In 2019, wearables aren't really on the agenda for Microsoft. That was of course a very different story in 2015 when its second generation Band was on the scene.
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Microsoft has never publicly declared it has ended an interest in building wearables, and has now even entered the hearable space with its new Surface Earbuds. And while it may be wary of re-entering the arena based on the reception both its Bands received, that's not to say that it's done with wrist-worn wearables.
Since it canned the Band, we've seen patents aplenty that seem to indicate Microsoft has unfinished business here.
So how could Microsoft re-enter the space it failed to make a positive mark in? We explore the evidence to get a sense of how it might make that big return.
A doctor on your wrist
From the many patents that have surfaced since the demise of the Band, most seem to indicate that Microsoft has designs to do more in the way of serious health monitoring. It would hardly be a surprising move considering Apple, Fitbit, Garmin and Samsung are also doing that very thing with their own devices.
In July 2019, Microsoft filed a patent for a new heart rate monitor design. The 24-page US patent filing, which includes some comically poor drawings, details a “multi-dimensional” heart rate sensor designed to fix the shortcomings of today’s hardware.
Its “inventors” are Microsoft Research AI researchers Christian Holz and Eyal Ofek, and Principal Research Hardware Engineer Mike J Sinclair. The argument made in the filing is a sound one. Wearables with optical heart rate sensors do not know much about what they “see”.
A fitness band may prompt you to move its position or to stop moving in order to get a better reading, but this is only based on the strength or quality of the signal. And this signal is based on optical sensors, effectively tiny cameras, monitoring the light reflected by your tissue that is emitted by some green LEDs. The rhythm of the blood flow is revealed through the amount of reflected light.
Microsoft’s proposed design has greater intelligence. It appears to analyse a greater area, actively looks for an artery and then uses this portion as its focus of readings. The filing also seems to suggest the lens has variable focus, which seems a bit “out there” when the sensor will presumably rest directly against the skin in more-or-less all cases. But patents explore concepts, not necessarily extant products.
This added intelligence claims to be able to remove one of the main problems of optical HR sensors, which is that too much movement often ruins accuracy. A more advanced sensor would also be able to collect more information about your “hemodynamics”, or circulation. That would include factors like arterial stiffness and the oxygenation of blood and tissue.
Apple talks big about its heart rate studies, which are notable for their scale rather than depth. A sensor like this could dramatically improve the fidelity of optical heart rate sensors. The filing specifically notes the sensor is suitable for consumer-grade tech too, and shows it placed all around the body: the neck, thigh and temple as well as the wrist.
Cortana needs to chat in private
At Apple, Google, Samsung and Amazon, digital assistants are now a piece of the wearable puzzle. Whether they work well enough right now is clearly something up for debate.
Another patent filing from Microsoft Research’s Masaaki Fukumoto though looks at changing the ways we could talk to digital assistants in the future.
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It's called “silent voice input” and describes using a microphone calibrated to listen to very quiet whispering while you breathe in, with your mouth right next to the microphone, only a tiny gap separating your lips from the strap or watch face.
The idea is to let you talk to digital assistants, or at least Cortana, when talking out loud is not possible or desirable. Microsoft might argue it would be useful when you don’t want to attract attention to yourself, but ingress-whispering to your wrist is likely to do just that. Unless you’re hiding in a dark corner like a someone in a spy movie.
The breathing-in part of this concept is important because it avoids any of the plosive pops that would otherwise overwhelm the signal.
Diagrams in the filing show the tech used in a phone, a smart ring and smartwatch, as well as bespoke devices. This is an interesting speech recognition problem, but whether it adds to the wearable world is questionable.
Wear it on your finger
Smart rings are a thing and startups like Motiv (pictured above) and Oura have been showcasing how these pieces of connected jewelry can be the kind of wearables you'll want to wear. Amazon is currently the only major tech player to make a smart ring, so could Microsoft be planning to follow suit?
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It filed a design patent regarding a smart ring. The inventors of this idea were Fukumoto, the man behind the silent speech assistant interface, and Haichao Zhu, who currently appears to work at Chinese AR/AI company Rokid.
The patent was filed in 2017 and published in late 2018, and details a smart ring concept completely different to that of something like the Motiv Ring. That smart ring packages familiar ideas like sleep and fitness tracking into a much smaller form.
Microsoft’s patent outlines a ring with sensors that monitor the movements of the primary finger and the one next to it. This would enable many multi-finger gestures, controlling all sorts of other devices. The patent suggests it could interface with the music played through wireless earphones, a smartwatch, VR and games played on the TV.
Part of this relies on good old familiar motion sensing. But a sensor is also used to tell the distance between the primary and secondary finger, multiplying the potential shortcuts.
Only the finer points of this patent are remotely new, though. We have seen gesture rings before, including the Logbar ring, which raised more than $880,000 on Kickstarter back in 2014.
Unlike the Logbar Ring, which has a button to begin gesture sensing, this patent does not appear to have a sensor to tell the ring when to operate. This loads more of the responsibility onto the software of the device that receives the command.
However, the backing of a company like Microsoft is arguably what a “new” category like the smart gesture ring needs. Why would developers add support to their apps for a wearable running off the fumes of meagre VC funding? Of course, that kind of support would be all the more effective coming from Google or Apple, as their software powers TVs, phones, laptops, tablets, wearables and cars entertainment systems.
Consider that ubiquity and you understand why Microsoft was so intent on making its phone division a success.
Making wearables that bend
There’s another patent worth noting from outside the usual wearable wheelhouse too. Microsoft filed for a flexible screen hinge design patent in March 2019.
Many have taken this as a cue as to where Microsoft may take the laptop-tablet hybrid Surface series next. But the filing’s text specifically cites “wearables” as one possible use for the tech.
This is also arguably more important than several of the other filings here, not just because flexible screens are likely the future (if not necessarily quite in the form we see them today). The patent’s diagrams are far more fully-realised than the others. There is a far greater sense that this is a design working towards a real-life product, not a purely speculative filing. This one matters.
Kabir Siddiqui is listed as the inventor, and this is far from Siddiqui’s only work in the area. He is listed as the inventor of Microsoft foldable patents from 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Fluid is this new design’s key change. Pockets of liquid in the display structure provide deformable ballast to the flexible screen, so its panel does not suffer lines, marks or other damage from the metal parts of a standard hybrid hinge. The underlying hinge uses spring-loaded spindles to make the opening mechanism feel strong and steady.
To suggest Microsoft secretly has working foldable wearables in its research division would be way off the mark. But these are technologies that could inform future devices.
Smartening up fabric
Microsoft’s recent smart fabrics patent is a similar case. It cites four inventors including materials researchers Siyuan Ma and Kelly Marie Bogan. And here we’re back into the world of the slightly familiar, and vague.
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The patent explains capacitive fabric surfaces. An electrode layer is embedded under a layer of fabric to make something that does not look like a controller into a touch interface.
Diagrams in the filing show these smart fabrics embedded into a watch, headphones, an AR/VR headset and even a sofa. The specifics that make the patent somewhat viable (Microsoft could not simply patent “smart fabrics”) are the construction method. A layer of conductive ink is printed onto the fabric, which is then coated with varnish and resin. You can read the list of “claims” designed to make this seem something other than “any old smart fabric” in the filing.
A lot of the wearables work at Microsoft happens at Microsoft Research, the innovation or “ideas” part of the business. It comes up with the concepts, whether they are out to make the world better or just keep Microsoft competitive.
All the patents we’ve looked at here fit into this latter category. Microsoft may have stopped selling familiar wearables outside of its recent Surface headphones. But these filings stake a claim on the future of wearables without having to sink millions of dollars into the full development, mass production and marketing of a consumer device.
Look at the share price of Fitbit over the last five years and you can see why Microsoft has put wearables on the back burner. From a high of $47 per share in 2015, Fitbit is currently rated at around $4 a share. But Microsoft’s continued work in the field suggests it is waiting, and has not written off wearables for the future.
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