(Pocket-lint) - Are wearables the next big thing in the tech world? Do we really need them and will they make our lives better? Big questions at a potential turning point in the industry.
There are few people better to sit down with than Mike Bell, corporate vice president and general manager of the new devices group at Intel, to ask such questions. A former Apple figurehead for 11 years - the same company that recently announced the Apple Watch - Bell's role at Intel is firmly invested in wearable devices.
Intel bought smartwatch manufacturer Basis this year, but also has unveiled MICA - a smart bracelet by fashion brand Opening Ceremony - in a move that's wholly different to the competition. Which seemingly embodies the way Bell thinks about the whole wearables movement - if there is to be one.
"Lots of companies are building things but they all look like cellphones taped to the wrist. This whole partnership to make things that look really good as well as function really well we [at Intel] think is key. You're not going to get this one adoption of wearables that people are talking about unless you get people to actually wear the jewellery - because that's what they are.
"I want a smart watch that looks like this," says Bell showing off his classic Breitling watch, "but one that also has smart features. It can't be about the technology. It has to be a seamless integration of the technology and the look and feel of the device.
"So we at Intel are partnering with the best people in the industry to help realise that; to figure out how we add technology to stuff so that when you wear it, it doesn't scream 'geek'. That's not really the best thing for the end user from a wearables perspective. So we're helping to fix that.
"It's not a hobby for us. The pundits are out there saying 50 billion devices [will be sold] by 2018, or 2020 - but even if it's half of that it's a big market. And the nice thing for us is it's a market that nobody has leadership in at the moment. And we think we have great technology that will fit perfectly well into this [market]. So we're going full force.
With so many manufacturers pushing into the wearables market how will Intel stand out from the crowd?
"To build one of these devices successfully you can't just throw a chip out there and say 'have at it'. It has to be highly power optimised, it has to be the right size, it has to have system software on it that's ready to go, it has to have end-to-end connectivity. Part of our offering to our partners is that we offer a complete solution. If you come work with us we'll sell just the chip if that's all you want - totally happy to do that - but we'll sell the entire device if you're a big enough partner with a big enough opportunity.
Let's talk about MICA. How did this come about and why run with that as a first wearable product? It's quite an unusual device to bring first to market. Was that a conscious thing to say 'we're going to do things differently'?
"Yes. We like to not just put out a PowerPoint, we like to do what we say. I've been saying for eight months: it has to look as good as it functions.
"These things are so highly personal; people wear stuff like this because it helps define how they view themselves and how they want to be viewed by others. Most people don't say 'I want to put a square screen on my wrist to scream 'I'm a computer nerd'', right? Especially not people who want to buy a piece of jewellery like this [gestures to Opening Ceremony MICA]."
Do you think it's important for manufacturers to be branding the concepts and chips going into these devices - to give them for added prestige?
"First what we're trying to do is legitimise the space; to make people understand that it really isn't just something for computer people. It really is something that could benefit the general public.
"I'm sure we'll make sure that people know there's Intel technology inside. How we do the branding that's really something we haven't decided yet. But it's secondary - I think there's a window of opportunity that we have to help correct some of the impressions that people have gotten because of the stuff on the market right now. I think it's really soured people towards smart technology because they look at it and go 'I wouldn't wear that'".
Beyond wrist-based devices, how will the market bend to other wearables. Is everything going to be somehow integrated in the future? You're talking about jewellery - but isn't there another side?
"Well I think it's jewellery but it also doesn't have to be higher-end stuff. The [Intel] partnership with Fossil - which is so critical for us and we're so thrilled - [is one example]. They're a $3-billion-dollar-plus company in the space. You could image it's not just about jewellery: Fossil makes bags, accessories and other things."
How far does embedded technology go - can it reach into everything?
"You could take it too far. You could put technology in stuff that really… like, I'm not sure you need a smart umbrella. Someone was showing me a smart umbrella the other day.
"This one blinked when it rained. That's interesting, but the umbrella goes from $10 to $100… I'm not sure people are going to buy it. There are some things you really don't need to put technology in.
"More creative people than I may come up with a great reason to put technology in everything - but I think what we need to do is show people stuff that isn't gratuitous, that is not redundant. I think if [these devices] just simply duplicate everything that your phone does then, ok, some people will buy that - but it really doesn't show the full potential of what we can do."
What about voice control and Android Wear. That's been met with mixed critical responses. Something best kept for the movies or something for reality?
"My own personal opinion on this: I think talking into your wrist is kinda weird."
And what about Google Glass?
"Put a bone-conducing microphone in there [as Google has] and make speech and interface to something that's already on your head, so you don't have to smack yourself on the side of the head - it's a great idea.
"I don't have Glass, I'm just going based on what people have shown me. I've tried it, but I wear regular glasses and I don't like wearing regular glasses, so for me… when stuff hits your glasses it's kind of annoying. The concept of sliding [a finger] up the side of my head just doesn't make a lot of sense to me.
"We're investigating alternative technologies for input that's not touch. That's all I can call it. I don't think touch is the be-all end-all experience for wearables. It's perfectly fine in a lot of scenarios, but not all of them."
What do you think of the Apple Watch?
"I haven't seen it yet [note: interview was conducted a day following Apple Watch announcement]. You know, I love the fact that they've done something though because it helps legitimise the whole space. People up until two days ago were asking me 'do you really think wearables are going to take off?'. And now it's like 'Apple… well of course it's going to be successful'. It's become a 'will it?' to a 'when will it?' - which is a fantastic conversation to have because I'm a believer that there is something real here.
And the competition. Each company seems to be running a closed system. Samsung on one platform, then moving to another, then settling on Tizen. Apple out on its own and so forth. Is that all destined to fail?
"Well it's certainly helped newcomers figure out what not to do. Which is a big advantage to new players in the space.
"Frankly I think it's not too long before everyone else follows our [Intel's] lead and goes against their own partnerships with people who are experts in the space to produce stuff that's really good looking [referring to MICA]. It's going to help the whole industry - and I say that in a good way.
One thing that frustrates the Pocket-lint team - and many others - is battery life in wearables. How does that get better?
"It's a hard problem. But it has to be attacked from every angle. So obviously we're working to make the chips much more power efficient. But software plays a huge role. You can have the most power efficient chip, but if you leave it turned on 100 per cent of the time because of sloppy coding then you're not going to get great battery life.
"Also battery technology hasn't changed in forever. This is something that we're keen to investigate: new battery technologies that have increased capacity or smaller size. We're looking at different ways to harvest energy, so for instance the new SMS Audio headphones that we introduced grab energy from the audio jack. So it's one less thing to charge, you don't have to worry about Bluetooth pairing and charging and this and that - you literally just plug them in."
What about kinetic energy - is that too limited to harness?
"I'm not sure. We're working on really low-power technology [that is] about six months to maybe a couple of years away. But if you can get the energy throughout these [wearable] devices low enough then things that today don't seem to be enough may be just about enough to keep the power up when you're wearing it [in the future].
"Also Wireless charging. We're big fans of AW4P (Alliance for Wireless Power) conductive resonance charging. You're not forcing someone to do something new, just making what they do better. And I think there are lots of ways - if we're clever - that we can do that."
Lastly, let's talk about Basis, the smart devices company that Intel bought this year. Why Basis and what's next?
"I showed the back of it [the new Basis product] in my talk [at the opening IDF 2014 keynote]. I like joking that the back of ours looks better than the front of a lot of others. It's kind of cool and I will say it's called the Peak.
"One of the many of the reasons we bought Basis - and I tried everything on the market - is theirs just worked the best. There was actual science to back up what they were saying; there were actual studies to prove correlation between the results they got compared to things that are more invasive. Basis provide the same of better results.
"The cool thing is that Basis has been working on it [Peak] for years and we already know what works and what doesn't work - and the new product is much better than what is already shipping.
"It's great that so many [competitors] have come to the party with optical heart rate, but we're already on the second generation when some others are just dabbling in it. Something that gives you a [heart rate] snapshot every once in a while is kind of fun to play with but that's not the same as something that can help you figure out how to change your lifestyle; to help people perform better or feel better.
"What's interesting to me about the optical heart rate [sensor] in a wrist-based device isn't a look on exercising - whether it's 79bpm or 100bpm or whatever it is - but the Basis gives a very long view of your heart rate including while you're sleeping. It really gives you a much better feel for - and I can't say health, because it's not a medical device - but it gives you a much better feel for how things affect your body.
"So we're going to be using the technology to build out and make available to our partners. We're going go build stuff and horizontally scale it. At the same time we're showcasing best-in-class devices based on what they have, know and the stuff we develop for the future."
What the future of wearables holds - from integrated touchless technology to longer battery lives and beyond - will be key to propel the industry forward. Or perhaps Bell is right and the principle of what we want isn't different to what we already have: classic, fashionable jewellery, albeit with a subtle integration of technology.