All I Want For Christmas Is An End To All These Cables

ReadWriteBody is an ongoing series where ReadWrite covers networked fitness and the quantified self.

When’s the last time you had to charge your sneakers? Or your dumbbells?

It seems like a ridiculous question, but if the wearable industry is going to get serious about becoming part of our fitness routines, it has to pull the plug.

Wearable Designers Aren’t Cable Guys

The current generation of smart devices we wear on our wrist or elsewhere on our body are almost all hobbled by the same antiquated requirement: a cable tethering it to a PC for power and data.

It’s almost as if the designers of these devices recognize that plugging in a wearable device is inherently lame, and aren’t even trying to make it better. Every device I’ve played with has a thoughtful industrial design—until you get to the cable. Every cable is different, in its own uniquely bad way.

The Basis B1’s charger snaps onto the face of the wellness-monitoring device. The Pebble’s charger slips onto the side. The Mio Alpha, a heart-rate monitor, has a fold-up charger that seems clever when you tuck it away—but idiotically short and awkward when you try to actually plug it in somewhere.  Don’t get me started on the ludicrous charger for my Polar Loop.

The only charger I like is literally for the dogs—Whistle, a canine fitness tracker, snaps out of its holster and into its charger with a clean movement. If only we humans had it so good.

A bestiary of beastly cables. Clockwise from left: The Basis B1, the Polar Loop, the Pebble smartwatch, and the Mio Alpha.

Why don’t they all just use Micro-USB, you ask? Designing a plug for wearables is challenging. One obvious obstacle: Most wearables needs to be water-resistant if not waterproof, so they can stand up to sweat and go into the shower with you. That requires a different design. (Almost all use USB, the PC standard, on the other end of the cable.) And wearable designers are optimizing for size, style, and charging speed rather than compatibility—there’s no benefit to sharing a charging-cable design with a competitor.

The answer is to get rid of cables altogether.

First of all, no device should ever require you to plug it in to transfer data to a laptop. What is this, 1999? We are civilized people who have things called Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. If our phones can handle over-the-air software updates, then we shouldn’t have to plug devices into a PC to download updates. (The Basis B1, for example, requires this.)

Yet Bluetooth has its limitations. Right now, for example, my Polar H7 heart-rate strap can talk via Bluetooth either to my Polar Loop or my iPhone—but not both at the same time. That’s going to change soon, fortunately, in the next upgrade to Bluetooth.

And wearables are just now adopting Bluetooth Smart, a low-energy version of Bluetooth technology, for data transfer. As that becomes widespread and Bluetooth gains better point-to-point networking abilities, cables for data should become a thing of the past.

Why Wireless Charging Hasn’t Powered Up

The real revolution will come with wireless charging. Sadly, though, wearables, which are a natural for wireless charging, may be the last to get it.

Right now, there are three warring coalitions backing different standards, as Computerworld’s Mike Elgan recently noted: the Power Matters Alliance (PMA), the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), and the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP). All three seem focused on charging standards for smartphones, tablets, and laptops, with wearables barely under discussion.  The WPC is backing the Qi wireless-power standard, while the A4WP recently announced Rezence as the consumer brand for its standard.

The Qualcomm Toq smartwatch, which ReadWrite’s Dan Rowinski recently explored in depth, is one of the first wearables on the market with wireless charging. It uses a technology Qualcomm calls WiPower LE, for low-energy. (Editor’s note: Qualcomm recently sponsored some posts in the ReadWriteBody series.)

But while the main WiPower standard is compatible with the A4WP Rezence standard, WiPower LE is not, Geoff Gordon, a senior manager for product marketing at Qualcomm, told me. (Qualcomm is a member of A4WP, and Gordon is the chair of its marketing committee.)

That shows how nascent the standards are. It does us no good if we replace a pile of incompatible cables with a pile of incompatible wireless-charging mats. We may see a consolidation of standards in 2014—but that will likely only deliver wireless charging for devices with screens.

“The plan is to address” a standard for low-power devices like wearables in 2014, Gordon told me—which means it may well be 2015 at the earliest before we have chips and software widely available for device manufacturers. Optimizing these devices for cost, power, and design will take even more time.

That’s a pity. I don’t think it’s that hard to plug in your phone; it’s now part of our everyday routine. It’s wearable devices, which should stay on our bodies all the time, which really need wireless charging. If someone can think of a way to break through the slow standard-setting process and get wireless charging to the mass market, I say more power to them.

Do you want to unplug your wearables? Tell me about it.

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