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Alphabet’s Stealthy Smartwatch Has One Killer Feature

Stand aside, Apple Watch. Verily’s new smartwatch, which is optimized for medical research, can last for a week on one charge.

Alphabet’s Stealthy Smartwatch Has One Killer Feature
[Photo: courtesy Verily]

The secretive life sciences division of Alphabet, Verily, is working on inventions like contact lenses that can track blood glucose levels, and dining ware that helps people who suffer from tremors eat. But the division is also setting its sights on building a better wearable for tracking our health. It’s called the Study Watch. And while it looks a lot like a smartwatch, Brian Otis, chief technology officer at Verily, begs to differ.

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“Study Watch is not a smartwatch or a fitness tracker,” Otis explains. “Wearers of the Study Watch will be participating in clinical observational studies, and will only see the time and certain instructions on their device.”

Built for Verily’s research partners at Radboud UMC, Stanford, and Duke, the Study Watch succeeds where the Apple Watch and most other smartwatches fail. It tracks electrocardiogram (ECG), heart rate, electrodermal activity, and inertial movements, and it can do so for up to a week at a time without needing to be charged, making it a more reliable tool in clinical studies. By comparison, Apple claims its smartwatch provides 18 hours of operations, depending on usage–which barely makes sense for a consumer, let alone someone who needs their smartwatch to closely monitor metrics about their health.

[Photo: courtesy Verily]
To accomplish this feat, Verily built the Study Watch from the ground up. The dimensions are basically the same as an Apple Watch. However, any layperson will notice one big difference: the display. The Study Watch features an e-ink screen, like Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite, that requires virtually no power to stay on.

Other watches have actually incorporated e-ink for a decade now–the Pebble smartwatch, most famously–and it’s impossible that the screen alone is enough to increase battery life to this extent. When I asked about the battery and sensor technology inside the Study Watch, whether it was proprietary or off-the-shelf, Otis would not comment further upon the design. When I asked if the battery savings came from the watch storing a week of encrypted data at a time, rather than constantly handling power-intensive uploads and push notifications to a phone, he clarified that while the Study Watch doesn’t provide such notifications to users, it could while still maintaining the week-long battery life.

And so, like most of Verily’s projects, we’re left with only a minimal explanation of the wizardry behind the curtain. However, as Apple increases its interest in the health care sector–the company is reportedly working on a blood sugar measurement device of its own–don’t be surprised if the Apple Watch is modified for at least some researchers or organizations in the health care space that need to meet similar, week-long benchmarks. Because even if smart watches have failed to excite consumers, there are trillions of dollars up for grabs in their application in health care.

And in that world, where UX pain points are literally a matter of life and death, always-on dependability will be the new shiny and thin.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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