Smart rings are meant to be invisible, and that’s the problem

Sometimes you’re in bed and the glow from your smart ring’s optical heart rate sensor enters your peripheral vision. This got me thinking about how Samsung (and potentially Apple) would join the smart ring market, and why it’s a terrible idea. You see, these companies want devices that make their presence known in your life, that make it into your routine. But smart rings purposefully blend into the background, which limits how much you can or want to do with them.

Back in February, Samsung announced Galaxy Ring, a health tracker rolled into a ring. When it launches later this year, it will continuously track your sleep, breathing, movement and reproductive cycle. Quite by accident, I’m sure Bloomberg Apple has also announced that it is conducting research on its own smart ring platform. Both companies are not so secretly looking for weapons The Ring of Oura, the market leader in finger wearables. And I’ve been testing one of these for a long time.

Oura tracks your sleep, temperature, activity, post-stress recovery and menstrual cycle. It’s an engineering marvel to cram so much technology into such a small and elegant package. The downside, if you can call it that, is that unless you have a phone in hand, there’s no way to access the data the ring collects or its insights.

But here’s the thing: It’s not often that I open the app to see what the stats say. If I wake up, it needs no further explanation. And on those rare occasions when I wake up and don’t know why I feel bad, the last thing on my mind is to check my phone. Who wants to look at sensitive information when your head is pounding and your eyes refuse to focus?

This friction, the small gap between having information out there and making it readily available, is a problem. Yes, you can receive a notification if your “Readiness Score”—Oura’s specific metric for overall health—drops below a certain level. But I’ve been using this thing long enough that I’ve never gotten used to it, and I suspect others will struggle to do the same. It’s nice to have this information on the rare occasions that I’ve thought enough to look at my data for a long time. But I can’t imagine looking at this information once or twice a day.

It’s also not very useful for training tracking, mostly because you won’t want to risk your $300 gadget at the gym. The first time I took it to work out, I grabbed a pair of metal dumbbells, realized that their spiked handles were rubbing against the metal of the ring, and quickly removed it.

Since there is no direct input method, it is very easy to forget that it is there and not use its information. If you’re willing to use the ring to track your fitness since you won’t be wearing a smartwatch or fitness tracker, and check your stats all the time, it will work for you. But deep down, I prefer a watch with a display that’s easy enough to check as a matter of instinct. I think this should be a concern for Samsung and potentially Apple as they look to move into this space. The smart ring serves a niche within a niche – the quantitative self-obsessed who refuse to wear a watch. They obviously believe it’s enough to spend the time and money building their own, but I’m not sure it’s going to be a blockbuster.

These rings have only a few hooks to keep users in their private corporate bubble. Both Apple and Samsung have health tracking apps, and it’s likely that anyone who gets one will have less reason to switch providers in the future. But compare that to watches that offer health tracking, messaging, app interactions and mobile payments. Smartwatches are useful for these platforms as they help integrate various phone features. No rings.

Perhaps this is another picture of how the biggest players in technology now have to copy and destroy their smaller rivals rather than push for new products. Smart rings serve a small market, although the big tech can dominate with little time and effort. Especially given the strength of their relative brands, this means these devices will sell themselves to more or less die-hard fans. But could all new product be in 2024, and what can or should we expect from these companies?

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