Visitors to the show all received the same message – a watch tells the time. Its battery lasts several years and costs range from next to nothing to inordinately expensive, exquisitely crafted, heirloom collectables. Well that is what the Swiss watch industry would have you believe.
Apple (it does not participate in CES) would have you believe that it invented the ‘smartwatch’ category and to its credit it has managed to charge for, and sell, an awful lot of these expensive fashion statements. For fear of upsetting Apple lovers its smartwatch is just an expensive digital watch with benefits.
Fitness – or fit for purpose - is the true driver for wearables, not fashion. The electronics industry knows it – it is just the poor consumer that is dazed and confused by clever marketing and branding touting the smart watch as the next big wallet emptying thing.
CES was almost bereft of Apple watches (expect on the odd wrists), Android Wear was almost a no show except that Casio had one on its stand, and the message was that fitness is first – anything else it can do is a convergent bonus.
What are the smartwatch ‘fitness’ trade-offs?
First I recommend you read 'What smartwatches and fitness bands excited me in 2015’ as a good backgrounder.
Very few smartwatches are truly water-proof and most are not built for adverse environments – they are fashion statements designed to look good with faux rose gold, diamonds, changeable faces, and leather bands!
Fitness requires ruggedness, durability, and the ability to do most things without being constantly tethered to a smartphone (which in itself is not really meant for adverse environments). The smartphone (or computer) should simply be used on demand to collate and manipulate the data it collects.
Most smart watches collect very few data points – say under 10. A true fitness device like Garmin’s Viovoactive collects five times that.
A smartwatch accelerometer (pedometer) coupled to a time line can provide very approximate distance, pace and speeds and if there is a barometer too perhaps elevation (steps up or down). These are all wildly inaccurate compared to a GPS (and shunned because this is battery sapping).
No matter how much Apple et al, tout the supposed accuracy of wrist based heart beat monitors these are merely convenient, inconsistent, second rate, technology compared to a chest strap, or sensing headphones (earlobe).
And the ‘house’ fitness apps may look polished but are extremely limited in what they can really do. If you use a real fitness app you will understand that statement.
In short smartwatches generally make lousy fitness companions. There are some crossover fitness devices that offer some smartwatch benefits.
Where is fitness heading?
The key is wearable and functional.
Sensoria showed off a range of fitness socks that accurately track runner’s data including cadence (rhythmic pattern), foot strike, foot landing, and pace. These have three sensors that also map pressure points. A Bluetooth anklet strap transmits data to a smart device. Sensoria also showed off a smart short and long sleeve shirt and a fitness sports bra that measure other fitness metrics.
Altra IQ showed a smartshoe that tracks cadence, contact time and running efficiency.
Xensr Air is for action sports and tracks (via 3D sensors and a rugged watch) capture jump height, airtime, jump distance, speed, inverts, landing impacts, vertical feet, and more.
Moikit Seed showed a smart water bottle that tracks how much you drink and reminds you when to hydrate. LifeFuels take that one step further with a smart nutrition bottle that dispenses water, vitamins, vodka …
Healbe GoBe measures galvanic skin response (stress and glycaemic food index measurement), and has an impedance sensor that measures the flow of fluids in and out of your cells for an approximate calorie intake guide.
Garmin showed a Varia Vision that is a wearable for cyclists – a clip on glasses device that works in accord with other Garmin products.
Withings Go (pictured in above) is a very practical, low cost, fitness band that tells the time too with an e-ink screen and an eight-month battery.
In fact, there was no one fitness solution – no magic bullet smartwatch - but a combination of appropriate sensors (fitness bands, chest straps, smart clothes etc.) coupled to smart apps that could provide some real time capability but more importantly full analysis later on. More a collaborative ecosystem than dominated by any one brand.
And the conclusion
Wearables are being driven by two opposing forces – smartwatches that are seen as yet another way to extend a smartphones reach and fitness that tries to do something useful.
I have reviewed perhaps a dozen (or more) smart devices and my take is that a traditional watch is the best watch (if you still wear one), everything a smartwatch can do is already in your pocket, and fitness is really where this all should be heading.