A few years back, when wearables started making headlines in the tech press and beelines to our wrists, hands and heads, the smart ring was considered to be just as much of a life-changing, money-making idea as the smartwatch. A smart ring arms race ensued and the collective excitement for devices like the Smarty Ring, Fin, Nod, Logbar's Ring, Mota's Smart Ring and more grew and grew. And so did the promises about how smart rings would revolutionise all areas of our lives. From helping us pay for things and open things with NFC, notifying us of alerts on our phones and computers and even tracking metrics and activities with tiny sensors, like heart rate and fitness metrics.
But fast-forward to the present day and only a few devices have made it to market, with many casualties facing legal, financial and technical troubles along the way -- and others nowhere to be seen.
You could argue that all of these false starts mean the excitement for smart rings is waning, so we wanted to find out why smart rings have been everywhere for so long, but crucially, not on our fingers. And whether their time has already come and gone.
The current smart ring landscape
It's not hard to list the smart rings that never made it to market, disappeared under a shroud of mystery or just look plain ugly. But there are a number of devices available to buy right now (or within the next month) that could have long-term selling potential.
We listed the good, the bad and the ugly of the smart ring world earlier this month. Most recently there's the all-singing, all-dancing Motiv Ring, fitted with a bevy of sensors it can keep tabs on steps, distance, active minutes and so on, as well as how your heart rate responds. The battery will last five days and it's waterproof to 50m.
In contrast, the NFC Ring (2016 edition) never needs charging. It's super affordable at £39.99 and has two NFC tags, one for public information, like email address, one for private info, like opening your smart door lock or making payments. You can use different gestures for each, it's also waterproof up to 50m and has a subtle, dark design. Impressive.
Ringly is one of the most successful examples of smart jewellery for women out there. The company's range of smart rings serve up subtle notifications from your smartphone, allowing you to choose whether emails, texts, social updates or reminders from health or parenting apps make it through. Then there's Nimb, which is essentially a smart panic button. It tracks your location and can send an alert to friends when you want it to.
Sadly, there are far more stories of failure than success when it comes to smart rings. As we mentioned above, a lot of older designs never made it past the initial stages of the crowdfunding process, but there were newer models that seemed to have real promise.
A teeny tiny minefield
It doesn't take a great deal of knowledge about wearables, or the tech inside them, to understand that packing sensors and a battery into a space so small is undoubtedly going to lead to technical issues and compromising on one thing or another.
As hardware gets too small it becomes less and less useful, which starts to explain why most of the more successful wearables are a little larger and built to be wrist-bound interfaces. As with building hearables, it's just not as simple as transferring those experiences to a ring because as the space gets smaller and smaller finding room for meaningful sensors, let alone a battery, is a minefield.
Curt von Badinski, the co-founder and CTO of Motiv Ring, told us that to be able to create a ring that was small and functional, his team had to redefine the process from the ground up. "We were determined to create something that could be worn not just sometimes, but all the time, which meant it needed to be small," he says. "Obviously, our biggest obstacle was fitting the amount of electronics, which we knew needed to deliver top-notch functionality, into such a small system.
"To build it, we pioneered new processes, innovated manufacturing techniques, created a battery, and essentially rethought how to make a wearable," he explained.
Luckily, new developments in technology over the past year or two have meant the Motiv Ring could become a reality. "Processors have become so low power and so powerful, which allows for small devices such as the Motiv Ring to exist," he says. "Only a few years ago, processors weren't low power enough and would require a battery ten times the size or the product would have been ten times the size in order to accommodate it, because the chips were not only not small enough but also were too power hungry."
Philip Campbell, the founder of Kerv which has contactless vendor approval from Mastercard, explained that hardware has to meet a set of standards, too: "The core technology has been around in bank cards that we all use. The primary challenge has been getting this into a smaller size and into a desirable item, which would then pass the relevant technical standards."
Considering the human element
Beyond technical considerations, it's vital to put people and the way they'll use, interact with and think about the smart ring at the forefront.
And the big question is: Do we really need smart rings? Of course, when it comes to behaviour, different smart rings are bound to be used differently. For example, an NFC-enabled device might only be worn at certain times of day, whereas you might only notice the benefits of one built for always-on notifications if you wear it 24/7. So it's hard to make sweeping judgements about whether we really need that kind of tech at our fingertips, because it depends on the individual and their needs.
The ring is the only form that allows you to call for help when your hands are held
But it's important to remember that just because an idea works well in a phone or even on our wrists doesn't mean it can be translated directly to our fingers with as much success. The ideas that are going to have any lasting power are those that need to be placed on our finger, not just forced there. The ability to make payments more seamless definitely seems like a good option to have on your hand, as does notifications and even for personal safety.
Kathy Roma, the co-founder of Nimb explained: "The ring is the only form that allows you to call for help when your hands are held. And that's a frequent case in emergencies. You just reach for the button with your finger — you can do it without anyone knowing, even if your hands are immobilised or you are watched closely."
"We know that in an emergency people are affected by shock and stupor," Roma tells us. "Pushing the button doesn't require any skills and can be done intuitively even when all your systems are stressed."
Yet it's not just about consumer demand, but practicality too. Some of our favourite wearables aren't waterproof, just water resistant. Right now, that's not too much of a concern because they're on our wrists. Smart rings are a different ball game entirely. Will we really need to take it off every time we wash our hands? And what about whether it's comfortable enough to do range of daily tasks? Like driving or writing?
Curt von Badinski explained: "The difficult (but interesting) part about creating the Motiv Ring was the human component; it had to be comfortable enough to wear all day, every day, and incredibly small. In typical product design, a team might argue over a half of a millimeter, or a millimeter – in our case, we were debating over tenths of millimeters."
Design is also hugely important. The way wearables look is a huge consideration. But when it comes to a ring, it's even more vital to put aesthetics at the forefront. A number of companies have shouted about their 'smart jewellery' lines over the past few years, but most haven't delivered.
Christina D'Avignon, founder of Ringly, one of the best-looking smart rings on the market right now, explained the challenges with creating wearables people will actually want to wear. "There are a lot of wearable products on the market today, but they lack the aesthetic quality that women are looking for when they shop for accessories," she says. "Many technology companies building wearable tech products are making products that are "unisex" or modular. We take a different approach by making the technology discreet and creating products that our customer would want to buy even if it didn't include technology."
Working with traditional materials, such as gold, brass and bronze was one of the biggest challenges
Working with small dimensions is tricky when you're trying to cram a lot of tech in, but it also raises design challenges too. "Getting the tech as small as possible in order to design something sleek and fashionable and was on par with other popular, contemporary jewelry designs was a challenge," D'Avignon says. "We didn't want something that was bulky and tech-y or replaced your phone in any way. Our goal was to make our rings look like any other great piece of jewelry, something you'd wear even if there wasn't technology inside."
And as good quality and well-design jewellery and technology aren't really a match made in heaven, Ringly also had to take a whole new approach to the design process. "Working with traditional materials, such as gold, brass and bronze was one of the biggest challenges because of the RF," she told us. "We went through several iterations and eventually patented a system to make it work. That system did inform the decision to use precious and semi-precious stones."
Legal disputes and financial woes
As if the getting the tech right and pleasing consumers wasn't enough to contend with, another challenge that's halted the progress of a few smart ring ideas has been legal battles and ongoing financial troubles. In such a small space it makes sense that there'd be an ongoing bum fight for the 'ultimate smart ring' title and a number of brands have been caught up in disputes, most notably Kerv and NFC Ring.
Kerv's Kickstarter page currently states: "Kerv - the world's first contactless payment ring is the subject of an intellectual property dispute and is currently unavailable." Kickstarter's Integrity team also put out a message that, because the campaign has ended, Kerv is still able to move forward and ship products.
Although Philip Campbell from Kerv couldn't go into detail about the dispute, he said: "With a new product category, you are bound to see different approaches to try to secure the market. Some take a protectionist view and will try to use legal tactics to try to secure the market. Obviously you have to be prepared for this, and hence we engaged specialist lawyers at every stage of our development."
NFC Ring's CEO Joseph Prencipe, however, told Geeky Gadgets in January why he brought a legal case against Kerv: "We encountered Phil of Kerv. He announced he was the 'World's First' to make the payment ring after our company already had. He admitted to us in person this is not true.
"We were informed that he contacted our supplier and used our IP to make his ring possible. It costs us tens of thousands of dollars to develop each piece of IP... We offered to license our IP to him for one year, and he ignored our offer. With all of his actions combined, we were forced to bring a legal case against him."
If it isn't IP disputes that have stopped some smart rings from living up to their promises, it's lack of cash. It's probably not a huge leap to guess that many of the brands that started as crowdfunding projects then disappeared simply ran out of funding. More recently that seems to be the case for Vinaya, the startup behind Altruis, which has gone into administration.
Do smart rings have a bright future?
With so many challenges in the way, it's difficult to predict whether interest in smart ring brands may dwindle, no longer fulfil a need or have a bright future ahead after a shaky start. After all, rubbish ideas and false starts are exactly what many industries need to build momentum and create top products in the long-run.
And, it's hard to ignore the brands that are not only staying afloat, but still generating consumer interest. The hardware that's already proving popular seems to be answering just one question rather than becoming an all-singing, all-dancing smartwatch-like wearable. For example, Ringly is for notifications, the NFC Ring is for contactless payments and unlocking physical and digital content and Motiv is for tracking metrics.
This could suggest that smart rings are no longer the start of a revolution or 'the next big thing', but could fill a gap in certain spaces over the next few years before more advanced tech takes the reins. Motiv's Curt von Badinski, told us, "the wearable space is still in its early stages; consumer needs are evolving, and the category needs to evolve, too."
But it's not just about consumer adoption, but building a more solid foundation with other companies. Campbell explained: "It's about building the infrastructure that supports NFC technology – this will most likely be led by Mastercard and Visa moving their use from payment terminals, into other areas of authentication – be that ticketing, access etc."
With the rise of even more intuitive tech and 'invisible' interfaces there's a good chance the days of the smart ring are short-lived. But until then, there's definitely space for offerings that help us do just one or two things better (and with more ease) to fit into our lives and onto our digits.
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