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2023 Endurance Sports – Technology Trends – GPS Watches & Bike Computers
A look at the emerging tech trends in our sports devices.
This post is often updated to reflect emerging trends in aspects of technology that affect our endurance watches and bike computers, it’s mostly written with Garmin in mind as they tend to be the first large-scale adopters of new technologies in sports.
Originally this was a part of the monthly report of watches that were soon to come to market.
Sports Watch Tech Trends?
Technological innovation in one market often leads to unintended possibilities elsewhere. With that in mind, it’s perhaps best to think of emerging wearable tech trends as being intended for one of 3 markets with the first two getting the lion’s share of R&D
- Medical – An example might be a hydration sensor for elderly, hospitalised patients
- Smart – An example might be LTE and the ability to make calls from a watch without a phone
- Sport – An example might be cDa ‘drag meter’ for cyclists
The following sections cover the major trends that affect endurance sports devices as I see them.
You will find that general thrusts forwards in watch tech lag behind smartphone tech. Also sports-specific innovations occur for watches as they can only ever be used in wearables. For example, it is impractical for a smartphone to have a continuous heart rate monitor.
Some of the trends are technical like ‘LTE/5G’. But then the technical trend itself also enables new services & features eg LTE supports location-based functionality which could show the performance stats of competitors on race day.
Here we mostly look at the rise of AMOLED and the improved ability of touchscreens to correctly work
2022 was a watershed year for AMOLED. More is coming to sports watches near you in 2023.
As 2022 draws to a close even Polar got in on the AMOLED screen game with its Ignite 3 fitness watch. 2023 will see Garmin introduce new AMOLED models like a Forerunner 265 AMOLED version of the Forerunner 255, presumably also a 965 version of the Forerunner 955.
Q: Why now?
A: Garmin made it obvious that 2022 was their year for AMOLED when it announced new AMOLED capabilities for CIQ late in 2021. Consumers have always wanted great screens but adoption has been strangled by the high power consumption of AMOLED-like technologies. For me, Garmin Epix 2 heralded the first proper sports watch that did everything right, including the screen.
Apple Watch Ultra marks the company’s intentions to take sports more seriously. It has introduced a super-bright 2,000-nit display and some clever ways of adapting the display for improved readability during night usage. Apple’s more material changes though are simply playing catch-up by introducing yet more ways to have an always-on-display and save power – for example, larger text will have a power save mode where only the outline of the text is illuminated and the inside of the text is turned off.
Touchscreens can now work excellently – as found on Apple Watch Ultra. Touchscreens will continue to become more prevalent as savvy manufacturers have realised that sports people tend not to want touchscreens whilst working out but DO want touchscreens for normal daily use. Indeed, for Garmin, touchscreen tech is essential to improve the experience of using its labyrinthine menu systems – what once was 20 button presses is now a few swipes and 3 button presses…MUCH better. Note well that Q4.2022 has seen Garmin introduce more complication-related features into CIQ 5 and these require a touchscreen.
We’ve also seen Garmin Instinct Crossover introduce a hybrid digital/analogue display both to improve aesthetics as well as battery life. This might continue as a mini-trend but I suspect that is no overarching market desire for this.
Finally, there are E-ink-like screen technologies that consume tiny amounts of power. I don’t think we will see these much in the sports realm though.
WatchOS 8 brought gesture control to the Apple Watch primarily as an accessibility feature. Here, for example, clenching your fist performs an action on the watch. Other gestures cause other actions and you could see how this becomes a means of adding a lap with a simple gesture. This is now possible with some Apple apps but gesture control remains restrictive about what it controls and 3rd party apps don’t often support it. Gesture control could be the sort of thing that Apple adds to the Workout app in 2023 but it’s unlikely other companies would follow suit other than with simple examples like Polar’s recent re-introduction of a slap-to-lap feature.
We’re talking here about WiFi, LTE, Bluetooth and ANT+. Less so about satellite links. The ANT+/BLE will remain the mainstay of the sports sensor realm and Bluetooth will eventually win despite not being as easy to use for sports.
WiFi will get ever faster but that won’t impact the performance of sports devices in any meaningful way. Sports watches will eventually play audio over WiFi speakers in homes (Google/Apple Home already do this)
Connectivity will keep incrementally improving in several ways
- More robust connections…I’m thinking of Bluetooth sensors that connect more easily and stay connected
- Longer range connections – Bluetooth 5 does this
- Lower powered connections – Bluetooth 5.2 does this for audio
- More connections – Bluetooth sensors transmitters) will need two or three signals to give more pairing options to multiple other devices
Ultra Wideband Connectivity (UWB) was introduced by Apple’s FindMy service in 2021 and it’s pretty good IMHO. We’ve already seen a few sports devices have built-in UWB location chips (Van Moof bikes) and many cyclists have secreted Apple AirTags in their bikes to aid the recovery of stolen kit. We will definitely see more new sports accessories in 2023 with inbuilt UWB chips.
LTE use is exemplified in the Apple Watch Ultra which allows the watch to make phone calls independently of iPhone and to send and receive information over the net. Wear OS based watches have similar opportunities however Garmin is somewhat limited by what it can achieve with LTE and for commercial reasons will, at best, be limited to simple messaging and location services. Garmin Cyclists will face a stark choice of partnering their rides with either a smartphone or non-Garmin LTE watch if they want to stay connected with family and friends.
Satellite connectivity requires paid-for services and a large antennae. Satellite features will not be significant on watches or bike computers
Payment Tech /NFC
This works well on all the devices I’ve used that support it (Garmin, Fitbit, Apple, and others). Any innovation here seems to have stalled.
The difficulty for Garmin is it needs to explicitly support your bank – ie the chances are it won’t work in the sense that there is no commercial agreement to underpin that tech for your bank! If you use Wear OS/WatchOS then they have generic support for Mastercard, Visa and Amex but not in every region. Garmin probably doesn’t have the clout to negotiate these generic agreements.
AFAIK it’s not possible to use PayPal/Stripe/BitCoin with Garmin/Wear OS/Watch OS. This is a pain as, for example, I’d like to be able to easily handle multiple currencies in my Paypal balances and braver investors than me would want to be able to use their BitCoin.
Perhaps we might see Coros innovate here but I doubt it. I don’t think they have the critical mass.
Apple Wallet expands to include e-tickets and loyalty cards on the Apple Watch. Garmin just can’t do that.
Music Tech / Multi-Media Tech
Music tech has progressed from music control of your smartphone to the manual storage of MP3s on your watch, to cached support for streaming services and more recently, to truly live streaming over WiFi and/or LTE connections. I suppose that video playback is doomed to follow a similar route eventually but not soon, although I can watch my video doorbell lie on my Apple Watch….I’d prefer Game of Thrones though if I’m honest. It’s a bit more exciting.
Music Services: Garmin has commercially ‘nailed’ music whilst exercising by enabling the integration of AMAZON music, Spotify and Deezer. When I say ‘nailed’ I mean that their offering has a potentially wide appeal as it supports multiple services with the ability to relatively easily add others in the future. Audible, Apple Music and Google YouTube Music still need to be added to Garmin. I suspect that at least one of those won’t happen!
Geographic constraints: All music services are constrained by regional licencing differences. Depending on exactly where you are, this could be a real pain…or not.
Apple and Wear OS are most likely to be the platforms that offer the best, highly connected music services with true live streaming support for Apple Music and YouTube Music. After that Spotify will always be the one trying desperately to beat those types of innovation.
High-definition music playback is NOT supported by any smartwatch that I know eg one using AptX HD. AFAIK they all use normal-quality CODECS and have other audio-tech constraints which means that your running with music capability can sound GOOD but not EXCELLENT. And your sports watch cannot stream a high-quality music signal to high-quality Bluetooth speakers at home as there are many factors that affect audio quality: lossy compression, CODECs, bitrate, driver diameter and more besides.
Garmin will always lag behind in the depth of the music services it offers but will always try to appeal to as wide a base as possible and support as many music services as it can. I doubt Garmin will have LTE-streamed music any time soon.
Coros, Polar and Suunto are in various stages of catching up. I’d say it is likely that Coros will introduce support for a streaming service in 2023.
GNSS Tech – GPS, GLONASS, GALILEO, GPS III, DUAL-FREQUENCY
Support for multiple GNSS constellations with a single frequency just means that you can use more satellites. You will only have an increased likelihood of getting +/-5m accuracy.
2022 saw a good deal of usage of multi-frequency signals from the same, existing constellations. Multi-frequency enables the watch to determine & discard less accurate satellite signals and therefore improve precision and responsiveness. Airoha was the first chipset in this space and Sony has recently offered an alternative for wearables.
The Airoha chipset really does seem to increase tracking accuracy and the accuracy of instant pace. Again the Garmin Epix 2 had this and it is probably better than the Ambit 3 and Polar V800 of old. But these new chipsets need different antennae so, for example, Suunto 9 Peak Pro uses a multi-frequency chipset but doesn’t enable multi-frequency because of the older antennae design. Reversing the logic shows that brands need to get the antennae design right to get the promised, higher levels of accuracy.
But more accuracy needs more power. Thus, Garmin introduces SatIQ which only enables the battery-guzzling, higher-accuracy mode when signal quality falls. This seems like a pretty good compromise to me (I use it).
This diagram simplistically shows how the purple signal is rejected in a multi-frequency setup.
Optical HR Tech, Medical Sensor Tech
There is interesting stuff happening here.
Despite supposedly scientific claims to the contrary, we ARE THERE with good levels of resting HRV accuracy from several optical HR sensor models ranging from Whoop to Garmin Elevate, LifeQ, Apple and Valencell. Sporting levels of HRV from optical sensors are currently impossible and even sporting levels of HR are far from universally accurate. I can only see this latter type of universal accuracy incrementally improving over the years ahead as new sensor models are slowly iterated.
A mythical new tech is needed to boost HR accuracy, although I think it’s called a chest strap 😉
Ignoring HR sensors, a lot of R&D goes to sense novel new physiological parameters. Supersapiens is an obvious one that measures interstitial glucose and which evolved from a diabetes sensor. Flowbio is another that looks at hydration sensors, Bioxensor looks at blood glucose non-invasively and Rockley Photonics is often mentioned as a sensor that will solve sensing everything and has contracted with Apple to do just that. However, I have heard they are struggling 😉 Some of these new sensing techs are based on lower-powered and more accurate laser methods and promise to offer significantly more insight than currently possible covering lactate levels, hydration, glucose, core temperature, skin temperature and more.
ECG/EKG is also an interesting sensor type. Coros has just brought out HRV readings from an ECG/EKG digital crown which might increase resting HRV accuracy a tad. But holding your watch for 30-60 seconds is a sure way to appeal to no one. so athletes simply won’t use that tech in significant numbers. That said, several new Garmin devices have been released in recent months whose start buttons look suspiciously like ECG/EKG buttons. So I’m pretty sure that Garmin will soon follow the lead set by coros.
Frontier X2 is an interesting and expensive chest strap claiming ECG levels of accuracy during workouts. I believe Movesense (formerly Suunto) also has a similar ECG product. Personally, I can’t see the point of these. The vendors might argue that you can possibly avoid death if you sense heart abnormalities but if you have a heart condition or are worried about your heart you should see a doctor and not buy an accurate chest strap. However, there might be some measure of heart stress that can be determined by an ECG during a workout (IDK)
In my mind, Garmin has mostly nailed Elevation with Digital Elevation Maps (DEM) ie a map that contains a layer with the known elevations of every square metre of the earth (or whatever the actual resolution).
Couple that with algorithms that fine-tune elevation by barometric altimetry and GPS altimetry and we have the perfect solution. Well, unless you’re on a steep cliff face or in a built-up area. But it’s great for nearly all of us, nearly all of the time.
The problem is the cost and complexity of doing this for a smaller company is a significant barrier, so much so that only Coros seems to want to add maps. Polar probably does not need to confront the barrier posed by maps and Suunto seems to think that the smartphone is the best place for complex mapping tasks, and there’s probably some truth there. Wahoo also has DEM on its bike computers and decent maps are much more useful for bike-related sports than running/walking, IMO.Environmental Profiling.
Solar Tech options are spreading through Garmin’s newer products. Garmin had to do this as they bought a solar cell company. Few other companies will be able to follow their lead. However, battery tech is ever-improving and I think solar tech will ultimately be a dead end for Garmin and the sports endurance industry as a whole. (there will always be niche use cases)
The biggest changes here are FAST CHARGING and larger capacities that support AMOLED
I said elsewhere that Garmin has reached “peak battery” I don’t know how they’ve done it. Coros is good too. Either way, their batteries last for a LONG time. WAY longer than almost any of us need them to.
OK, so the reality is that the battery lives are never as good as advertised once you start connecting all your sensors and navigating, getting lost and playing music but the battery life problem seems to have a workable end-game in sight. Consequently, now is the time to start introducing lots of battery-eating functions again! #Sigh !! (Yes I’ll use them too!). This is one side of the equation needed for the expansion of the use of AMOLED.
Wireless charging and shared charging between devices might come to a watch near you. Or not. The adoption of charging technologies based on body heat might perhaps eventually spread more widely than solar charging.
The ‘next big thing’ could be GRAPHENE battery tech towards 2030 or solid state batteries (Murata make one for IoT as of 2022) Although 2023 will see more modest adoption of capacity-dense Li-ion batteries with a silicon-based anodes eg Whoop
Until a new tech appears there are only 3 or 4 workarounds to battery limitations
- install a bigger battery
- reduce power consumption
- introduce fast charge batteries
- swappable batteries
Voice Tech ranges from audible alerts to audio coaching. The emerging wave for non-music audio is for voice control and group voices.
Many running watches and app vendors have half-decent support for audio feedback during workouts. Thus, if you listen to music you may find yourself inadvertently ALSO hearing your 1km lap times when you were least expecting it.
Audio feedback is already more extensive than just for lap times but, perhaps, audio features are not so used by runners THAT widely. The inclusion of audio feedback and audio coaching is, however, part of a growing trend.
Audio alerts sound a bit amateurish but are useful when you are going flat out and don’t want to have to raise your wrist or glance down at your segment progress on your bike computer or watch.
If you use Siri or Google Assistant, Bixby or Amazon Alexa through speakers at home or in your car, then it’s not hard to see that very soon sports features on sports watches could be usefully responsive to audio commands. “OK-Google…take a lap” is a simple example. Indeed 2020 already saw Bryton pushing out Google Assistant…cool stuff. Apple already has Siri on the Watch but I don’t think it interacts with the workout.
Finally, on this point let me ask you a question. “How many times have you cycled with someone, nodded and pretended you heard what they were saying to you?” Yes, me too! There’s got to be scope for a Race Radio for the masses…aka Sunday Group chat. Wahoo has introduced it on Wahoo X and I’m sure cycling radios have existed for years so I’m looking for a cool way to get mass adoption of communications in group cycling. Which leads nicely onto…
Sports tech companies often talk about the social aspects of sports but they could do WAY more here than simply sharing a picture or graph across a few sports data platforms.
Strava Beacon and Garmin Group Track are nice enough features. Yet Tom Piddock’s new app to help organise Sunday group rides and Wahoo’s public route sharing shows that much more still needs to be done.
Why can’t our Varia lights synchronise together when we ride as a group? Why can’t Varia detect group riders getting dropped? Why can’t Garmin Edge use LTE to upload lap performances to centralised race portals? There are many more whys than that.
Solo Tech & Safety Tech
Clearly, there is a trend for gamification of solitary training where services like Wahoo X and ZWIFT can make your treadmill experience part of a wider virtual group. That trend is obviously going to continue with adoption boosted by the subscription revenues we all paid for indoor training during Covid-19 times.
Watches currently have the ‘I’ve cracked my skull alert’ and the ‘someone’s following me alert’. For certain demographics that sort of functionality will hopefully become more widely available. Why not add an extra level of locational intelligence here to prompt the watch wearer “Hey…do you really want to run down THIS street at night”.
Integration & Openness in a Connected World
There will be deeper integration of sports watches with their companion apps. Any sports service worth its salt will be open to key data repositories like Google FIT, Apple Health, Strava and Garmin Connect.
Whilst HEALTH and activity data might become centralised in large repositories, Apple & co implement strict security policies to give consumers the right to security and anonymity. This is a major problem for ad companies as well as for well-intentioned sports data companies who want to gain insights from large data sets.
Mapping & Navigation
My most common command to my car’s navigation is, verbally, “Navigate me home” and I want that to take into account traffic delays, which it does. Sports navigational tech tries to do a lot of REALLY clever navigation stuff but I suspect that much of what they are trying to do is for a tiny number of people. None of the sports watches can get me home in the same easy way that I use my car/smartphone. Maybe it’s just me?
My next most pressing navigation need is simply to follow a route I’ve grabbed from somewhere (say, Google maps) and, perhaps, to navigate back on track when I get lost. Oh and to share it easily with someone riding with me who has a different bike computer brand. These tasks are STILL SURPRISINGLY difficult in late 2022.
Clever routing algorithms exist to get you there in the easiest, fastest and shortest ways that can take into account grade and road surface. But the larger sports data platforms also have the ability to route you over the most popular routes (Garmin, Google, Apple, Strava, RwGPS) and that ultimately relies on ‘people knowing best’ rather than ‘tech knowing best’. For most sporty routing experiences, I suspect that POPULARITY ROUTING is all we need. Yet this is a challenge for someone like, say, Hammerhead or Suunto to implement as I suspect they don’t have the volume of data that Garmin does. So they ultimately have to either pay for it from a 3rd party or offer a service based on limited-popularity routing.
Much of the processor details are beyond my inclination to get to grips with them.
Expect to see the increased capability of individual chips. For example, an OHR chip (Valencell) might also include an accelerometer. A processor like the Wear OS Snapdragon 4100 (2020/1) from Qualcomm may well boast GNSS capability as well as move Wear OS from 32bit to the faster 64bit. Multi-purpose chips potentially can make production easier as well as reduce power consumption.
Weather sensors and connectivity to weather services are already quite good. I was recently impressed with the MyRadar app which graphically shows incoming weather fronts on a map on my watch. Try doing that on a Garmin screen without a smartphone connected to the net.
I want to see more, free wind forecast information offered to athletes. The wind speed/direction is often hidden away in a forecast. As a cyclist, the wind is often as important to me as rain…I try to avoid excesses of both in equal measure. Yet if I am on a STRAVA segment day then the exact wind knowledge can be rather helpful, maybe I could even receive a daily text/email/alert to alert me of favourable, predicted wind conditions on my starred segments (products do exist here). Of course, products can already show forecasted wind AND ACTUAL headwind eg from AeroPod but why can’t Velocomp (AeroPod) produce a smaller wind sensor it might later be interesting for someone to collate actual wind strengths and directions compared to forecast to take into account/predict local disturbances of strength/direction.
IoT / Home
I suppose you can already turn on your fridge whilst running if you have the right pieces of kit and an IFTTT account. You can do a lot of things you don’t really need to with tech.
Novel Sensor Support
This requires the ‘novel sensor’ to exist. Thus we are still waiting for sporty, PRACTICAL hydration sensors (AURA), Carb/Fat usage (Lumen), blood pressure (OMRON Heart Guide) and non-invasive, blood glucose sensors (other than Supersapiens) to exist. Garmin can already connect to them BTW…with CIQ.
Novelty also includes connecting to existing sensors in novel ways. Thus Wahoo’s ‘hand off’ from the Rival to the ELEMNT bike computer is a novel way to use the ELEMNT.
ActiveLook seems to have sufficiently miniaturised glasses tech so that a HUD can be added to running or cycling glasses with a much more sensible resolution than offered by FROM Swim in its goggles. Interestingly, support for ActiveLook exists in Suunto, Garmin and Apple, plus I know that other brands are considering integration.
Garmin has the ability to iterate subtle variants of its tech across multiple sports. For example, Fenix morphs into Quatix for Marine usage. I expect Garmin to also iterate devices to MTB, track, ultra running (Enduro) and Cyclocross (trail or gravel) although that could be a features pack or protective accessory pack (eg as per Edge 520 Bundle)
Other manufacturers generally seem to be iterating technical variants of products eg introducing ‘navigation’ or STRAVA to a bike computer doesn’t especially target a sport. Rather it just introduces new technology.
One strategy for Garmin’s competitors is to target specific sports with a specific watch/bike computer but we see surprisingly little of that as the competitors try to focus on many customer segments at once. Coros Pace 2 was a great example of a focused running watch at a good price, guess what? It sold well.
Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning
These phrases are usually used incorrectly by companies saying that their products use AI/ML when they don’t. Ignoring that, there are interesting developments appearing from the tech that looks at large data sets to discover new patterns and then to make personalised recommendations to you.
The easy examples are where we would look at the population of athletes and see what training regimes have the best outcomes. We could then refine that to look at smaller populations such as those in your age group or at your competence level to determine which workouts and combinations of workouts elicit the best responses.
You can then switch that approach to a wholly personal level and instead look at the large data set which is your own history of workouts. Again specific things you have done in the past will have worked better than others and AI/ML can discover these (eg AI Endurance)
Fitbit (2021) have said that they will be looking at AI/ML to discover what metrics motivate you. So we will probably eventually find that your app or your smartwatch automatically adjusts and focuses what you see on metrics that best spur you on to greater things! Hmmm.
There will be MANY more examples of what AI/ML can do. You just need a large data set, a bit of creative thinking and a good mathematician.
There’s probably a sports watch that can already take a photo and share it to your STRAVA feed. Xplova integrated video recording to their bikenav a few years ago along a similar vein. It’s already technically possible, there just has to be the commercial will to match whatever demand exists.
The question here is to what degree image capture needs to be integrated into a small sports device rather than existing as a secondary device (drone/GoPro). If I think of the 30 or so people that I regularly follow on STRAVA (who I actually know in real life) then only one of them adds the occasional image to a ride.
Workout Data Standards
The FIT file format is now a de-facto standard, although technical communication between platforms may well use JSON or TCX. But you don’t need to know that. You’d be surprised at how many newly released devices (non-Garmin) produce FIT files with schema errors, you’d be surprised at how many of those errors exist two years later. Or maybe you wouldn’t.
A lot could happen…probably not so much will happen.
We WILL see more AMOLED, TOUCHSCREEN and ECG/EKG models in the Garmin stable and we should see Coros deliver MUSIC streaming support.
I am fairly hopeful that in 2023 we will see novel sensors that we can buy and use with our Apple, Garmin or Google/Samsung-related tech. The earliest that I see these sensors physically inside smartwatches would be 2024.
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