It's finally happened. After much speculation and anticipation, Apple introduced to the world the Apple Watch, which means the tech giant is finally getting into the wearable space. While Google Glass and Galaxy Gear have long been in the market, Apple's watch could be considered the last major piece of the wearables puzzle that will finally bring the technology into all of our lives — and soon.
In 2013, when the element14 Community first starting incorporating wearable capabilities into its design competitions, the technology was still very much bleeding edge. In a year's time we have seen wearables become mainstream, and with the introduction of the Apple Watch, by this time next year we might see wearables as commonplace as smartphones and tablets. While the launch of the new smartwatch is sure to help further the mass marketization of wearables, it is also forcing the industry to look more seriously at the capabilities, limitations and challenges to wearable technology at large.
Wireless vs. inductive charging
One big question that was on everyone's mind after the unveiling of the Apple Watch was, “why not wireless charging?” It is obviously the ideal power management solution — does anybody really want to take off and plug in their watch? It is much more convenient and impressive for the watch to pick up power from a proximate source of energy throughout the day while still attached to your wrist, and over the course of two element14 design challenges we have seen an increased efficiency in wireless power solutions to suggest such a system is possible.
Instead, the Apple Watch uses inductive charging. Power is transmitted to the Apple Watch through a magnetic field created between the device and a MagSafe charger. This is still a form of “wireless” charging, but the watch does need to be clipped to the MagSafe charger for power. While induction charging has become much more effective in managing power since its early days, there are still challenges to the solution first generation Apple Watch wearers will likely face. For example, energy is still likely to be lost between the charger and device, and the coils within the watch must be lined up precisely for the induction charger to work. Even when lined up perfectly, the range of transmission is short — which is why the MagSafe must be attached to the Apple Watch.
So why didn't Apple choose true wireless charging for its new device? For example, the Wireless Power Consortium developed the Qi interface standard that is already being used by other major mobile device manufacturers experimenting with wireless charging — HTC, LG, and Motorola to name a few.
Though the Qi system does require a charging pad to transfer power to your device, it can do so without the two touching. With a range of just under 2 inches, you could theoretically charge your Apple Watch while on your wrist with the charging pad under your desk, and even charge multiple devices from a single pad.
Based on Apple's previous design moves, however, it's probable the company wants to create their own proprietary standard for charging wirelessly, and MagSafe will suffice until that happens. Anybody with an Apple product knows the power connectors are proprietary, so it's not too far of a stretch to assume they would want the same when it comes to wireless charging.
Despite this, implementing inductive charging in the smartwatch proves even Apple realizes the need for eventual wireless devices, and it may be a sign of what's to come for future iterations of their phones as well. Other manufacturers must follow suit, if there is any chance of moving past the perception that wireless is merely an accoutrement to wearables, and acknowledging instead that the two technologies together can benefit industries beyond their own.
Predictions and Implications
One of the strongest visuals to come from the Apple Watch, Galaxy Gear, Pebble, and many other smartwatch launches was that of Dick Tracy — the classic comic strip character who used a two-way radio wristwatch to solve crimes and save the day. The anticipation of a futuristic, all-in-one device finally hitting the market certainly helped to push wearables into the spotlight at first, but from a consumer standpoint these devices will make the most sense in the long-term when they integrate into existing systems and everyday tasks. Take, for example, using Google Maps on Google Glass, unlocking our car doors with the NFC ring or using Apple Pay on our Apple Watch. And while these applications are certainly interesting, I strongly believe that wireless wearables will have the biggest implications where health and safety are concerned.
For example, over the past few years we have seen increased attention on head-related sports injuries, and wearables could provide coaches with critical information about their players in real-time — helping to prevent concussions and even save lives. At element14, we are also looking at wearables from the perspective of enhancing safety with several design competitions in the pipeline that will seek to do just that. Health and safety applications are what will finally democratize wearable devices and lead to a more widespread acceptance, rather than the current elite status wearables carry. Of course, there are certain trust hurdles consumers have to overcome, but if the last year is any indication, in the next year alone we can expect to see a big application shift in the wearable technology industry.
Whatever path the Apple Watch or any of its predecessors takes, it's important to remember the buck doesn't stop with watches; those devices are part of larger bouquet of applications yet to come. As the wireless standard and other backend technologies evolve, we will see wearable technology emerge across a myriad of arenas in which watches, Apple's included, will be just one piece of a much larger puzzle.
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