Smart rings have a long way to go

Smart rings have a long way to go
Photo by Victoria Song / The Verge

Smartwatches stole the spotlight from phones this fall, but there’s another wearable form factor waiting in the wings: smart rings. Korean outlet Naver recently reported that Samsung has filed a patent with the US Patent and Trademark Office for a smart ring of its own, complete with EKG and smart home control. And while it’d be awesome if Samsung did kick down the doors next fall with a new wearable, the reality is it’ll be a long, long time before this kind of futuristic smart ring is ready for prime time.

It’s easy to see why smart rings are an attractive prospect. Compared to smartwatches, they’re more discreet, fingers are better for heart rate measurement, and rings are way more comfortable to wear 24/7. They’d be ideal health trackers for that reason. But they also pose greater engineering and technical challenges than a smartwatch because they’re so dang small.

Take the popular Oura Ring, which I’d wager is the only consumer smart ring that you’ve probably heard of. Oura recently launched a perfectly round Horizon ring. It looks nice — I’ve got one on my finger right now — but it doesn’t do anything different than the Gen 3. It’s easy to brush this update off as a cosmetic change. I did when I initially heard the news. But when I sat down with Oura CEO Tom Hale a few weeks ago, he explained that a perfectly round smart ring is an incredible engineering challenge. As it turns out, it’s hard to get a battery that’s simultaneously small enough to fit into a ring while also being thin and flexible enough to hold a curved shape. That’s why most smart rings that make it to market have a flat edge somewhere in the design.

A collection of five Oura smart rings are arranged on concrete pedestals of varying heights. There’s a glossy gold ring, a rosy gold ring, a silver one in the center, a gunmetal gray one, and a matte black one.
Image: Oura
It’s round. That’s the innovation, and I mean that with no sarcasm.

That’s where we’re at with consumer smart rings. Genuine hardware innovation is being able to make something completely round. Meanwhile, its software-based breakthroughs aren’t unique to the smart ring. These days, you can find everything the Oura Ring tracks on a smartwatch. (Though to Oura’s credit, its approach to recovery tracking is among the best.)

I wouldn’t be shocked if Samsung, Apple, or even Google could make an EKG-capable smart ring. There’s one that does it already called the Prevention Circul Plus. It’s the “smarter” features like controlling your TV, delivering notifications, or interacting with your phone that I’m most skeptical of.

Earlier smart rings tried to do more. Ringly was a $200 fashionable ring that vibrated and lit up whenever you got a notification, except it didn’t have a screen so you had to memorize what combo of buzzing and lights meant what. It also wouldn’t work if you were out of Bluetooth range. Meanwhile, the Motiv Ring started out as a simple fitness tracker but then added biometric two-factor authentication. I never got it to work. The thing is, smart rings are at their “best” when they’re kinda simple.

I’d argue the Oura Ring is the one that’s stuck around so long because it’s a single-minded gadget. It’s a recovery tracker and it’s not doing anything other than gathering health data from your finger. Oura’s done a ton to contextualize that data. It’s been smart about working with other health and fitness apps, as well as researchers, to make its data valuable. But bluntly speaking, it’s a $300 data collector that now comes with a $6 monthly subscription. I quite like my Oura Ring, but owning one is essentially paying a premium for a passive device you’ll seldom interact with.

That’s the paradox. As the current technology stands, smart rings don’t work well outside of discreet, passive health tracking. That’s great for clinical research as noninvasive, continuous data can potentially unlock a lot of insights. Case in point, there are some intriguing smart ring ideas being thrown around by startups. Ultrahuman’s working on a smart ring to “hack” your metabolism; Movano’s working on getting FDA clearance for a ring to help monitor chronic illness; and Happy Health just got a ton of funding for a ring to gauge mental health.

But as neat as some of these ideas are, I’d argue those use cases are more interesting to researchers than consumers. In these inflationary times, consumers want the best bang for their buck, and a smartwatch can do everything a smart ring can — and much, much more.

At the end of the day, patents aren’t a guarantee that a company will release a given product. All this patent really tells us is Samsung’s noodled around with the idea of a smart ring and wants to deter rivals if it manages to make a winning product. Unless Samsung can figure out a killer reason why consumers would even want a “Galaxy Ring” — and controlling a TV definitely isn’t it — my guess is that this is one patent that won’t see the light of day for a long time. If ever.

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