By Stephen Schenck | April 11, 2013 8:05 PM
Things are about to get weird. We’re nearing a turning point in consumer electronics where highly advanced technology is becoming smaller and more powerful to the extent where some really nifty wearable devices will be hitting store shelves over the course of the next decade or so. For as game-changing as Google Glass looks like it will be, that’s only the start – think of it as the HTC Dream/G1 of this next-gen wearable gear.
Just like we’re now using smartphones in ways we couldn’t even imagine a decade ago, no doubt users, developers, and industry leaders will dream up uses for this tech than have yet to even enter our minds. But however it ends up evolving there are still two big hurdles to overcome, issues all too familiar to smartphone enthusiasts: the dual limitations of battery life and wireless connectivity.
Before you groan and wonder if you haven’t heard all this before, this isn’t the same old, tired story of batteries and cellular data that we’ve covered in regards to smartphones. The unique constraints imposed by wearable tech create some new challenges, and how manufacturers approach these issues may very different from what’s happened with smartphones.
The Power Problem
Batteries, compared to what we see with smartphones, get a huge reprieve from devices like Google Glass or smartwatches by nature of them not having the same, big, power-hungry displays that take a major toll on how much use we can get out of our phones. Problem is, that’s a double-edged sword, and while these gadgets do have tiny screens, that’s because they, themselves are tiny, and have correspondingly little room in which to store a battery.
Now, we’ve talked about battery tech here on Pocketnow a number of times, and the good news is that technology promises higher energy densities, extended cell lives, and reduced charging times. Just like with phones, though, it’s anyone’s guess when such super-batteries will be commercially available and affordable.
Until that gets here, manufacturers need to make compromises. With Google Glass, for instance, this has led to a rather bulky battery compartment that lives behind your right ear. In promotional pictures, you’ll rarely see this part of the headset, tucked just out of frame or behind a wisp of hair, but it’s there, it’s relatively large, and it’s kind of ugly.
Expect more designs like that in the future – maybe not the same layout as with Glass, but this idea of separating the battery from the main hardware and the manufacturer doing its best to tuck it away somewhere.
When it comes to wearable gear and its access to data, the name of the game right now is “tethered.” That smartwatch isn’t pulling Twitter updates off a cell tower itself, but drawing them down through your smartphone’s Bluetooth connection. Google Glass will function much in the same way, though its WiFi support does give it limited abilities to function autonomously.
As these devices become more advanced, I’m not sure tethering is really going to cut it. Right now, we’re fine with the need to link smartwatches to our phones because so much of what we use them for is intimately connected to our phones: notifying us of calls or incoming texts, for instance. But as they evolve, we’re going to want to start using them on their own – why carry your phone with you on a jog where it might be damaged when you can have your smartwatch safely strapped to your wrist?
There’s been some progress already towards giving wearable devices their own, dedicated data connections. Of course, these end up being a bit oversized (if not ridiculously so), so we’re also dealing with some of the same issues faced by the need for large batteries.
But say we can implement cellular radios without killing device size (or battery life, for that matter). How are we going to pay for this data? Cellular companies are already pushing their luck when charging users once for their smartphone data connections, and again with their tablets. When you add in a watch, headset, and who knows what else, users are going to reach some breaking point where the nickel-and-diming becomes too much to stand.
What’s the solution there? Maybe flat per-person data plans – all the devices you want, all linked to your account? Then again, that’s not particularly fair to the carriers, since all those concurrent connections – even if you’re not actively consuming data – are going to eat up network capacity. At the moment, I don’t really have a good solution, which may be another reason tethering remains dominant. Maybe some sort of cloud-based peer-to-peer WiFi mesh network?
Make no mistake, though: even with these issues to deal with, wearable hardware is going to be big, and it will just have to work around these limitations. The solutions may not always be graceful, and we may find ourselves wondering just how practical some of them are, but manufacturers will find a way. For a while, that may limit the growth we see in this field, but eventually there will be really fantastic hardware that shines in spite of such problems. The interesting thing will be seeing how companies adjust, and what new technology arrives to offer its own solutions. One way or another, it’s going to be pretty darn exciting.
Image: Twentieth Century Fox