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Smartwatches and other wearables offer big development potential

The Galaxy Gear smartwatch is just a starting point, Samsung developers are told

October 29, 2013 04:44 PM ET

Computerworld - SAN FRANCISCO -- The future's bright for wearable devices, even if it's a little foggy right now.

That's what a panel of experts told a packed room of developers at the first Samsung Developers Conference here on Tuesday.

Developers were in attendance primarily because they're interested in what apps they might create for Samsung's Android-based Galaxy Gear smartwatch and future wearable devices.

One of the experts on the panel, Han-Shen Yuan, senior director of engineering at eBay, said his company is excited by the potential for wearables, especially those that get email, text and other notifications that can be quickly responded to. EBay has built an app for the new Gear smartwatch that tells auction bidders when they've been out-bid, so they can quickly respond.

Yuan said it's too early to know how important the eBay app on the Gear will be, but he said eBay saw a sudden 30% hike in revenue when it first took its e-commerce and auction capabilities to mobile devices several years ago.

He also noted that notifications on smartphones are coming so frequently that they become confusing to users, so a smartwatch notification can add clarity.

Path, a social network that restricts the number of social contacts to 150 people, believes wearable devices can keep social networking more intimate. Ray Ho, a software engineer at Path who appeared on the panel, said he realized the value of wearables like Google Glass smart glasses when a user held up a baby to take a photo up close, which solicited an immediate response from friends.

Another panelist, CJ Cornell, said greater intimacy of connections from wearable devices might sound threatening to older users, but is exciting to young users like college students. Cornell its working with college students on wearable prototypes at Cogswell Polytechnical College in Sunnyvale, Calif.

"College students are a group open to lack of privacy," he said, noting how many intimate details they're willing to share on Facebook or other social networks.

Cornell said he is 50% deaf, but wears hearing aides that are equipped with Bluetooth technology. That gives him the potential to easily gain personal information -- such as a person's name -- when the person is less than 10 feet away. The ability to share information over Bluetooth, he said, "...is a grand future."

Wearable technology might be used to connect to biometrics and semantics-based software that can help interpret emotions -- something that could be useful in many situations, Cornell said. Police are already exploring the use of head-mounted devices that can scan a crowd to interpret faces for evidence of emotions that could be tied to potential violent acts.

"Don't bet against any of these crazy ideas" for using wearables, Cornell told the Samsung developers. "There are 1 billion young people willing to experiment with wearables who are being enabled by new hardware and software. People will be doing this stuff."

Bluetooth Low Energy, version 4.0, offers the opportunity to place beacons in a shopping mall or other large venue to precisely locate a person -- if wanted -- or be used to offer coupons or special offers, panelists said.

A shopper in the men's section of a store might be able to get a coupon for a special deal when entering the department. The low energy features of Bluetooth 4.0 would allow it to work well with small devices with small batteries, like a smartwatch or smart glasses, the panelists said.

The potential for geo-fencing on small devices is also getting a boost from Samsung's software development efforts involving Mobile Wallet 2.0 tools available to developers, Samsung executives said.

Analysts have said wearable technology is in its infancy, even though several manufacturers, including Apple, are expected to launch smartwatches. Meanwhile, Google has been demonstrating Google Glass for more than a year.

The panelists agreed that wearables are just beginning to arrive, but compared their development potential to the early days of e-commerce, which quickly took off.

"We're still trying to figure out what's going to happen with wearables," Ho told developers. "Keep building [applications], because we'll eventually hit something powerful."

covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at Twitter @matthamblen or subscribe to Hamblen RSSMatt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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