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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  • mkozakewich - Friday, January 16, 2015 - link

    Ooh, and make sure to call out the density of the display. There's no reason to be using 100dpi screens, for example.
  • wyx087 - Friday, January 16, 2015 - link

    Cost is always something that gets mentioned. I don't get it. Watch is a jewelry in addition to time teller. To buy a good classic watch, you will need to spend £100/$100 to thousands. As an adult, why would you want to be seen wearing a plastic G-shock watch?

    I used to wear a selection of Swiss watches. But I long for phone notifications on my wrist. While Pebble Steel was far from perfect in terms of style, it's the closest thing you can get to a watch replacement:
    - Always-on display
    - Basic handling of notifications
    - View calendar and reminders
    - Days up to a week of battery-life

    What is ideal is a round smartwatch with thin edges for the always-on e-ink display. Moto 360 was very tempting for its styling, but the battery life and display shows it's not a watch replacement. In fact, a Swiss styled mechanical watch with notification display in the background would be the perfect classic watch replacement. It'll last weeks because there's no silly sensors.

    So while your use-cases are good. But I think a 4th can be added (or the smartwatch use-case can be adopted): Watch replacement. A smartwatch doesn't need to have that killer app, just saving the few seconds of bringing up a phone is more than enough. To replace a jewelry the device needs to be a jewelry, the electronics inside isn't as important.
  • Arbie - Friday, January 16, 2015 - link

    Great article! Thoughtful, well-presented in depth, and relevant. Lets have more of this caliber.

  • ithehappy - Friday, January 16, 2015 - link

    The only one I like here is the Gear Fit. But then again its fully compatible with Samsung phones only, which is a shame.
    I am looking forward for the Lenovo e-Ink one which will come out at March.

    PS: I am a regular watch wearer by the way, automatics, so no, I am not nearly crazy enough to replace my watch with these toys, I just need one to have notifications on my wrist.
  • HisDivineOrder - Friday, January 16, 2015 - link

    Far from the fargone conclusion, I find the Apple Watch and other wearables to be answering a problem no one had with a solution the majority have rejected in prior decades. People don't wear watches. They don't like being reminded by this thing strapped to your wrist of the finite amount of time they have, so why would they want to wear a watch?

    I think for wearables to work, they must follow in the way of smartphones and improve something that people already do. Tablets worked because they essentially cribbed off smartphones, but made it bigger and said, "You know you how you used to read a book? Now you can read a tablet."

    That's it.

    When you look at watches, it's like the argument is they want phones to be so large you don't want to get them out, which seems like they're just undermining phones to make watches more relevant.

    And people already didn't want to wear watches. So they'll just keep buying smaller phones instead. I think something like Google Glass or even just a pair of sunglasses with voice recognition and a bluetooth connection to your phone will likely work a LOT better.

    Mostly because who doesn't wear glasses? Either prescription glasses or sunglasses... just about everyone wears glasses of some sort.
  • BuddyRich - Saturday, January 17, 2015 - link

    A round pebble steel with wireless charging (though the magnetic induction is better than a regular cable) and I would be sold.

    Its pricey but I am also interested in the Withings Activite. One of the only companies to take design seriously. Swiss movement mechanical watch that does step tracking, lap swimming, etc. Only thing its missing is some sort of notification light. 8 months battery life. If you don't want the quality you can get the visually identical Activite Pop without swiss movement, sapphire crystal or leather strap. Only thing is, this really is more of a fitness only watch vs. a "smart" watch.

    As for smart watch reviews.... Battery Life test (of different modes), daylight readability, nighttime readability (including tests for backlit devices to test if its too bright say in a movie theatre to be always on). Functionality of course and phone interoperability (ie. all functions available paired with iOS vs. paired with Android and what specific phones - Samsung wearables sometimes only fully support Samsung phones). Pairing issues itself.

    Lots of photos because style is much more important, on a variety of wrists, perhaps showing what it would look like on a female's wrist for comparison to gauge size.

    I am not sure what the use case for a smart watch is, other than to tell time. Im the sort of person who hates using blutooth headset in public (and am annoyed by others that do) so I am not sure I would ever speak to my watch a la dick tracy, but a notification light might be handy, maybe something to pause music or the apple tv when at home, etc.
  • Tams80 - Sunday, January 18, 2015 - link

    The date and day on the Activite appears to be missing. It may seem like a very minor thing, but that is something that makes me hesitant about switching from my current watch. They also don't seem to mention how long the device can function away from a smartphone.

    Using their heart rate and blood oxygen sensors wouldn't be feasible in such a package, but it would be nice if they made a companion device that's sole purpose was to continuously track them.
  • MADPhoenix - Sunday, January 18, 2015 - link

    Good article. One device that seems to be overlooked (and I think it's fine) was the sixth generation iPod nano (the square one). It wasn't directly a watch but they made a band for it so you could wear it like one. Even the lock screen was an analog clock face.
  • aggiechase37 - Monday, January 19, 2015 - link

    Not interested in the goofy watches. Not interested in the glasses because they look silly. Make me some shades that look like shades and we could talk. Until then, I'm all set for my trusty smartphone, my laptop, and my custom built desktop. All this wearable crap seems like a desperate play for growth by these big companies when there really isn't demand for something like that.

    I don't know a single person who thinks they need a smartwatch. By contrast, when smartphones were first taking off everyone was talking about how they wanted it. On a smartwatch's best day, the reaction is, "neat, but I'll pass."

    I do however think there could be a market for the glasses, but not until they don't look like something the doc from Back to the Future would wear. Until then, I'm out.
  • eric678 - Monday, January 19, 2015 - link

    You left out mybasis peak - my current wearable. I like it - mostly a basic watch that tracks everything I want to, but has HR and a good app/web dashboard to analyze.

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