If you want to know what the wearable tech of the future will look like, Steven Holmes is a good person to ask.
His list of former employers includes Intuitive Surgical, where he helped develop the first minimally invasive heart surgery system, Apple, where he worked on the Power Mac Cube – he says he sees Apple's tiny new Mac Pro as “a kind of homage to the work we did on the Cube” – and Palm, where he helped turn the smartphone from a niche, geeky product into something everyone had to have.
Most recently he worked at Nike, where he supervised the introduction of the FuelBand, one of the key products at the start of what he and many others hope will be a wearable revolution. And now he’s VP of Intel’s New Devices Group, the specialist lab in which the world’s largest chipmaker is designing the gadgets of the future.
“It's like being a kid in a candy shop,” says Holmes of his work at the New Devices Group. “The name is intentionally vague, because it's intended to encompass all the consumer products that will follow phones and tablets. I'm responsible for innovation and some special projects - we have a lot of big things that are going to delight people when they come along.”
The New Devices Group has been around for less than a year, but it’s already making an impact: all the reference designs Intel showed off at CES – its pulse-reading headphones, its smart charging bowl, its SD-card-sized Edison miniputer – came out of Holmes’ department.
But bringing wearable technology to the masses won’t be easy, says Holmes. “There's a bunch of obstacles to wearables being more than a curiosity or a flash in the pan. We’re looking very carefully at making these things something that people will want to wear, which is why we're collaborating with the Council of Fashion Designers of America: we believe that design and fashion can solve the stigma that goes with wearing some of these products. See, a lot of companies have been focussed on what the 'killer app' could be for wearables, without realising that there's already a 'killer app' for things we wear - they make us feel good about ourselves.”
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“There are some other obstacles, too. One is that for a lot of these wearables, you have to change your behaviour. It's actually work to use them. Like using a chest strap for getting your heart rate – it's uncomfortable, you have to pair it with your phone, you need to charge it or replace the battery, and it's actually a hassle to own, even if the information you get from it is valuable. That’s why we built the smart earbuds – they give you the heart rate information that's valuable for your training, without adding any additional burden to what you do. So I think that's a key step - you want more functionality without more friction.”
“Battery life is another issue. Obviously at Intel we create chips that are very frugal when it comes to power, but there are other ways to approach it, and the one we looked at is making charging really easy to do. That's why we proposed the smart charging bowl: when I get home, I don't want to have to plug in my smartphone and smartwatch and smart glasses and smart earphones. So the bowl takes advantage of a behaviour I already have - I can just empty my pockets into the bowl and go on with my evening, and then if they're all charged in the morning, I'll be more likely to use them the next day.”
It’s still early days, though. “To be honest,” admits Holmes, “other than my FuelBand, there aren't any wearables that I use religiously. But I have been using a lot of them, and there's definitely some real sparks of insight in them. To me it's like the early days of smartphones. If you remember the early Palm Trio and the first BlackBerrys, they were like tiny little PCs with a shrunken keyboards and tiny little screens, and there were some people who had to have them, but otherwise 98% of the population didn't see why they needed one. It took a while to change the user interface, going from an older paradigm to one that was more appropriate to the form factor, improving the functionality, the capability and the pleasure of using the device. It took a few years, but then everybody had a smartphone. So I think wearables are at that early stage, where people are trying a bunch of things, but I don't think anybody's cracked the code yet.”