The state of wearable technology and the innovations it brings

At CES Asia 2016, we tap the brains of wearable experts about smartwatches, fitness trackers and more

Wearables aren’t a recent, new innovation that was sprung upon us. In fact, you might have had one from decades ago.

A fair point that Michael Faro, president of Mota, maker of the Mota SmartRing, brought up during the Innovative Wearables panel that happened at CES Asia 2016. After all, did you consider the calculator wristwatch that you wore as a child a wearable? Because technically, it is.

So are your traditional wrist watches, which Dr. Steven LeBeouef, president of Valencell, conceded when he got into arguments with watch makers about the definition of wearables. “A lot of them consider their mechanical or digital watches as wearables,” said LeBeouef when he gave the lowdown about wearables.

Wearable technology is considerably nascent, not for lack of products but the way it’s marketed to the world. This was just one of the many points that was widely discussed when we moderated the panel that also included Mobvoi CEO Li Zhifei.

Wearable technology is a wide-ranging industry, one that Li admits have far too many products to consider. “They will all connect to some device, using Bluetooth,” said Li as he defined a common characteristic of wearables.

There are two aspects, however, that define today’s wearables - connectivity and biometrics, the latter being a familiar topic for LeBeouf and Valencell. The company, which works behind the scenes to provide sensors for wearable products, also looks at how it measures data meaningfully to make sense for a user, or connecting the dots to make it important, according to LeBeouef.

But it doesn’t matter how many metrics is used in wearables, because biometric data changes. “When you start to exercise, we measure what changes first in the course of weeks, months and years and how we can make it an interesting user experience for users,” said LeBeouef, leading to personalised coaching and guide that change based on your biometrics.

Li also notes that for a wearable to be useful, it needs to fulfil four important points - sense, plan, control and action. Much like intelligent voice assistants like Siri and Google Now, a wearable, after prolonged exposure to the user, will understand a user's needs and react accordingly.

It also has to give users the necessary control, such as remotely adjusting the room temperature or making mobile payments, to go beyond its basic function. For example, Ticwatch, a smartwatch made by Mobvio, accepts voice commands and understands when you want to know the weather or check on your schedule.

Metrics and making sense of it is important, but it must also be interconnected with the devices you use. Faro points out that a wearable’s importance extends beyond the link to a smartphone. Mota’s SmartRing, which discreetly displays notification alerts such as an incoming tweet or a calendar reminder, covers that very aspect.

But for wearables to be truly interconnected, the challenge is making it understand you. We’re not just talking about voice recognition, but taking action once it recognises what you say. This is the realm of artificial intelligence, which Li highlights is a very abstract concept for wearables right now. “And it’s still stupid, based on patterns and data, just that we have a better way of using the data,” Li said.

Faro adds on to that, pointing out that while it’s easy to form a communication line with your smartwatch or other wearables, it’s not intelligent enough to understand what you want.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t innovative wearables in the market. LeBeouef singles out fitness tracking headband like Sony’s Smart B-Trainer which doesn’t just measure your heart rate, it also caters and creates an exercise guide based on what it learns about you.

Faro, however, figures it’s unfair to just focus on wearable products that enjoy a lot of attention by virtue of its strong marketing. Vapourware or not, there are interesting concepts that could be implemented to wearable technology. “Understanding human voice or needs is the key but the computer is not intelligent enough to do just that,” Faro said of his wish for an innovation in wearables. A wearable that knows when you want pizza when you’re tired, that’s what Faro envisions the new innovation in wearables.

Beyond concepts, Li’s background as an engineer keeps him grounded in his wish for innovations in wearable. Instead of looking for the next wearable that lets you fly (that’ll be the day), Li conceives small innovations on the hardware front as a win for wearable makers. From making small adjustments to including new features in a wearable, even adding a small component that was once though impossible to include is an achievement on its own.

All three speakers presented very strong cases for how they see wearables and the innovations they bring. But the one common thought they have on wearables is that its growth won’t slow down anytime.

The next innovation could likely happen in the next few months. “Perhaps even now,” alluded LeBeouf as the panel ended.