Samsung’s Missed Opportunity

In announcing the Galaxy Gear, Samsung took the opportunity to address one of the most frequent criticisms of smartwatches: that the fact it carries a battery. Being characteristically power-hungry gadgets, with a form factor that limits their battery size to the thickness of a toenail, smartwatches are likely to run out of juice at inconvenient times – after which their users are sporting the latest in wrist-paperweights.

However, rather than unveil some revolutionary new way to keep it chugging along for eons, all Samsung did was acknowledge the problem and vaguely boast its battery life.

[Timestamps make embedded YouTube videos cry, so skip to 3:26 to see what I mean]

Don’t get me wrong, 25 hours is pretty impressive if they can deliver on it and the idea of charging their tech overnight is nothing new for most people. Initial reviews would appear to indicate that the Gear can indeed sustain a full day’s worth of charge even with heavy use despite only sporting a 315 mAh battery.

However, the multitude of ways that people will (eventually) find to use smartwatches and the fact that the li-ion battery the Gear uses will deteriorate with age can drastically vary the amount of time it can last on one charge. The battery life is far from clockwork and users will inevitably find themselves limp-wristed at impractical times.

Portable gadgets have been around long enough for people to clock the idea of buying a spare charger to keep in the office or to carry their primary one with them. If you’re at your desk, it’s not usually a problem to leave your mobile phone charging at a nearby socket but continue to make use of it as normal. Every feature of your phone can be used without having to drastically change the way you manipulate it.

Image source: Gizmag
Image source: Gizmag

The whole appeal of smartwatches is to augment some of your phone’s functionality to an easily-accessible wrist-worn device. But in order to charge the Galaxy Gear, you must remove the wrist-straps and set the main device into a cradle that looks like an S&M rack for Smurfs.

Whilst this holds the device in a semi-usable position during its recharging cycle, it means you are no longer using it for its primary purpose. You’ve relegated the smartwatch to a superfluous miniature smartphone that can only be used to control your other smartphone; separate from your wrist and tied to the wall socket where using it is no easier, if not harder, than whipping out your phone.

This is not a problem exclusive to the Galaxy Gear, but as one of the first major companies to jump into this potentially competitive market (apart from Sony’s oddly underplayed entry), it does betray a missed opportunity on Samsung’s part to distinguish themselves from the existing competitors and from those yet to come. Even an unidentified Samsung executive has supposedly concurred with several underwhelmed reviews in saying that the Galaxy Gear “lacks something special”.

In order to be useful, the very concept of smartwatches must include a method of charging without having to remove it from the wrist or tether yourself to a mains socket like a cyborg-imposed leash law. That can only mean that smartwatch charging must go wireless.

Inductive charging had its commercial heyday a few years ago as third-party accessories to the major smartphone devices. But these were simply middlemen since they usually came in the form of a pad or surface that the handset (sporting a specialised case) still had to make physical contact with. Another form of wireless charging exists without this limitation.

Electrodynamic induction (otherwise known as resonant inductive coupling) enables the wireless transmission of electricity across short distances. The process uses a resonating magnetic coil connected to a power supply, which causes it to produce a low-frequency electromagnetic field. When a secondary “capture” coil resonating at the same frequency is introduced within that field, it can absorb the energy that the source is transmitting. This can then be converted into electricity in the recipient device in order to charge it.

The technology has been around for a while but was most recently developed by a team of MIT researchers led by Marin Soljačić, which spawned the company WiTricity. CEO Eric Giler demonstrated the technology at the TED Global Conference in 2009.

Imagine a smartwatch fitted with a miniature capture coil “tuned” to the resonant frequency of a coil in its charger, plugged into the mains on the other side of the room. The user could continue to wear and use the device as normal, as well as move freely within the admittedly limited range of the field, as it charged itself. Then your battery life is preserved exclusively for when you’re on the move and away from a plug socket.

Samsung have missed an opportunity to innovate by failing to see the potential of wireless charging in wearable technology. Not only would it have resolved one of the biggest drawbacks of smartwatches, it would have given the Galaxy Gear a distinctive edge that could help them seize that crucial early dominance in the market. Moreover, a successful proof-of-concept for wireless power would have given it the long-overdue legitimacy it needs to see it integrated into other devices, kick-starting a revolution in electronics that history would say started with Samsung.