Ever feel like there are less compelling reasons to upgrade your smartwatch these days? Not as many true innovations coming to the fore? Well, you're not imagining things.
We're currently in the middle of a quiet period in the world of smartwatches, as major brands wait for the next set of advanced sensors that will change the way we think about our devices.
The problem is that this next generation - which will transform smartwatches and wearables from wellness devices into fully-fledged healthcare platforms - is still a couple of years away.
It's a theme that emerged when we spoke to companies such as Fitbit and Huawei about wearable trends for 2023-2024.
Not only will are we waiting for these sensors to become accurate enough, but the black hole of FDA regulation also looms large. With next-gen display tech not being ready for prime time, either, it means the next 12-24 months look set to be a quiet stretch.
All this comes against the backdrop of a bleak economic outlook, too, and predictions of a slowdown in wearable tech shipments that have seen tech companies announce huge layoffs.
In fact, the belt-tightening is already here, with industry-leader Apple just reporting an 8% drop in sales for its wearables division in Q1 2023.
Bloomberg's ever-reliable Mark Gurman has also noted that there aren't set to be any major improvements to Apple's smartwatch range in 2023 - a suggestion that stings after the minimal improvements to the Apple Watch Series 8 in 2022.
For now, it seems wearables brands are playing the waiting game.
The next generation of sensors
The next major sensor advances will be cuffless blood pressure readings from the wrist, followed by features such as non-invasive hydration and glucose tracking.
And at the moment, we have a lot of projects in trials – and nothing quite ready for the wrists of consumers.
Movano has been open about trialing its RF sensor for blood pressure, and last year we spoke in depth with Rockley Photonics about promising results in hydration tracking. It's also bullish about its ability to track blood pressure and glucose.
Those are just the projects we know about, as well. For all these smaller brands making noises, you can guarantee there are also huge trials going on at some of the biggest tech and health companies in the industry.
Even if something does get past the FDA, however, it will then need to be onboarded into each brand’s ecosystem – and the likes of Apple, Fitbit, and Garmin will have their own takes on how these sensors are implemented.
It seems 2024 could be the earliest we’ll see totally new built-in sensors.
Brighter, more efficient screens
In terms of design, screen tech would appear to be the next major focus.
Micro-LED tech's usefulness is undoubted, but it will only reach the biggest and best smartwatches first. We've heard rumors that the Apple Watch Ultra will get Micro-LED in 2024, for example.
It will enable thinner form factors, better visuals and greater power efficiency, and this could transform the way we think about always-on displays.
But, again, it will take time.
While we wait
So, what can we hope for between now and this veritable tsunami of innovation?
We think it's likely that we see more brands follow Apple's lead and offer better and smarter features aimed at women after neglecting the area for so long. In fact, Samsung has already done so by offering temperature-based fertility tracking through the Galaxy Watch.
The launch of the new Qualcomm Snapdragon W5 chip is interesting, too, and has us wondering whether the baseline battery life of high-performance smartwatches could improve.
This, though, will also have a lot to do with the extent to which the upcoming Google Wear OS 4.0 and Apple’s watchOS 10 can hand off tasks to co-processors.
Fossil VP Brook Eaton talked to Wareable about strides that can still be made by Google to enable new features, such as notifications to operate without waking up the entire system.
It means we’ll likely see modest gains in battery life, improvements in GPS accuracy via dual-frequency, and the notion of greater untethered connectivity via satellite and eSIMs.
But in terms of features that will get the smartwatch industry moving, consider this period to be the calm before a very big storm.
How we test