The Smartwatch and The Future of Functionality

If CES is a valid preview, then 2015 promises to be the year that everybody releases a wearable. Undoubtedly, the majority of the released devices will be worn on the wrist, and most of these will be “smartwatches.”

So the smartwatch watch is on. But what will we see?

The short answer: fierce competition among tech’s biggest players (Sony, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Google — anyone with skin in the game). From a Darwinian perspective, the sheer volume of devices in the wild helps ensure that they will continue to evolve on a number of fronts, including fashion design, connective ubiquity and functionality — especially functionality.

Why functionality? — because people love tracking their data, and wearables give them this opportunity. But functionality determines the limits and possibilities of what they can do with that data. So the question before us is this: what’s in store for the future of smartwatch functionality, and where might we start to see great strides in device intelligence take place? (Hint: preventative health care).

Device Intelligence

Functionality refers to a continuum of device intelligence that comprises four distinct levels:

Reflective → Predictive → Adaptive → Intrinsic.
(less intelligent) (extremely intelligent)

So far, most of our wearables are currently operating on a “reflective” level, so discussing functionality involves a lot of (educated) guesswork — including the question, where will we see some of the first major strides to greater device intelligence?
As health care has begun (and will continue) to explode into digital frontiers in an effort to manage human medical data in a smarter, more efficient way, it’s hard to think that the corporeal, somatic nature of wearable technology won’t have an impact there, and it’s even harder to think that wearables won’t be dramatically impacted in turn. As far as something like smartwatches are concerned, health care stands out as a potential vertical for rapid functional advancement and increased consumer utility. It also gives us a great way to get a glimpse of the future.

Breaking Down the Four Levels

1) Reflective (not so smart): We’re there now. Reflective devices describe or relate data about the wearer; similarly, smart watches have a degree of health reflectivity at present. The ability to monitor heart rate, sleep, mobility, etc., provides a degree of automated data collection and reporting useful in health care situations. The data begins to paint a picture of the user’s current health status, but the service of a reflective device ends there (and, for similar reasons, this is why our smart wearables aren’t all that smart yet).

2) Predictive (somewhat smart): We’re getting there. To fully advance to a predictive state, devices will need a layer of logic (e.g. an app) to better interpret data. The foundations for this are in place, like Apple HealthKit, but this represents a baby step; having a device be able to access and transmit a user’s electronic medical records (EMR) would be the first major step. This would allow medical professionals to see a patient’s medical history (medications, past ailments, allergies, etc.) and react to it with confidence as the data comes from credible, physician-supervised medical examinations. Patients — or users — would benefit by receiving prescription reminders, notifications that it’s time to make an appointment, feedback about sleep or exercise quotas, and more. In essence, your smartwatch could tell you about your “time” in a contextually meaningful way, rather than simply report the hour and the date (of course, it will do that too).

3) Adaptive (truly smart): Adaptive devices will arrive quickly on the heels of predictive functionality. One of the key pieces to the adaptive puzzle will be expanding the user’s personal ecosystem. This would include integrating the data detected and stored by the smartwatch with cloud-based data connected to medical professionals, emergency services, pharmacies, gyms, insurance companies and more. Once in place, these integrations would provide much more direction and automation than predictive devices and yield great strides in one of health care’s most sought after goals: preventative care. This could include,

• Automating prescription refills
• Automating bill/medication payment/fulfillment
• Alerting medical professionals of changes in status
• Automatically requesting emergency services (EMT’s) in appropriate situations
• Preliminary condition diagnosis… and more.

4) Intrinsic (truly “genius”): This is the ultimate (foreseeable) goal. Though a ways off, intrinsic intelligence will require deeper integration than adaptive, but, more importantly, it will require devices that interact with and alter a user’s physiology. This will necessarily involve transdermal integration. In other words, devices (watches, wristbands, etc.) will regulate or medicate the user’s body through contact with his or her skin — think of a high-tech, data-driven, cloud-connected, autonomous version of a nicotine patch or painkilling adhesive bandage.

The smartwatch may also act as the intelligent driver for a range of other wearable medical devices in the way that phones are currently the “intelligence” that drives smartwatches. Extrapolating this, one could imagine a constellation of devices being able to proactively participate in pain management, or administer life-saving emergency treatment for patients with heart attack or stroke risk, arthritis, severe allergies or more.

A second key component to achieving intrinsic intelligence is the ability for trusted medical professionals to provide care through the device without requiring in-person visits. This care could even be automated. In short, it will facilitate communication between medical professionals and a patient without requiring the patient to be aware of it.

For The Time Being…

Turning back to the present, we can see a lot of people are counting on the Apple Watch to open the wearables floodgate, and if Apple’s release history is an indicator (it is), these people will not be disappointed from an adoption perspective. The eventual disappointment will rest in our collective realization that even though the device is immediately wearable, the functionality we can foresee will feel frustratingly out of reach. Presently, considerable focus will remain with the interface and connection to smartphone functionality. So phones will still rule the day — but only for now.

It is an exciting time for wearable devices and watches in particular, but we may just need to manage our expectations when we think about what makes them “smart.” Until tomorrow, that is, when the question will be how can brands and marketers enter the picture and design new possibilities and better customer experiences?