Intel Outside: New Initiative With Wearable Computers
Intel has quietly hired two high-profile engineers who have joined the company’s secretive “new devices” group run by Mike Bell.
Steve Holmes, one of the designers who worked on the popular Nike FuelBand, was hired about 12 months ago and Hans Moritz, who led development of the Oakley Airwave heads-up goggle display, Switchlock series eyewear and watch program, was just recently hired.
Intel has been mostly quiet about its new devices efforts, but mobile phone guru Bell, himself a former Apple and Palm engineer, was recently assigned to lead the new group. According to Intel, the business is chartered with developing products and technologies that will enhance and extend Intel’s portfolio into new product areas. CEO Bryan Krzanich and President Renee James have recently acknowledged that they are looking at wearable computing.
In a recent interview, Holmes discussed how wearable gadgets such as Fitbit Flex, Google Glass, Samsung Gear and Qualcomm Toq may redefine the look and feel of computing hardware, but still depend heavily on software.
“I come from the hardware side, but even in the best of scenarios many of these objects are going to end up buried in a desk drawer in five years,” said Holmes, vice president of Intel’s New Devices Group who left Nike to join the company in 2012. “It’s the software and the data that can live on forever if you make them valuable.”
Before he helped design the personal biometric bracelet for Nike, Holmes was on the team that developed the Pre and Trio for Palm. During his time at Apple, he was lead product designer for the G4 Cube, which is now in the design collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art.
Holmes declined to discuss specific product plans, instead focusing on the roles that wearables will create for smartphones, tablets and personal computers as hubs that process, display and store quantified-self and other personal data.
Lifting his FuelBand-clad wrist, Holmes said, “If this didn’t connect to Nike + or a smartphone running an application that turns the data into a rich visual display, it would be much less interesting. It provides a lot of value because it’s handing off meaningful data that gets processed and shared. These devices are a means to capture or generate data.”
Why are Google, Samsung, Intel, Apple, Qualcomm and other companies rushing to deliver wearable technology devices? Because in 2014 1 million wearable devices are expected to ship and that will accelerate to 300 million annually by 2018, according to a BI Intelligence report. One analyst, Robert S. Peck of SunTrust Robinson Humphrey, has estimated that Google Glass alone will generate more than $3 billion in annual revenue by 2017.
Today, quantified-self bracelets are driving that growth, but smart watches and eyewear are coming soon. Always on, always-accessible devices that are easily worn may drive the next evolution of mobile, according to GigaOm researcher Jody Ranck, who wrote that wearables “could potentially be the form factor for future mobile phones beyond the platform as we currently see it.”
Despite the market potential for wearable devices, Holmes cautions that it will take time and tremendous focus on hardware and software integration to reach full potential.
“People will have more wearable devices because their capability is going up, the cost is going down and the things you can do with them will become much more compelling,” he said. “The big change now is the amount of technology that you can pack into some of these small devices is becoming significant enough that it really opens up new possibilities.”
According to Holmes, those possibilities could be anything from a piece of jewelry that is your security key to a Band-Aid that transmits your heart rate to your phone to a head-mounted computer that creates a virtual reality experiences. Unlike a smartphone that’s tucked away in a pocket or bag, however, wearable devices are often visible and project a message.
“Right now, I’m wearing this FuelBand and it captures my activity, but it also says to the world that I care about capturing my activity because I’m an active person, or at least want to be,” said Holmes. “Fitbit and FuelBand are successful because they were designed with aesthetics for a target demographic in mind, not just because it’s a neat technology execution.”
Wearable devices aren’t new, but Holmes believes people are ready to give them a try.
“We’ve been using watches for more than 100 years now,” he said. “Earphones are very simple and a ubiquitous form of wearable that people have used for decades. But the focus is shifting to wearable devises that can transfer sensor data wirelessly to smartphones, tablets or personal computers.”
As the quantified self trend becomes more accepted, wearable devices will become more readily available, according to Holmes.
“Initially people were skeptical about televisions, photography and video recording, but over time these devices have become part of many people’s lives.”
There are social, functional and privacy friction points that wearable device designers must consider, but Holmes has no doubts that people will have multiple smart devices within their homes and on their bodies.
“It’s going to be a while before most people are comfortable and see the value in using them, and the actual technology gets refined enough,” he said.