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Can Smartwatches Be the Future of Wearable Tech?

14/01/2015 17:26 GMT | Updated 16/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Though it was being predicted for a while, the future of wearable tech - gadgets you strap onto your head, shoulders, knees, toes and other places - was seemingly assured by the unveiling of Apple's first smartwatch last year.

Unsurprisingly, last week's Consumer Electronics Show was awash with companies hoping to outdo the Cupertino giant with their own wrist-wrapping wares. But through the rhetoric of PR reps and startup CEOs, critical questions were being asked about the future of wearable tech. What form will it take? How will we use it? Is this just a fad?

In a report published last week, market research firm Creative Strategies predicts two likely outcomes for what the wearable tech scene will look like once it matures. Based on their established core of third-party app developers, Creative Strategies believes that whatever happens Apple's strong presence in the market is assured.

"Apple is blessed by their developers and always has been," reads the report. "Developers for the Apple Watch will make or break the product. To dominate the category, Apple's developers will tightly integrate the Apple Watch experiences with their apps and drive compelling use cases into the mass market."

The alternative, the report's author Ben Bajarin claims, is that hardware manufacturers will flock to the established Android Wear platform and outsource software and functionality to Google, mirroring the current smartphone market. However, this assumes that smartwatches remain the predominant incarnation of wearable tech, since Android Wear is optimised for wrist devices and nothing from the usually reliable Apple rumour mill has suggested any non-watch wearables on the horizon.

Intel spent 2014 making a full assault on the fledgling market with the Edison chip and the 'Make It Wearable' competition to inspire, fund and coach startups working on wearable gadgets. This year's CES saw Brian Krzanich, Intel's CEO, take the stage to unveil the Curie - an SoC (system on a chip) the size of a button running Intel's new Quark SE processor, a bluetooth receiver and full array of motion tracking sensors designed to be the brains on which to build wearable devices.

But while Intel are working flat-out to perfect the hardware, the man behind it is skeptical that wearable tech will stay in its current smartwatch form-factor. Speaking at a CES 2015 panel about wearable tech, Intel's vice president and general manager of their new devices group Mike Bell said that people didn't want a "cellphone on the wrist" and that the technology will find its way into established accessories like jewellery and watches.

Bell's view is apparently not uncommon amongst some of the companies at CES this year. Misfit and Sony, purveyors of usually wrist-worn fitness trackers, both announced new health devices that were decidedly not carpus-centric. Misfit announced its partnership with Swarovski to integrate the popular Shine tracker into a range of pendants and bracelets. Meanwhile, Sony showed off its Smart B-Trainer, which hides all the activity monitoring gubbins into an innocuous looking set of headphones that requires no smartphone mothership to run.

On the same panel, Carmichael Roberts, partner of North Bridge venture capitalist group that has invested in several wearable tech startups, went further, suggesting that innovation in the market will move towards being integrated with the body to the point that the user won't notice it.

"People won't think about it, like they don't think about having tattoos on their skin, like a stamp or a sticker," said Roberts.

The crop of wearable smart devices at CES overwhelmingly leant towards controlling the features of your phone and fitness tracking, but are these the only applications? Creative Strategies suggests that the immediacy of accessing a smartwatch is where the key applications will emerge.

"The smartphone is the computer we always have with us. The smartwatch is the computer that is visible at all times. As the job for the smartwatch gets defined by the ecosystem, it is the 'display that is always visible' premise that will define what additional computing utility is most valuable," says the Creative Strategies report.

But while the best use of smartwatches has been to control our phones, SVP for strategy and innovation at Havas Media reckons we could be using wearable tech to control everything in our lives.

"When wearables allow us to pay for things, control the lighting in our homes, get into our cars, locate where our kids are, that's when things get more interesting," Goodwin told the Telegraph.

Perhaps the Internet of Things, another burgeoning market struggling to justify itself, is what's needed to grease the wheels of smartwatches. At least until developers hit on the killer features or form-factor that make will wearable gadgetry as indispensable as the smartphone is today.