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How wearable apps are influencing the future of software design

As new wearable applications are constantly emerging in the marketplace, their development and design are changing how software is being written. Experts discuss the future of apps.

Wearable apps and devices such as smartwatches and fitness sensors have been getting a lot of press in the mainstream media. But these devices are still in the early adopter phases. The user interfaces and the application infrastructure behind them are a work in progress. At the Connections Conference in San Francisco, experts looked at some of the important considerations for creating compelling apps for the future of wearable devices.

The use cases for wearable apps and technology will grow as consumers learn about different benefits, such as health and fitness tracking, independent living and effortless home control. Consumers may first buy a smartwatch because it is cool. Experts envision that these devices that are always on the body will take advantage of rich application integration that enables experiences such as locking/unlocking doors, turning on/off lights, tracking sleep patterns and providing assistance alerts.

The market for devices is vast, and there is room for multiple devices and multiple consumer purchase paths.
Mark PrinceVP of Consumer Business at Withings

Mark Prince, vice president of Consumer Business at Withings said, "The market for devices is vast, and there is room for multiple devices and multiple consumer purchase paths. Unlike PCs, no one solution will dominate the market." The wearable app interface might disappear. Sensors could be in the watch band or the shoe. There is room for more than one device depending on the specialization of the sensor. Companies like Withings are approaching the field from a health point of view, but other markets, like fitness and security, could apply the same basic capabilities.

Use the cloud to glue IoT devices and apps

Dave Evans, CTO at Stringify said, "We believe the IoT [internet of things] has tremendous potential, but there are key barriers to unleashing it." Stringify has built an IoT cloud platform that allows consumers with no technical background to connect devices, services and applications by dragging and dropping components through a GUI.

This platform works independently of IoT device APIs and currently supports about 280 devices. Developers need to think about how to work with the cloud and applications running via browsers and mobile apps to configure the kind of interactions that will drive user adoption. Evans said, "I think we are going to shift from rational experimentation to experimenting with different form factors and designs for wearables. Devices need to be aware of the environment and what is going on."

As developers think about the constraints of the smartwatch, they also need to think about the context of the broader ecosystems. Evans said devices close to the skin can measure heart rate, galvanic skin response and blood pressure. This allows more possibilities for tapping into this information to drive rich applications using context about where someone is and what they are doing. Simple devices with little or no screen limit the types of interactions they allow. But apps on these can take advantage of cheap, low power accelerometers, which could the doors for gesture-driven control of smart devices in the home.

Replace batteries with better connectivity

One of the biggest letdowns of the Apple Watch has been the short battery life. Adding another device to charge daily is likely to push consumers away. To address this challenge, device makers are figuring out how to extend battery life to six months or more. For example, Misfit is a wearable tech company with products designed to run on batteries that last about six months per charge. The simplest one is Link, an activity monitor and smart button that can be configured for taking pictures, tracking activity or controlling lights.

What makes this kind of device compelling is that users can configure smart actions for a simple button using the cloud based on the context. For example, Misfit has integration with the Logitech Harmony Hub IoT gateway. This enables a button that can dim the light when someone launches Netflix, for example. A cloud back end makes it possible to trigger different actions with the same button in different contexts. For instance, the button might snap a picture when a camera app is active on the user's smartphone.

Experts also see an emerging market for smart jewelry and accessories. Francis Hoe, operations manager at Misfit said, "The next big innovation will be in the headphone space. Wearing headphones is something people do more frequently. Today we are seeing a lot of companies creating headphones with communication capabilities. The question is how to integrate speakers, microphones, and actuators for tactile feedback."

How wearables could make existing processes better

One factor that could drive wearable apps lies in making existing use cases work better. For example, Withings has been offering a blood pressure monitor for some time. Users would traditionally reach across their bodies to start a measurement, which has a tendency to alter the readings. Withings' Prince said, "We realized it would be a nice experience for Apple Watch users to be able to take a reading by tapping the watch."

The cloud and connectivity promise to open up a variety of new possibilities for developers. But it is important to consider the security and privacy implications involved in managing a user's data. There are strong privacy mandates in Europe that prohibit the movement of personal data to other countries. There are also issues in the U.S. related to capturing data from children. Prince said that these issues become complicated as data is used by applications from different vendors.

Almost all IoT devices operate within a larger ecosystem. Eventually, consumers will become more attuned to this. Some vendors like Withings generate profits on hardware sales and are in the fortunate position they do not have to monetize the data. Prince said, "Other companies, especially American ones, have more complex existential business model questions they need to answer."

Next Steps

Is bandwidth the bottleneck in wearable app adoption?

Which protocols are the right protocols for wearable app and IoT development?

Five ways cloud computing simplified embedded, mobile and IoT development

This was last published in September 2016
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