of the functionality of a smartphone into a wrist-based device, and the result was a clunky device with poorly executed functionality, the most glaring example being the camera embedded into the band, adding additional size and weight for the sake of a 1.9 megapixel camera. When the Galaxy Gear is, by definition, tethered to a smartphone with a 13-megapixel camera, the cost/benefit analysis becomes cloudy at best. The next round of smartwatch innovations won’t add features so much as edit the existing ones. This means taking the essential components of both fitness bands and smartphones and optimizing those features for the minimal real estate available on ones’ wrist.

One of the most promising devices at CES is the WearIT Android smartwatch. Though still larger than many consumers may prefer, it has a distinct fitness aesthetic while also performing the essential functions of the smartwatch – music, social media and time. It is embedded with an accelerometer, magnetometer and pedometer, and has a development ecosystem allowing it to incorporate sensor data from across the ANT+ product line. In doing so, WearIT successfully edited down both the hardware and software of its device while preserving the elements which are most important to both geeks and athletes.

WearIT and other startups face an uncertain future in the face of behemoths such as Samsung and Sony. But they are performing a great service to consumers by helping to show those companies how fitness tracking and smart functionality can co-exist in a single device. Until the major players resist the need to embed cameras into my wrist and loosen their restrictions on cross-device compatibility, I plan on sticking to the startup fringes of this revolution.