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CES 2014: Less Is More for Smart Watches and Other Wearable Gadgets

Companies have figured out that a smart watch can’t just be functional; it has to look good, too.

Wearable devices promises to transform how we live and communicate—but the perfect design has yet to emerge.

When Intel CEO Brian Krzanich unveiled a smart watch during his keynote speech at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas on Monday, he brought his company level with Samsung and Qualcomm, both of which sell watches with sizeable color touch screens that are capable of running apps (see “Samsung’s Galaxy Gear” and “Review: Qualcomm’s Toq”).

Hybrid watch: The Cogito smart watch has a circular display inside the dial of an analog watch. Its designers say that’s just enough space to deliver useful notifications from a person’s phone without compromising on the style and compactness of conventional watches. 

Sport watch: The LG lifeband can track a person’s workouts or daily activity using motion sensors, and also displays notifications from a smartphone such as new messages.

Dual screen: The Razer Nabu has two displays, positioned on the inside and outside of a person’s wrist. The outer display shows generic notifications from a phone (for example: a call is incoming). The inner display can be consulted more discreetly for fuller information, such as who the call is from.

Smarter watch: Pebble’s first smart watch was made from plastic and had a rubber strap. At CES, the company launched the Pebble Steel, a model with a metal case and leather and metal straps.

Heart monitor: The Wellograph watch tracks a person’s motions and also his heart rate using a sensor embedded into the back of its case.

Fitness accessory: The Shine wearable activity tracker now comes with a leather strap, intended to broaden the device’s appeal.

Sun sensor: The jewel-like June tracks a person’s exposure to sunlight and offers advice, warnings, and recommendations about sun exposure through a companion smartphone app. 

Hybrid watch: The Cogito smart watch has a circular display inside the dial of an analog watch. Its designers say that’s just enough space to deliver useful notifications from a person’s phone without compromising on the style and compactness of conventional watches. 

Sport watch: The LG lifeband can track a person’s workouts or daily activity using motion sensors, and also displays notifications from a smartphone such as new messages.

Dual screen: The Razer Nabu has two displays, positioned on the inside and outside of a person’s wrist. The outer display shows generic notifications from a phone (for example: a call is incoming). The inner display can be consulted more discreetly for fuller information, such as who the call is from.

Smarter watch: Pebble’s first smart watch was made from plastic and had a rubber strap. At CES, the company launched the Pebble Steel, a model with a metal case and leather and metal straps.

Heart monitor: The Wellograph watch tracks a person’s motions and also his heart rate using a sensor embedded into the back of its case.

Fitness accessory: The Shine wearable activity tracker now comes with a leather strap, intended to broaden the device’s appeal.

Sun sensor: The jewel-like June tracks a person’s exposure to sunlight and offers advice, warnings, and recommendations about sun exposure through a companion smartphone app. 

Yet Krzanich was running against the trend at CES, where companies large and small have shown smart watches intentionally less packed with features and less reminiscent of wrist-mounted smartphones than those developed by Intel and its competitors. Like MIT Technology Review, many in the electronics industry seem to have concluded that for this new species of gadget to earn mass appeal it must be significantly simpler and more thoughtfully designed (see “Smart Watches Are Dumb”).

“All those other devices are very cool but quite bulky,” said Frederic Ruffat, an executive with Hong Kong company ConnecteDevice. Ruffat was in Las Vegas to launch his own company’s smart watch, called Cogito, which is designed like a conventional analog watch and has a digital screen behind the arms, in the center of its face. “That space is just enough to provide the essential notifications that you need,” Ruffat said of the design. The Cogito can be preordered for $180.

The Cogito connects to a smartphone and notifies a person of e-mails, text messages, calls, and impending calendar events, but it displays only enough text for a person to decide whether or not to pull out his phone and act on the alert. In marked contrast to some other smart watches, this limited set of features gives the Cogito approximately a year of battery life on a conventional watch battery. The device is operated by conventional push buttons on the side, and by tapping on the front of the device.

Korean electronics giant LG also launched a simplified smart watch at CES. The LG Lifeband can track a person’s activity and workouts using motion sensors but can also show notifications from a connected phone on its touch screen, which can be used to send simple commands to a phone.

Gaming accessory company Razer, previously known for specialized mice and keyboards, launched a similar product at CES called the Nabu. A screen on the outside of the wristband passes on notifications from a person’s phone, for example that someone is calling. A second display, on the inside of the wrist, displays more private information, such as who is calling, so it can be accessed without the whole world seeing it. “Smart watches in their current form are too bulky,” said Min-Liang Tan, Razer’s cofounder and CEO. “The Nabu delivers only the information you need.”

Other smart watch boosters at CES tried to address the common criticism that the devices are ugly or unappealing compared to conventional wristwear. Pebble, the crowdfunded company credited with proving that some people really do lust after a computer-like watch (see “A Smart Watch Created by the Crowd”), launched a more formal looking version of its original product, which has a plain, plastic, and rubber look. Named the Pebble Steel, the new model is styled in polished steel and comes with a leather or metal strap. It costs $249 and will start shipping this month.

A watch called the Wellograph, which also launched in Vegas, has a similar style, as well as a novel heart-rate sensor built into the underside of the device. The Wellograph will cost $320 and is scheduled to become available in the first half of 2014.

Sonny Vu, founder and CEO of Misfit Wearables, which makes a small fitness sensor called the Shine that can be worn like a watch or clipped to clothing, told MIT Technology Review that product designers are finally starting to pay the necessary attention to the design and style of smart watches and wearable computers. “Material choices are a particularly big thing for these devices,” he said. “Most are so far made from plastic and rubber, and not everyone wants to wear that, especially women.” Vu showed new leather wristbands for the Shine at CES.

Similar thinking led French company Netatmo to launch a wearable computing device called the June this week. Resembling a large jewel, the button-free device is mounted on a leather bracelet that wraps around the wearer’s wrist multiple times. The June tracks a person’s exposure to sunlight so that a companion phone app can offer advice and warnings about covering up or sunscreen use. The June was designed by Camille Toupet, who has previously worked on jewelry for French fashion house Louis Vuitton. The device will be available in the second quarter of this year for $99.

The crowded, flashy showrooms installed in Las Vegas during CES are poor environments in which to judge whether any of the new smart watches and other wearable computers have a chance at attracting a significant following. However, it is clear that the appearance of so many new wearable devices this year is only the beginning of a period of mass experimentation by the computer industry.

Major component makers made it clear at CES that they expect many more wearable devices to be created in the coming months, and announced new products intended to fuel the frenzy.

Intel’s Krzanich, for example, also used his keynote to launch a thumb-sized computer called the Edison intended to be used by anyone from hobbyists to electronics giants to rapidly prototype and test novel wearable devices.

Meanwhile, Freescale, which specializes in compact chips and sensors for small and mobile computing devices, launched a small circuit board called the Wearable Reference Platform, or WaRP, at CES with similar goals. The $149 board is intended to speed the process of prototyping wearable devices and readying them for production, Robert Thomson, head of business development for Freescale’s i.MX line of low-power processors, told MIT Technology Review. The WaRP has a CPU, memory, motion sensors, connections for displays and further sensors, and runs a version of the Android operating system.

“We’re trying to give people a way to tinker and innovate and go to market quickly,” said Thomson, who says the industry is convinced wearable computers make sense but is unsure which designs will take off. “We will see companies experimenting, with very short product life cycles and broad product portfolios to spread the risk and test ideas,” he said. “They are in the very early stages of working out what they want and need to do.”

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