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Smartwatches Do Little for Journalists But More Useful Wearables Are on the Way

04/13/2015 03:28 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015
sculder19 via Getty Images

Don't look to this first wave of wearables for much that changes how journalists do their jobs gathering news. Coming next, however, are things such as a wrist-launched personal drone and jersey-mounted sports cameras that could open up whole new editorial approaches.

Most media managers are salivating over today's smartwatches mainly for what publishers might be able to put on their tiny screens.

In reality, the more entrepreneurial opportunity this gear presents comes from its embedded activity-tracking sensors. Even if smartwatches aren't a hit with consumers, dedicated activity trackers are one segment of the wearable market that has shown viability on its own. And having insight into not just where people are but what they are doing at the moment makes possible situationally reactive content -- something different for people who are kicked back and relaxed at home vs. in the middle of their Pilates at the gym or bicycling to work when big news breaks.

But that's just on the delivery end of news.

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The Nixie wrist-launched drone could be a journalistic tool.

In collecting content and actually reporting the news, Apple Watches aren't much of an advancement for journalists. Like Bluetooth earbuds, they are a remote interface to the mobile phone, where the real capability remains. Smartphones have indeed changed how we do news work -- giving us constant communication with the newsroom, on-the-go information access, pocketable HD media capture, and locative assistance, among other things. But activity tracking via a wrist sensor isn't much use to editorial managers except maybe for checking whether your reporter has fallen asleep at the city council meeting.

Just wait, though. There are more and better wearables coming, some with journalistic application, as demonstrated in Intel Corp.'s recent Make It Wearable global challenge among creators of such technology.

Take for instance how sports reporting might be enhanced through point-of-view, live-stream video cameras that are small and rugged enough to sew into players' shirts for football, rugby and other sports contests. Such a camera, along with a stripe of biometric sensors that wirelessly transmit real-time heart rate and other performance data to sports fans, is the idea behind First V1sion. The Barcelona-based startup was a finalist last November in Intel's competition.

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Video feed from the FirstV1sion jersey camera including player biometrics.

"A sports event broadcast consists of several cameras but we're used to these cameras being impersonal, showing what you see from a distance," says First V1sion founder Jose Ildefonso in the group's entrepreneurial pitch. "Being in the athlete's skin is way more exciting. You're immersed by the sensations of vertigo, speed and emotion."

An enterprising news editor might find an application for such wearable tech beyond just sports. Imagine a reporter in the middle of some energetic public demonstration or even a military battle beaming the whole heart-pounding, personal experience back to the newsroom's audience as it happens.

In contrast, the U.S. developers of Nixie cited no particularly journalistic aspirations at all in conceiving of their camera-equipped auto-piloted mini-quadcopter that is worn as a wristband. The Intel challenge grand prize winning project is basically just about getting the ultimate selfie.

"If you don't have a personal photographer, if you don't have a personal videographer following you around most of the time, how do you capture those most special moments?" explains project manager Jelena Jovanoic in the Nixie demonstration video.

The video shows a rock climber, hanging off a sheer face, tossing Nixie into the air to video her traverse in full HD. The 45-gram, hand-size drone is pre-programmed either to boomerang -- that is, shoot a picture and return automatically -- or to remain aloft and trail the user while capturing continuous footage. Intel showcased the device live at this past January's International CES in Las Vegas.

Editorial uses for Nixie seem obvious, assuming local drone regulations allow. A reporter otherwise occupied in covering a news event could offhandedly (pun intended) add a unique visual perspective to his dispatch by simply flicking his wrist into the air.

Other wearable tech with possible journalistic utility that is just around the corner include:

  • A contact lens version of Google Glass (no, they didn't shut down the entire project) that reporters could use to discreetly access information feeds while in the middle of interviews or other coverage.

  • Several different devices either carried in your pocket or woven into the fabric of your clothes that turn body motion into enough power to keep your phones, cameras and other essential devices charged up.
  • One I really hope falls flat in the general marketplace because otherwise I know someone in marketing is going to suggest reporters wear it when out and about -- jackets with LED displays woven into them that could broadcast headlines across your back.
  • Before buying into in any particular wearable tech, keep in mind that news media are a very niche market in the overall economy. So only products that succeed with general consumers are likely to be available very long for our editorial use, especially at a price the average news organization can afford.

    This article is part of a report on wearable technologies being published by the World Association of Newspapers & News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) on the eve of Digital Media Europe, 20-22 April in London.