The Power of Wearables
The potential of wearable computing for efficiency and innovation is enormous. For business leaders and CIOs, wearable technology represents an opportunity to find more intelligent solutions to real problems and to leverage these devices for the benefit of the organization. But before wearables can successfully realize these expectations, there remain basic constraints which must be overcome.
Chief among these is limited battery life, which prevents many use scenarios from being cost effective enough to put into practice. At its root the problem is a simple one: wearable devices must be as small and light as possible, but powerful batteries are large and add weight. Breaking this trade-off and extending the battery life of wearable devices is crucial to ensuring they can make headway beyond early consumer adopters and fuel innovation for business and enterprise.
It’s clear that, when using a smart watch or fitness tracker, some tasks are going to drain the battery more than others. With the Apple Watch, users are able to increase the battery life significantly if they make fewer calls and use fewer apps. Earlier this summer, however, researchers at Microsoft delivered a paper that introduced another way of increasing the length of time between charges. Rather than seeking to improve the battery directly, the WearDrive system works by reducing the strain on a wearable device’s power supply. In this model, a smart watch or equivalent wearable is paired with another larger device, which then takes on the most intensive tasks and operations via a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection. With storage and other tasks offloaded onto the other device, the battery life of the wearable device improves and users have to make fewer compromises about the apps they use. WearDrive was tested on an Android phone and compatible device, with two devices automatically pairing whenever they’re in close proximity. The necessity to pair a wearable with another device could be seen as another constraint, but this sort of system could equally be seen as a practical way of maximizing the potential of wearable computing.
Much of the media coverage of wearable computing is inevitably focused on consumers, with the focus on fitness trackers, smart watches and augmented reality glasses. The functionality of such devices means that they have relatively large screens and that they are generally energy intensive.
For many businesses, however, the real potential of wearable computing rests in less powerful devices. For sensors, medical implants and other similar devices, we are fast arriving at a point where it is feasible for batteries to be replaced with energy harvesting technology that draws energy from ambient light, heat and movement. While there may not be a kinetic smart watch, the integration of energy harvesting technology could well make up part of a larger package for improving battery performance. This technology looks set to become increasingly commonplace as the Internet of Things takes shape; indeed, it seems ready-made for data harvesting devices designed to send and track specific information, whether for fitness, medical or business purposes.
The convenience of wireless charging solutions for enterprise and consumer use has seen it attract a good deal of investment. From Samsung’s Wireless Charging Pad to the new Smart Connector for the iPad Pro, it’s apparent that there is an element of competitive advantage to be gained here. Wireless charging is popular with consumers because it’s perceived to be more convenient than having to use cable connectors which often break or are easily lost. For wearables, wireless charging solutions still face the same problems as wired alternatives, and at present many of those being produced by Texas Instruments and others are better suited to less power-hungry devices. But, particularly for smart watches, there is still benefit in the greater flexibility afforded by wireless charging. The Moto 360 smart watch, for example, can work with any Qi charging base, thereby harnessing the potential for interoperability afforded by wireless charging. For CIOs considering ways of integrating wearables into BYOD and device management policies, Qi charging bases could help to facilitate this.
For wearable computing to make its mark on innovation and efficiency, businesses will have to find ways of overcoming the current constraints in battery life. In the absence of a silver bullet, any solution will have to be based on a holistic approach that combines better battery technology, smarter power management, wireless charging and energy harvesting. In this way, organizations should be able to better explore the value and potential of wearable devices.
By George Foot