Keeping half an eye on the latest set of Apple product announcements, especially the wearables, I wondered “Has Apple Run Out Of Innovation?”
Perhaps not totally, the innovative wireless headphones and Waterproof iPhone indicate that there is at least some incremental innovation happening, but it looks increasingly like an effort to extract ever more value from existing technologies than to create completely new innovations. As a result the Apple Watch has more in common with a Palm Pilot than the future of wearable technologies.
It seems like forever since large tech company came up with a real innovation. Part of genius of Steve Jobs was to spot an unmet need then assemble and market a bunch of components to address that need in a high margin user friendly way. It’s a risky strategy but one that paid off. By contrast the post Jobs Apple along with rivals like Samsung, have concentrated on making the same package smaller faster and more feature intensive. With each incremental improvement, GPS, higher resolution cameras, voice control etc. the urge to upgrade becomes less compelling as the pace of innovation slows.
Dull Boring Unimaginative Wearables
One of the areas where tech innovation really disappoints is wearables. Sure the new Apple Watch is an improvement over the first-generation, but it doesn’t do anything that can’t be done by a number of competing products. Samsung’s efforts in wearables, while at least getting away from the concept of taking a smartphone and making it smaller, have also met with derision. A typical example being the Smart Suit which the company showed off at CES 2016, described by one pundit as “technologically, it
’s not impressive. It’s really just an NFC tag sewn onto a suit.” The Smart Suit has already gone on sale in Korea for about $500 and claims to be able to do things like unlock your phone when you take it out of your pocket or let you exchange business cards digitally. Is that just what the world has been waiting for?
So the tech industry’s approach to wearables so far has been to take a decade old technology, stitch it into a suit or a package it into a wristband, and call it innovation. Hmmm.
The Future Won’t Be Entirely Silicon Based
I’ve spent the past few months taking a long look at wearable technologies, and the conclusion is that the future won’t be entirely silicon based (see Smart Textiles and Wearables).
Technology is already moving away from smart watches and wrist bands. Samsung’s Body Compass tank top and pair of athletic pants was also shown at CES16. External nubs hide a processor and battery, which power the sensors beneath the fabric. Since the sensors are in the clothes themselves, the garments can easily measure things like heart rate, stance and even body fat levels. This is part of a growing trend of second generation wearables where the sensors are embedded in the clothes rather than on your wrist. Google, Ralph Lauren, Textronics and Flex are trying similar approaches.
Where things get really interesting is third generation wearables where the garment is the sensor. A growing number of companies including AdvanPro, Tamicare and BeBop sensors are making rapid progress in creating pressure, strain and temperature sensors that are part of the garment as opposed to being stitched in. These companies are being supported manufacturers of the advanced materials. Toray, Panasonic, Covestro, DuPont and Toyobo are already suppling the necessary materials, while researchers are creating sensing and energy storage technologies, from flexible batteries to graphene supercapacitors which will power tomorrows wearables.
From Sports to Medical
Integrating the sensors with the clothing, especially close fitting athletic wear, allows better accuracy as the sensors do not move on the skin, which opens up opportunities beyond sport in medical monitoring. This is an application where accurate long term monitoring or parameters such as pulse. respiration and blood pressure is currently impossible, despite it providing invaluable information and forming the bedrock of telemedicine.
So while the current wearables are somewhat unimaginative and disappointing, in the future the Apple Watch and Fitbit and other devices will be viewed simply as the first crude attempts in wearables, in the same way that the Psion Organiser and Palm Pilot presaged the rise of smart phones.