Glass and smart watches: Innovation powered by vampirism

By Nathaniel Mott , written on February 27, 2013

Published to the News desk.

If there's anything that the first crop of smartphones taught us it's that a device can have a fancy screen, blazing (for the time) Internet connections, and the ability to run all kinds of software, but it won't make a bit of difference if its battery conks out before lunch. The battery problem has been fixed, for the most part, with even faster devices with massive screens able to last twice or thrice as long as their earlier counterparts.

Now we just have to hope that we can maintain that battery life as we move towards new device categories -- smart watches and glasses -- that rely on a smartphone to function as more than futuristic jewelry. Smartphone batteries have already evolved to accomodate LTE, ultra-high resolution displays, and ever-larger screens, and now they will have to shoulder the weight inherent with powering these other devices.

Companies have already made concessions to preserve battery life. A Google spokesperson told Quartz that its Glass product doesn't have a cellular connection of its own because it would reduce the Glass's battery life after Quartz's Christopher Mims speculated that the cellular radios were nixed because of cancer fears. (Try not to wonder about the possibly carcinogenic qualities of cellular radios when you realize just how much time your smartphone spends right next to your junk.)

So, instead of giving Glass a cellular connection of its own, Google decided to use Bluetooth to connect its smart glasses to users' smartphones and connect to the Web that way. The device can also connect to WiFi, which can be hit-or-miss outside of coffee shops and the wearer's home. This solves the battery issue -- while sidestepping that whole "getting cancer" thing Mims raised concerns about -- but only for Glass. The constant connection will almost definitely affect smartphone battery life, sacrificing the devices in our pockets for those on our faces.

The Verge's Joshua Topolsky wrote on Glass's reliance on a data connection -- and therefore, to an extent, a smartphone -- after his hands-on (face-on?) with the device:

Some of the issues [I experienced] stemmed from a more common problem: no data. A good data connection is obviously key for the device to function properly, and when taking Glass outside for stroll, losing data or experiencing slow data on a phone put the headset into a near-unusable state.
Smart watches also connect to users' smartphones via Bluetooth, preserving their own, teeny-tiny batteries and further taxing the paired smartphone's. The Verge's review of Pebble, the darling of the smart watch industry, says that the device cut a smartphone's battery between 5 and 10 percent, which Pebble corroborates on its website. Engadget outlined just how reliant Pebble is on a smartphone in its own review, writing:
Pebble doesn't offer much functionality without a smartphone. You'll need one (and an accompanying app) to get started, and although you'll be able to display the time while disconnected (in Airplane Mode, for example), software updates, feature additions and notifications all require a Bluetooth connection.
Other devices using smartphones as a foundation will run into similar issues. They're like technological parasites that need a host to survive -- once that host has been sucked dry the parasite will have to wait for another to come along (or, in this case, for a freshly charged battery) before they can do anything. Someone using Glass, Pebble, and a smartphone will find themselves with three paper weights if the smartphone runs out of juice.

There is some hope for smartphone batteries. If we're busy using Glass or a smart watch we likely won't be pulling our smartphones out to check notifications, perform a search, or, really, do much of anything that the smart watches and glasses can do more conveniently. And Bluetooth 4.0, which is supported by Pebble but not yet functional in the device, promises to reduce the amount of power required to maintain the connection between devices.

Still, it seems that the wearable computing revolution will be dependent on smartphones for at least a while. Given the slow rate of innovation with batteries -- there's a reason why laptops and other devices have promised the same battery life year after year, and it's got nothing to do with a conspiracy to keep workers at their desks (I hope) -- and the categories' infancy, we may rely on smartphones for some time.

Maybe we should start calling them "smart batteries" instead.

[Image courtesy kevincollins123]