Wearable Use Cases

Inevitably in any wearable discussion with friends or family, one of the first questions asked is “why?” The general public sees the value provided by smartphones clearly, but with wearables that is not always true. In an effort to describe wearable value in general, I will present the top two use cases – fitness and smart watch. Hopefully this provides some context of where wearables are now and where they can go in the future. Future device reviews at AnandTech will have use cases like these in mind when evaluating the quality of a wearable.


Moving Distance

Today, fitness wearables have typically provided the most benefit to runners, walkers and cyclists, or just about anyone moving a distance through their own effort (kayaking, canoeing, rollerblading, etc). This is due to a good match of user needs and wearable technology’s specialized ability to meet those needs. A summarized list of care-abouts yields:

  • Notification when reaching distance markers – to keep track of progress toward goals
  • Notification of speed traveled at each distance marker – to make sure to achieve pace goal
  • Overall speed – to make sure to hit pace goal
  • Elapsed time – to help schedule a day or meet people at certain times
  • Length traveled – to help meet personal fitness goals
  • Heart rate – to measure body strain and assist in pacing
  • Calorie counting – to aid in personal fitness plan goals
  • Map of travel detailing pace – to review pacing and share via social media
  • Make calls – to handle an emergency
  • Listen to music and podcasts – for motivation and entertainment
  • Elevation tracking – to review effort and share via social media
  • Connectivity – to interface to other devices like a cyclist’s power meter or a treadmill’s display

Solving all of these with a wrist-worn wearable provides unique value, as the form factor is significantly better than the girth of increasingly large smartphones. Additionally, the display is more conveniently accessible than an arm-band mounted smartphone. However, running or cycling while looking at your wrist is still inconvenient so Bluetooth audio notifications and connectivity to gym bikes and treadmills is desired.

Mapping wearable features to this list yields an imperfect but good result. Note that distance traveled is actually a fairly difficult thing to compute indoors or without GPS assistance, and relies on sensor fusion of compass + gyro + accelerometer passed to a pedometer algorithm.

  • Notification when reaching distance markers – Sensor fusion / GPS, Bluetooth audio, Vibration, Display
  • Notification of speed traveled at each distance marker – Sensor fusion / GPS, Bluetooth audio, Vibration, Display
  • Overall speed – Sensor fusion / GPS, Display
  • Elapsed time – Display
  • Length traveled – Sensor fusion / GPS, Display
  • Heart rate – Pulse oximeter
  • Calorie counting – Sensor fusion
  • Map of travel detailing pace – Sensor fusion / GPS
  • Make calls – Cellular, Microphone, Bluetooth audio / Speaker, Phone contacts sync
  • Listen to music and podcasts – Bluetooth audio, Large data storage
  • Elevation tracking – Barometer / GPS
  • Connectivity – ANT+ / Bluetooth Low Energy

Nearly every need is met by the hardware technology available in wearables on the market today. However, there are a few missing hardware pieces. Cellular functionality has yet to become widely available (outside the Tizen based Samsung Gear S) due to power consumption, miniaturization, and cost constraints; ANT+ support meanwhile is mostly missing. There are a few ANT+ enabled wrist-worn wearables, but none from Apple, Microsoft, or Google’s partners.

As cyclists commonly have ANT+ chest-mounted heart rate monitors, ANT+ power output meters, and ANT+ cycling computers, the lack of ANT+ on a wrist worn wearable seems like a missed opportunity. For example, a cyclist could replace their cycling computer and chest-mounted heart rate monitor with an ANT+ enabled wrist-worn wearable but retain their investment in the ANT+ power meter. The same goes for the many gyms that have ANT+ enabled equipment.

In my experience with the movement use case and today’s wearables, the hardware is very close but the software has not yet come up to my expectations. This is an incredibly competitive target at the moment that has not yet seen a clear winner or consolidation.

Weight Lifting

While fitness has been a key marketing point of many wearables in 2014, the products involved have yet to pertain to a key demographic of fitness conscious people: weight lifters. This is what I would consider a forward looking wearable target.

I certainly would not consider myself a body builder or gym rat but I do enjoy lifting weights much more than any moving exercise – and I am not alone. There are plenty of people in the world of gyms that spend their time using weights and not treadmills. Therefore, I find myself somewhat annoyed when wrist worn wearables are marketed as fitness devices but have a fraction of the value (or no value) to a weight lifter versus a runner. Personal thoughts aside, compiling a list of a weight lifters care-abouts yields a quite different list that highlights why this demographic has yet to be successfully targeted:

  • Heart rate – to measure body strain and assist in pacing
  • Exercise tracking – automatic detection of weight usage and exercises performed to provide historical tracking of gains and loses
  • Personal record tracking – keep personal records (PRs or ‘bests’) data for each exercise
  • Body fat and muscle measurement – keep track of body fat burn and muscle build over time
  • Suggested exercises – utilize historical exercise data and muscle atrophy over time and provide intelligent suggestions for today’s exercises. Customizable to constrain suggestions to available gym equipment
  • Suggested weight – when starting a new exercise, suggest a starting weight based upon personal information
  • Fatigue tracking and warning – track muscle fatigue by muscle at the gym and over time. Utilize data to provide warnings when to stop lifting and when to revisit the gym
  • Social features – compare and track with friends

The number one issue here is the lack of technology for automatic weight and exercise tracking. While there are weight lifting smartphone apps with manual data entry, these do not compare to the simplicity of automatic tracking runners and cyclists enjoy. Part of the reason products such as Fitbit became popular is their convenience. There is little more needed from the user than to wear the device and review the acquired data.

This is a solvable problem. Gyms of the future could contain NFC or Bluetooth enabled weights and machines. A wrist-worn wearable could track usage and movement of your body compared to the weights and conclude which exercises you performed and what weight used. Once that data is available, analysis based upon body type becomes possible and suggestions can be made. Combined with today’s heart rate and body fat sensors and weight lifters could find their perfect wearable and their favorite gym. There are efforts in the weight lifting wearable area now (see Push), but without automatic tracking they are currently second fiddle to the moving use case.

Smart Watch

The smart watch use case is what I would consider immature. After some failed efforts from 2003 to 2009 from Samsung, Palm, and Microsoft, Pebble awoke the market in 2013 with a Kickstarter campaign. In 2014 the major players of Microsoft, Google, and Apple each targeted this market but none have perfected it. One of the main problems of this use case is parameterizing it. What unique value does a watch offer over a smartphone? Thus, many times smart watch functionality is combined with fitness functionality that can only be offered by a wearable.

Compiling a list of smart watch care-abouts yields:

  • Time – need to replace a basic time telling watch
  • Customizable watch face – need to replace the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of basic time telling watches
  • Physically attractive – if I am going to wear it every day, it cannot look like a toy
  • Comfortable – if I am going to wear it every day and sleep with it on, it cannot hurt or bother me
  • Water resistant – to survive washing dishes, hands, weather. Ideally IPx7 or greater
  • Rich smartphone notifications – keep track of what is happening even if the smartphone is not directly available, such as across the room or in a purse. Optionally dismiss or respond. All notifications should arrive to prevent missing some by relying on the smart watch
  • Voice assistant – quick answers like what is the weather or when is the Cowboys' game
  • Alarm clock – vibrate function to avoid waking up a partner
  • Calendar – easily display my next meeting details such as where it is located
  • Messaging – easily send quick messages and replies with SMS or other apps such as Facebook messenger
  • Tasks and Reminders – create Exchange / Google tasks by voice and reminders

Nearly all of the actual features of a smart watch come directly from smartphone use cases. The difference is they are slightly tweaked toward the wrist-worn use case. When using a smart watch, the main benefit is getting things done even quicker than with a smartphone. It only takes a moment to rotate your wrist and say “OK Google, Wake me up at 7am” versus finding wherever your phone is, activate it (if no passive listening exists), say the same thing, and put it down somewhere safe. It is amazing to think that shaving these seconds off each interaction can have value, but when you add up each time you touch your smartphone every day it does quickly add up.

However, as many point out, these devices lack the killer app. There isn’t much they can do that your smartphone cannot. The vibrate alarm is one example, but there has to be more. Apple examined some ideas during their Apple Watch keynote such as pairing multiple watches. Taps on a watch sends a corresponding taps to others – useful for spy movies and tense corporate meetings. Until a smart watch specific killer app releases, AnandTech will evaluate the execution quality of the essentials listed above.

Fitness and smart watches were the clearest targets for wearables in 2014, however there are a variety of other wearable technology targets such as personal trainers, hair pieces, eye pieces (Google Glass), and clothing that will be interesting as they mature in the future.

Introduction Wearable Products in 2014: Android Wear & Samsung
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  • zachrohlfs - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    Good article on the devices. My one thought running through every page is who still wears a watch? I know a lot of people who do not wear or do not like to wear watches.

    I think I am more curious about when the in ear bullet will arrive with a phone in your pocket that can translate on the fly people speaking around you and have your smartphone push selected notifications to it.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    First they need to make an in-ear device that doesn't leave my ear aching after an hour of talking. Maybe that's just me, but there's a reason hearing aids require special fitting and cost a ton of money (relatively speaking).
  • Stephen Barrett - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    yeah I just had to return some in ear headphones cause of that. really not a fan
  • Impulses - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    I can use non-custom in ear headphones for more than an hour without ache, it's highly subjective, tho also highly dependent on the design and tips used (and IEM usually have a far wider variety of that than BT devices).

    That being said, for greatest comfort you'd want an actual in ear (canal) type of fit and not something that's resting outside... I'm not sure most people want that level of isolation on a 24/7 basis just to interact with their phones...

    At least not until geeks start falling in love with operating systems.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, January 16, 2015 - link

    I wouldn't call the comfort of in-ear devices subjective so much as highly dependent on the shape of your ears (and the device being used). I have clear differences in my ear shape on the left and right, oddly enough, so I can't even use my Bluetooth headset properly on my left ear unless I change the little piece that holds it in place. Fun times. :)
  • eanazag - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    Agree. An in ear that isn't a pain in the @ss. I can do less than an hour.

    I'm not a fan of cables and charging an in ear too.

    I have a Plantronics over the ear hands free headset at work that has a portion that goes in the ear and I can leave it in all day. I have almost left the building with it on. But, I leave it at work and am happy to do so.

    I wouldn't be interested in an over the ear outside of work. I guess I am just not cool enough to be one of those people who walk through the supermarket on the phone the whole time.
  • mkozakewich - Friday, January 16, 2015 - link

    People are discussing wearables and are blindly talking about "finding the next big thing" without catching statements like yours.

    Hearing aids require special fitting. They're expensive. They're also medical devices.
    There is a lot a design company can do when it comes to redesigning medical equipment. Instead of weird cylinders or sloped rounded shapes, a big tech company could do some research with ear doctors to find a really good way of making generalized in-ear devices (several sizes, or different attachments). That kind of design is what changes an industry. It'll allow new form factors AND the regular old stuff, but at vastly-reduced prices and with far more style.
  • Impulses - Friday, January 16, 2015 - link

    Custom fit is ultimately the best solution, and it doesn't have to be that expensive... Used to be you needed to drop a grand for any decent CIEM, whereas you cab get them for under $400 these days.

    Hell, Etymotics has an offer where they make you custom tips for their hf line of IEM for $100 all in, you just give the voucher to the ear doc and they take care of the rest... If a small outfit like them can manage it for $100, surely larger companies can do it for less.
  • phoenix_rizzen - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    Bragi Dash (http://bragi.com) is most of the way there. In-ear wireless speakers with a bunch of sensors that connects to your phone over Bluetooth. It uses a bone-conduction mic, though, so it wouldn't work for your real-time translation scenario. A clever app dev, though, could probably come up with a way to use the phone's mic for that. Place the phone on the table between you, stick an ear bud in, and start talking ... the phone translates and plays it back through the ear bud.

    They also have support for notifications and whatnot. And Google Now running through it covers a lot of ground.

    Downside is only 4 hours of battery life. You can double that if you use only 1 ear bud at a time.
  • Impulses - Thursday, January 15, 2015 - link

    For the last fifteen years, I've only worn a watch when dressing up a bit for social occasions etc... But even the basic out-of-the-box functionality of the 360 lured me to wear one on a daily basis again and I really like it.

    Heck, I even kinda like not having to dig my phone out to tell time... The overall package is definitely a luxury convenience, I could live without it for sure, but it makes certain busy days a whole lot easier.

    Ultimately it's a personal thing, how much value you see in smart watches will depend a lot on your job, how much time you spend in front of a computer or with your hands busy, etc. To dismiss it at face value because you don't wear a watch anymore is pretty short sighted tho.

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