Apple has begun assembling a team of hardware and software engineering, medical sensor, manufacturing, and fitness experts, indicating the company is moving forward with a project to build a fitness-oriented, sensor-laden wearable computer, according to our sources.
Over the past half-decade-or-so, Apple has experimented with and shelved numerous wearable computer designs. Internal prototypes have included designs that could clip onto different pieces of clothing (like an iPod shuffle/nano) in addition to devices that could wrap around a wrist.
Based on comments from Apple CEO Tim Cook and numerous reports, the wrist is the part of the body in which top Apple executives are currently targeting…
Cook, also a Nike Director, is known to wear the fitness-focused Fuel Band. The executive has praised the product. “I think Nike did a really great job with this,” he said at AllThingsD’s D11 conference. “The [wearables] that do more than one thing… aren’t great,” he added. As a company that prides itself on complete, integrated experiences, the smart watch market is one that Apple likely believes it could dominate by way of iPhone and iPad-like innovation.
Apple’s Senior Vice President of Technologies Bob Mansfield, who is said to be key to the development of Apple wearables, has been seen walking around Apple’s campus with a Fuel Band. Mansfield was scheduled to depart Apple in mid-2012, but he returned to work on unspecified “future products” under Cook until formally booting up the new Technologies division last fall. Mansfield, a report from last year said, worked on health appliances during this period.
Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller and his team, sources say, have also been examining new wearable products including the Jawbone Up. Apple Marketing is tasked with setting product direction and capabilities, but it is also in charge of analyzing the current marketplace.
Reports are currently split as to when Apple will debut such a wrist device. Earlier this year, Bloomberg reported that Apple is seeking to debut the future-product late in 2013, but a recent analyst report and a story by the Financial Times profiling Apple’s iWatch hiring efforts have pointed to a late-2014 release.
Beneath the senior executive-level, Apple has assembled a team of both lesser-known and high-profile workers to bring Apple’s “iWatch” to reality. The team works in secrecy in buildings separate from Apple’s main 1 Infinite Loop headquarters.
Reportedly leading the project with Mansfield are Apple VP Kevin Lynch and senior hardware director James Foster. According to our sources, Lynch’s side of the team is focused on overall software vision, and Foster’s group is developing the technologies and mechanics that will shape the features of the device. While Lynch and Foster run two different groups that are part of the bigger project, sources say that the groups are closely knit.
Other Apple teams, such as Dan Riccio’s Hardware Engineering group, Jony Ive’s Industrial Design team, and Craig Federighi’s software developers, are likely collaborating closely to develop the user-facing hardware and software.
Lynch’s team, a previous report claimed, is comprised of former iPod hardware and software designers, and sources say that this is accurate. According to high-ranking, former Adobe colleagues of Lynch, who asked to remain anonymous, the recently appointed Apple executive is “very excited” about his new work.
Foster’s team is comprised of sensor, chip, and battery/power efficiency experts, fields that need to be mastered to produce a light, functional wearable gadget.
This group includes a series of long-time Apple employees that have been molded into a team much like Scott Forstall assembled an “all-star” cast to create the first iPhone operating system.
For this group, Apple has rounded up battery power experts from other divisions inside the company. For instance, Apple has relocated top engineers from Mac projects to focus on power efficiency. Apple’s MacBook Air is known for being a thin and light laptop that also manages power well. The same people that worked on battery components for that computer will bring their expertise to the development of Apple’s wearable device.
Additionally, a source says that Apple has tapped former iPhone engineers for the project. Specifically, Apple sought members of the original iPhone team that worked on the assembly and miniaturization of internal components.
Sources say that people from Apple’s Authentec acquisition are also involved with the “iWatch” project. While much of the former Authentec team is focused on developing fingerprint solutions for devices like the iPhone (perhaps even the next model), some team members are working on sensors for the iWatch. In addition to physical sensors that could be placed on top of device hardware, sources say that Apple has been toying with solutions that could embed a fingerprint reader into a high-resolution Multi-Touch display. Sources warn, however, that the technology to implement the sensor into a display will only be available multiple years into the future and it does not seem immediately intuitive to have a fingerprint reader on a watch.
The team also includes specialists in the development of miniature, power-efficient system-on-a-chips. For thin, light wearable devices, Apple will need to develop processors that are even smaller and more versatile than those found in iPhones, iPods, and iPads. For chips, Apple has unsurprisingly tapped members of Bob Mansfield’s semiconductor team, but it has also poached employees from chip design firms such as Infineon and XMOS.
Apple has also hired workers for the team from various companies that specialize in devices that could analyze sleep patterns. Tim Cook implied that in order for a wearable to be successful, it would need to change the behavior of its users. “Can [a wearable] change somebody’s behavior? The book hasn’t been written on that yet,” Cook said last year. Perhaps an Apple wearable device that could analyze sleep patterns and provide its users with data would fit Cook’s requirement.
Within the iWatch group, many of the designers and developers hold patents that could directly assist in creating such a device. People on the wearables team have patents in light sensor design, distance measurement sensor design, and, notably, several patents for integrating mobile devices with fitness equipment. Many of these patents would likely be critical to an Apple wearable device that could be used for fitness and be able to provide information such as speed and walking distances.
While Apple has assembled a “dream-team” to build wearable devices, the company has had some minor setbacks in retaining talent. Recently, a member of the team defected to Google X, the Google skunkworks program behind Project Glass. Tim Cook previously said that he does not believe Glass will have a “broad range appeal.” With that in mind, it is unlikely that Apple will tackle face-worn devices anytime soon. “I wear glasses because I have to,” he said. “The wrist is interesting,” however, Cook added.
In addition to rounding up team members from inside Apple, the company has also hired experts in relevant sensor and medical fields. As Tim Cook said in connection to wearable devices, “the whole sensor field is going to explode.” He added that the field is “a little all over the place right now, but, with the arc of time, it will become clearer.”
Based on new hires, it seems that Apple’s interest in sensors focuses on the ability to measure glucose and other body level information. With this data, the product could inform users of vital information in a non-invasive way. These sensors could also pick up more data to give a user a snapshot of their health, which would be ideal for fitness applications.
To assist with the development of these sensors, Apple has hired several scientists and executives from multiple sensor developers. Some notable firms who lost employees to Apple are AccuVein, C8 MediSensors, and Senseonics.
AccuVein specializes in portable device sensors to map out veins in the body via a non-invasive fashion. The video above from the company explains the technology. iWatch engineers with experience in these sensors could give Apple excellent perspective into how its wearable devices could be used in the medical world.
Apple has also hired several experts in the field of non-invasive blood monitoring sensors from C8 MediSensors. This firm is a company that became defunct in February of this year, according to its former CTO Rudy Hofmeister (who departed the company in late 2012).
The company’s technology provides a non-invasive way to measure substances in the human body such as glucose levels. The technology, as described in the above video, could be ideal for patients monitoring diabetes. For an Apple wearable device with sensors, this functionality would likely be a true game-changer for the many people across the world.
During a phone call, the former CTO told us that the company broke down because the glucose-level-analysis technology was facing issues surrounding the consistency of data readings. When the company dissolved, Apple moved aggressively to hire several C8 MediSensors directors and engineers, including designers and scientists that specialize in machine learning (a form of artificial intelligence that focuses on interpreting forms of data), Hofmeister said.
When asked, Hofmeister told us how he believes former C8 employees could benefit Apple. “We spent a lot of time working on the technology for gathering data through skin and a lot of time dealing with the optical variance of skin,” he said. “Anybody who is going to be working on wearable biometric sensors would find the experience of C8 employees invaluable,” he added.
Before C8 MediSensors began its downward spiral, Apple looked at a potential technology and resources acquisition of the firm, according to a source who asked to remain anonymous. Former C8 MediSensors’s Director of Optics and System Engineering Ueyn Block, who speaks in the above video, became an Apple employee earlier this year.
Apple has also poached at least one high-profile employee from Senseonics, a firm that also specializes in sensors to monitor human substances, to work on biometric sensors for wearables.
Its Vice President of Product Development, Dr. Todd Whitehurst, departed for Apple at the beginning of this month, the Maryland-based company confirmed to us during a phone call.
The Senseonics product is a system that includes a small capsule that is embedded into the body in addition to a small, light, powerful wearable transmitter than could interact with the body sensor over Bluetooth. The transmitter interacts with a smartphone app. The company explains the app on its website:
The Senseonics Mobile Medical Application is designed to run on a smartphone to receive and display the sensor glucose data from the Senseonics Transmitter. It is intended to provide easy access of real-time glucose measurements without burdening the user with another dedicated device to carry. Besides the current glucose value, the smartphone running the Mobile Medical Application is also geared to display the rate and direction of glucose change, graphical trends, and alerts for impending hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia. The application is also intended to store past values for further analysis and reporting.
Dr. Whitehurst’s expertise in Bluetooth connected smartphone apps that could interact with the body via wearable devices is invaluable experience for Apple’s iWatch plans. This hire further demonstrates that Apple is moving along aggressively in the product’s development and hopes to include medical/fitness functionality.
On the subject of fitness, we have heard whispers that Jay Blahnik, a famous fitness consultant and educator, has taken a job with Apple. It is unclear if this is a full-time job or simply consultation work. On his website, Blahnik notes that he was instrumental in the development of Nike’s new fitness products like the Fuel Band.
He worked closely with Nike on the launch of Nike+Running, which has become the largest digital running community in the world. He was also the original creator and program developer of the Nike Training Club App, and the Nike Training Club in-gym program, which boasts over 6 million digital users. He is also a key expert and consultant for many of Nike’s new Digital Sport initiatives that launched in 2012, including Nike+ Kinect Training and Nike+ FuelBand.
Blahnik’s experience in the fitness and gym-related technology products would be a major strategic benefit for Apple’s wearable device plans. Blahnik also notes on his website that he has consulted for Apple in the past, so perhaps this adds some weight to the rumblings we have heard about him working at Apple in recent months. Blahnik did not respond to a request for comment. Update: Since publishing this report, Blahnik has removed his website and Tweets from the Internet.
Blahnik would not be the only new field-expert for Apple that could assist in wearables. Earlier this month, Apple hired former Yves St. Laurent CEO Paul Deneve to work on Special Projects. With his luxurious goods and fashion background, his expertise will likely be critical for Apple’s plans for wearable devices.
Later this year, Apple will likely introduce a range of thinner iPads, more capable and lower-cost iPhones, and new Macs. Based on comments from Tim Cook plus moves to hire fitness and sensor specialists, 2014 could, however, be the year to really [i]Watch.