Wi-Fi plus Android apps make for a smarter watch

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Wearable connected devices haven’t made a splash yet, but the number of products trying to crack the market is on the rise. The latest is from WIMM Labs, a Los Altos, Calif. startup, which introduced the WIMM Wearable Platform Tuesday. The small display can be worn as a watch or be clipped on to clothing, where it runs custom applications built on Google Android. Similar earlier entries such as Sony Ericsson’s LiveView  and the Metawatch, rely mainly on a smartphone for powering micro apps. One key difference in WIMM’s device is support for Wi-Fi connectivity; something other devices in this market don’t offer.

WIMM’s device is akin to a chunky iPod nano; the 12.3 millimeters thickness gives it more girth than most smartphones of today. But that’s likely because it has smartphone-like components inside: a 667 MHz processor, accelerometer and magnetometer for tracking, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and up to 32 GB of storage capacity. Information is shown on a low-resolution, 1.4-inch capacitive touchscreen. The company claims support for Android, iOS and BlackBerry handsets, but software for the device is built on Android. Instead of direct sales, WIMM will license its technology.

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The idea behind small wearable screens is intriguing and one I’ve experimented with for several months. I purchased a Sony Ericsson Live View, but promptly placed it in a drawer after just a few days. The small device was buggy and lost its Bluetooth connection with my Android phone dozens of times during the course of a day. Next I turned to the Metawatch prototype and found much more success. Thanks to a super Bluetooth radio and software, it solved the connectivity issues; I’ve walked 80 feet away from my phone while wearing the Metawatch before the connection drops. And that’s key because both of these devices, and the apps on them, get their data through a smartphone.

The addition of Wi-Fi in a small wearable display could help remove that limitation, however. Certain functions of WIMM’s display generally must leverage a smartphone: Caller ID and text messaging alerts, for example. But developers could potentially build small Android applications that pull data directly from the web over Wi-Fi networks, making the device less reliant upon a handset to act both as brains and connection. Support for multiple connections could challenge battery life, however.

 

While I wouldn’t browse the web on a 1.4-inch capacitive touchscreen, there might be a market for standalone, bite-sized apps waiting to be discovered by developers. Of course, such software would have to be more compelling than similar apps that already run on smartphones, or else consumers would simply stick with the phone in their pocket. I could envision a WIMM wearable device acting as a Wi-Fi remote controlling a smart television, for example. One of the discussions at next month’s Mobilize event will focus solely on these connected device opportunities with executives from Fossil, PARC and Vitality sharing their thoughts.

There are still hurdles for the WIMM device and others in this space. Input becomes challenging as displays get smaller; output is hampered by tiny screens; the more “smarts” you put inside, the thicker a device can be. But, WIMM’s development module and concept images show that you can fit more, powerful components into a wearable form-factor. And as those components shrink and gain more functionality over time, the specifications of today’s smartphones could be on tomorrow’s wrists.

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