Wearable AT – Smart Watches

This AT of the Month segment was published July 2017. 

Variety of smart watchesFor this month we have chosen one group of wearable assistive technology – Smart Watches. Rather than offering one example, we are providing an overview of the technology and have included a downloadable list of products and information.

First, when discussing smart watch technology, it is important to point out that the notion of a “smart” watch is a bit of a misnomer. Even the smartest of the smart watches are not able to do much unless they are linked (usually via wireless Bluetooth) to a “smart” phone. And, in most cases, most of the “smarts” comes from the phone – not the watch. This is not to say that these devices are void of any special features and can do some amazing things. Indeed, many of the so-called “sport” or “fitness” watches do provide a number of features including measuring health-related data (walking distance/steps, heart rate information and some GPS functions) independent of a tethered smart phone. But for the smart watch to really be an assistive technology device, they need to be linked to a fairly powerful smart phone.


While electronic watches that do more than simply tell time have been around for over 30 years, it is only within the last decade that these devices have become truly smart. A number of manufacturers started selling various smart watches in 2013, but the market was busted wide open when Apple announced the Apple Watch in September, 2014.

In this short time, there have been dozens of vendors and scores of products. The technology is rapidly changing and features evolving as cloud-base services improve.


More smart watches including Apple WatchSmart watch technology generally is divided along the lines of the operating systems that they use and the operating systems of the smart phone they link to. This generally comes down to two major versions, Apple and Android, with many varieties and versions of the Android OS being used.

Some smart watches can connect with either an Android smart phone or Apple iPhone and some are exclusive to one OS.


This is probably the most important consideration when exploring the use of a smart watch as AT and it is also an area that is in constant flux. To understand this more fully we have to break down the devices functionality into five areas:

  • Sensory systems replacement, enhancements
  • Motor/muscle control systems, replacement, enhancement
  • Geo-location and movement (accelerometer/GPS)
  • Notifications and alert (haptic)
  • Communication/telemetry

These functions are generally part of the smart watch’s hardware and operating system. Additional functionality comes from the linked smart phone and very often from some cloud-based services and tools.

More watches including Martian and AsusSensory systems replacement and/or enhancement: For some people with disabilities, the sensors on the smart watch can assist the user by using internal sensors or linking to environmental sensors. For example, the smart watch can be programmed to sense when a telephone call is coming in, a timer has completed a cycle or some alarm has gone off. When used with notifications and feedback, as well as some of the geo-location functions, smart watches can also assist the user is getting around the community while avoiding possible dangers.

Some smart watches have light sensors and some even have cameras. Several can sense heart beats and one device (Microsoft Band 2) has a UV sensor and a skin temperature sensor.

Motor/muscle control systems replacement and/or enhancement: For some people with disabilities, the smart watch can assist in completing tasks using only verbal commands. Some functions on your smart phone can also be controlled by large motor movements conveyed by the smart watch. With the use of external environmental hardware and other AT (including robots), much of the environment can now be controlled by a simple device on your wrist.

Geo-location and movement: These features can be used in a variety of ways to assist people with disabilities and caregivers. For some people with sensory disabilities, the use of the geo-location features of the smart watch, in combination with the GPS (global positioning system) of the smart phone can allow the user to travel independently to unfamiliar locations and perhaps be found if they have become lost or disoriented. Movement sensors (accelerometer) in smart watches can sense if the person has fallen or is in danger of falling and can alert caregivers. There are some new technologies that are also able to detect pre-seizure activity.

Notifications and alert: Most of the smart watches on the market have some form of silent notification system – typically a vibrator – that can signal/notify the user. Similarly, most of the devices have some form of visual display to signal/alert users. The “taptic engine” on the Apple Watch – a combination of “tap” and “haptic feedback” – is somewhat superior to other devices on the market as it integrates the vibration feedback with a pressure controller on the watch crystal giving what Apple is calling a 3-D effect. Software that fully exploits this feature has yet to be developed, so stay tuned.

Communication/telemetry: And because most smart watches are tethered to a smart phone, they have some mechanism for controlling and using the cell phone that is attached. All of the smart watches that we’ve reviewed have the basic ability to make and receive cell phone calls using the watch alone. In many cases, the smart watch can also be used to send and receive text messages (SMS) including speech to text functionality that allows for hands-free use. Many of the smart watches can also control various apps on the smart phone including those communicating with various social media services.

In addition to sensing and recording various forms or health-related and exercise information, many smart watches can also interface with cloud-based telemetry systems that communicate this data to a third party. We expect that in the next few years, various software packages will be developed to allow for this health-related data to be shared with medical personnel.


We have compiled a chart that lists a number of the leading smart watches on the market. Although this information is only a couple of months old, be aware that this is a rapidly changing technology and certain information may not be up-to-date.

Also, this is not an endorsement of any product or service.


Please visit a local technology retailer for more information and to arrange for a demonstration.


Photo credit: Image provided by the vendors,   All rights reserved.