With rapid development in health monitoring, a sensor-packed smartwatch could exploit the vast potential of our personal dat
Smartwatches on the market have offered simplified features from a phone, but Apple’s much-rumoured iWatch could explore a new range of sensors that gather health and fitness data. Photograph: Kārlis Dambrāns/flickr
An Apple iWatch has been rumoured for the best part of three years, but Apple’s recent activity points to the release of a smartwatch sooner rather than later.
There are many things we’d like to see in an Apple iWatch, hopefully a smart wrist-borne device that finally justifies the existence of smartwatches as a piece of useful wearable technology.
One of the most important items on our wish list for a smartwatch is the ability to offer something that a smartphone cannot. Given smartphones are already capable of combining voice control, predictive assistants and cameras capable of taking stunning photos, one of the areas where smartwatches could really add value is in the health arena.
A smartwatch packed with sensors designed to provide body monitoring information could enable many fascinating new data-driven applications, from fitness tracking to mood-linked music commanded by your heartbeat.
‘Yes. Absolutely. No Change’
Apple’s smartwatch has been rumoured to be under development for years, and it is highly likely Apple has been at least investigating the possibility of a wearable device like a smartwatch for at least that long. The iPad, for instance, was developed to the prototype stage well before the original iPhone was released in 2007, but only made its appearance in 2010.
In July last year, Apple applied for an “iWatch” trademark in Japan and Russia, but not in Europe where the trademark is held by an Italian company.
Apple’s Tim Cook has promised new “product categories” for over a year, and confirmed new things were still on track in January. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Stoking rumours, Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook recently confirmed that promised future “product categories” were still on track saying, “Yes. Absolutely. No Change” when asked during an earnings call last month.
“We’re working on things you can’t see today. We have zero issue coming up with things that we want to do that we think we can disrupt in a major way,” Cook said. “The challenge is always to focus to the very few that deserve all of our energy.”
Probing the waters of the regulatory landscape
A wearable device to capture the potential of health and fitness apps would suit the smartwatch form factor.
Interestingly, in December 2013 Apple reportedly met with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the regulatory body charged with overseeing food safety, sales of medication and the approval of medical devices in the US.
At the meeting were a team of senior Apple executives, including senior vice president of operations Jeff Williams, vice president of software technology, Bud Tribble, and vice president of worldwide government affairs, Cathy Novelli. Michael O’Reilly, previously the chief medical officer of a medical sensor company called Masimo who joined Apple last year, and Tim Powderly from Apple’s government affairs department also attended the meeting.
Sitting on the other side of the table were senior policy and regulatory FDA officers including Jeff Shuren, director of the Centre for Devices and Radiological Health, and Bakul Patel, a senior policy advisor who drafted the FDA’s mobile medical app guidance and plays a role in medical gadget approval.
The seniority of the meeting indicates that either Apple is probing the waters of the regulatory landscape regarding medical devices and apps, or is specifically trying to push through something stuck in regulatory approval.
‘The whole sensor field is going to explode’
It is clear that Apple is looking at medical applications for its apps and hardware at the very least. Apple’s integration of the M7 co-processor into the iPhone 5S shows that the company has experience building technology for low-power sensor usage, something that would be crucial to a sensor-packed smartwatch.
The iPhone 5S came equipped with a low-power motion co-processor called the M7, which collects information from the smartphone’s various sensors without powering up the main processor. Photograph: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
The M7 chip is able to collect data from the smartphone’s various built-in sensors, including the GPS and accelerometer without relying on a power-hungry main processor.
“The whole sensor field is going to explode,” Tim Cook said in interview in 2013. “It’s a little all over the place right now. With the arc of time, it will become clearer.”
A ‘Healthbook’ app
Health and fitness tracking could be integrated into Apple’s next mobile software update, claimed Apple news site 9to5Mac. Describing an app called “Healthbook”, the source said it could collect and store data on fitness activities, including steps taken, calories burned, and distance walked.
The Healthbook app is also said to target medical and health data, tracking a person’s heart rate and blood pressure, as well as other blood-related statistics like glucose levels.
Those features are unlikely to be built into a smartphone – which leaves the door open for integration with a sensor-packed device worn on the body, of which a smartwatch is a logical choice. iWatch could provide the sensor data required for the health-tracking elements of Healthbook.
Apple holds patents for sensory information collection, including blood-pressure monitoring, but it is unclear whether that technology is mature enough to build into a smartwatch device.
Simply becomes a second screen for the smartphone
One of the areas smartwatch efforts have failed from the likes of Samsung, Sony and Pebble is in the area of autonomy. Most smartwatches available to date have relied on a persistent Bluetooth connection to a smartphone or tablet, something Apple’s iWatch is expected to be hampered with.
Equipped with an e-ink screen, the Pebble smartwatch was one of the first smartphone-connected smartwatches available.
The watch itself simply becomes a second screen for the smartphone, displaying notifications and allowing very limited interaction, such as music controls. Costing upwards of £100 – with some costing as much as a smartphone – smartwatches have lacked a “killer feature” to convince consumers to strap the often bulky accessories to their wrists.
The advantage Apple has over other smartwatch manufacturers is that it controls the entirety of both the software on the iPhone and iPad as well as any iWatch, which could mean better integration and interactivity between the two devices than could be achieved by third-party manufacturers.
Samsung is in a similar position with the Galaxy Gear, although it does not write the Android software used on its smartphones and tablets but merely customises it with its notorious “TouchWiz” interface.
Tied to iOS 8
Apple could leverage Siri on the wrist for voice control and personal assistant duties, while relying on the swiping gestures common to Apple’s iPhone and iPad to navigate full screen apps.
Apple has already had some experience with this style of small-screen touch interface. First introduced in September 2010, Apple produced an iPod nano with an integrated a touchscreen allowing touch control of music playback. At the time wrist strap accessories were sold that turned the clip-like nano into a watch using the iPod’s integrated clock face feature.
It is likely that any iWatch announcements, if made this year, would be tied to the unveiling of the next iteration of Apple’s iPhone and iPad software, iOS 8, which is anticipated to be announced in June and released in September.