Form defines function for wearable smart phone peripherals

10 May 2013 by Steve Blum
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Good for a casual look.

The Fitbit Flex shipped this week. I previewed it at CES. It’s a jelly bean-sized device that snaps into a wristband and monitors your movement. The data is uploaded to a smart phone or computer, and you can mine some information about your health and fitness.

It’s a smart phone peripheral. If you’re tracking, say, sleep patterns, sensors inside of a phone would not be optimal. You might sleep with your phone next to you, but you won’t have it on you. That’s why wearable computing has a future as peripheral sensing, display and control devices.

The Pebble smart watch is another good example of how wearable computing is evolving into very focused products. The priority for smart watch makers is to optimize battery life and fashionability with a small set of features. More functions mean shorter battery life and a clunkier look. Casio also has a watch that acts a smart phone peripheral. It’s targeting a two year battery life and has even smaller feature set.

Fitbit is getting it right, for the time being. The form factor of the Flex works, even if you’re wearing a watch. But long term, a lot of this technology will converge into a single smart watch. The easy part is shrinking sensor hardware and energy consumption – that’s a continuous process that you can count on. The harder part will be integrating software, both on board the watch and in smartphones, in a way that meets the needs of athletes. That could take a couple years or more. In the meantime small, special purpose devices like the Flex will have a chance to find a market.