Apple has filed a patent application for what appears to be an iWatch wearable computer, and with a few other entrants already in the market, this technology holds promise for health care applications, according to analysts.
The smart watch concept is an extension of health and fitness monitoring devices, such as Fitbit Flex, which also monitors workout data and can synchronize the data that it gathers with iOS, Android and Windows 8 tablets. Smart watches also have a long history in film and popular culture in addition to a current Android-powered Sony model.
Despite some potential obstacles that could hinder the iWatch's success, analysts see a future in health care for the device, which would feature a flexible touch-screen display.
"I think they're on to something big here," Gregg Malkary, founder and managing director of Spyglass Consulting Group, told eWEEK. "I think this really has the potential to transform the health care industry."
The iWatch could advance the move in health care toward mobile connectivity, he said.
Malkary sees the device connecting to smartphones through Bluetooth and pushing medical alerts bidirectionally between the user and caregivers.
"What seems to resonate with me is now we have a new vehicle that can be tied into the phone," he said.
Malkary noted that in health care, patients are being given more responsibility for self-monitoring. The device could potentially track heart rate, blood pressure and send alerts about doctor's appointments.
"The two most likely areas where a watch like this will be successful [are] for exercise and health monitoring," Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group, told eWEEK in an email. "Both categories are ideal for a wrist-mounted device and the last-generation iPod Nano was commonly used with a wrist mount for folks that were running or riding a bike."
If Apple incorporates the right sensors, the iWatch could monitor daily activities and provide GPS data if the wearer has fallen or becomes ill, Enderle noted.
This type of SOS functionality is ideal for the elderly, who may fall without anyone around if they live alone.
Companies such as iLoc Technologies and SmartFitty Watches already offer similar watches that monitor patients' whereabouts through GPS and can connect to medical monitoring devices.
Announced on Feb. 19, the SmartFitty watch incorporates a personal fitness tracker to keep track of distance, calories burned and sleep patterns at night. Users can then plug the data into an online portal.
The iLoc and SmartFitty devices already incorporate an SOS capability.
In addition, the iWatch and smart watches of this type could be useful for medication compliance, Malkary noted.
Perhaps a screenshot could be pushed to the watch from a smartphone showing the pill a patient needs to take. "If you're chronically ill you could be taking a phenomenal number of pills," said Malkary.
Epocrates, recently purchased by Athenahealth, currently offers a mobile application that displays pill screenshots, Malkary noted.
Many people stopped wearing watches with the advent of cell phones and later smartphones, but perhaps smart watches like the iWatch could bring them back onto people's wrists.
"The wrist is an ideal location because the display can be viewed much more easily than if something were in a pocket or pouch, particularly if one hand is busy holding something like handle bars," said Enderle.
Smart watches are part of the move toward wearable computing that the likes of Google Apple and others are trying to popularize. Wearable health and fitness monitors could reach 170 million devices by 2017, ABI Research reported.
In addition to watches, wearable health devices can be incorporated into clothing, bracelets, badges or even tattoos, according to a July 2012 report by GigaOM Pro.
As far as the iWatch, "while I do expect this device to be somewhat of a status symbol, if done right, it will be most successful for those wanting to monitor something, or be entertained, while in motion," Enderle said.