Gear Fit: How Samsung's fitness tracker got its curve

For Samsung designers in San Francisco, the Gear Fit represents fashion-forward thinking and an effort to make the Korean electronics maker a trendsetter. CNET gets an inside look from design chief Dennis Miloseski on how the wearable came to life.

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The final Gear Fit design, as shown in an artist rendering from Samsung. Samsung

SAN FRANCISCO -- Dennis Miloseski wasn't afraid to look silly.

For a demonstration to his boss and Samsung co-CEO JK Shin in early March 2013, Miloseski strapped on a wristband outfitted with a large curved display. It was similar to the massive 5.7-inch screen fronting the company's Galaxy Round smartphone, but running software meant to show how a fitness tracking and notification device might work.

Because the screen was bigger than the display he hoped to bring to market, Miloseski, helped by a team of Samsung designers and engineers, had recreated his wrist on the screen, making it appear as if the digital wrist with Gear Fit was an extension of his arm. The point of the clunky contraption was to show what a sleek, curved glass fitness tracker might look like.

All that was missing was the sleekness.

Even so, Shin saw through the silliness, liked the potential for the device, and approved the project proposed by Miloseski and the newly opened Samsung Design America. "I pulled up my sleeve, and he was amazed," recalled Miloseski, the head of the San Francisco-based design house that's charged with dreaming up innovative devices. "As the first product, it's really risky."

A year after that demo, the Gear Fit came to market. The compact wearable incorporates a slimmer design than its bulkier cousins such as the Galaxy Gear or Gear 2. Most important, it actually looks cool, a factor missing from other early smartwatch efforts. "It's the sort of eye-opening design touch that wearables need," according to CNET reviews editor Scott Stein.

Samsung needs the Fit to be a winner -- and not just because competition in the nascent wearables market is expected to pick up this year when Apple finally unveils its long rumored iWatch. Other efforts, including LG's new G Watch and Samsung's Gear Live, likely won't convince consumers that the gadgets are a must-have. The smartwatches, both introduced last week at Google's developer conference as the first to run the Internet giant's Android Wear operating system, were panned by critics for being bulky and, in a word, ugly.

The Gear Fit is different, in large part because it wasn't designed out of Samsung's headquarters in Korea, but rather at two SDA offices in downtown San Francisco -- one of which was designed and constructed by noted architectural firm Gensler in 2012. The Gear Fit has faced criticisms of its own, including its limited functionality, lack of apps, and the fact that it only works when tethered to a Samsung smartphone or tablet. But in many ways, it demonstrates a willingness by Samsung to try whatever it takes to attract buyers -- including launching a new device designed by a group outside of Korea.

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Dennis Miloseski, head of studio for Samsung Design America, led the team that designed the Gear Fit. Shara Tibken/CNET

"Fit [is] closer to the fitness bands that have been fairly successful in the market and might be seen as delivering the right value for the price compared to a full-blown smartwatch," said Carolina Milanesi, chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel.

Samsung's goal for SDA is straightforward: Help Samsung shed its reputation as a "fast follower" and establish itself as a trendsetter when it comes to ideas.

Miloseski, who was previously head of design for special projects at Google, is one of the key executives hired to accomplish that goal. The Gear Fit, the first product to come out of SDA, can ultimately be traced to Miloseski's start at Samsung in September 2012.

"Making that bet on a technology was a big and important thing for Samsung to do," Miloseski said. "We're talking about a device that's going to sell in the millions and tens of millions."

Helping "Wingtip" lift off

Shortly after joining Samsung, Miloseski started building a team of experienced designers, engineers, and software developers. They include Howard Nuk, who serves as head of industrial design at SDA and previously helped develop the Beats brand (soon to be owned by Apple) while at the design studio Ammunition.

Miloseski's team, which has free reign to tinker, is organized around what the company calls big bets: innovative products that combine hardware, software, and services. The group, with less than 100 people, has about 18 months to develop a product.

"We want to focus a little differently than let's say, [on] the next version of an existing product, and really think of something from the ground up," Miloseski said.

SDA's first ground-up project was the Gear Fit, which was codenamed "Wingtip" after the style of men's dress shoes -- popular with one of the device's lead designers -- to remind the team to stay focused on fashion.

Here's how the Gear Fit came to be: In late 2012, Samsung started researching wellness and how the company could expand into that business. The company dominated the smartphone market and was gaining in tablets, but it knew those markets couldn't grow at a fast pace forever. It needed other areas of growth, and the health industry seemed like a promising target.

Miloseski and his team quickly decided that wellness went beyond fitness and counting steps. It also included staying connected to family, getting notifications if favorite sports teams are winning, and having quick access to financial information.

Around the same time, startup Pebble launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for its smartwatch. What SDA didn't want to do was create another gadget or smartphone that straps to a wrist. Instead, the designers aimed to come up with a "lifestyle product" that appealed to the masses, a high-tech device whose technology faded into the background.

SDA started a "Look Up" campaign in its offices, with employees observing people walking around San Francisco, absorbed in their mobile devices. It also did market research into wellness, fashion, and other areas to figure out what characteristics a wearable device should have. What SDA learned was that notifications needed to be "glanceable" so people don't constantly look at their smartwatches. The wearable also needed to be stylish if consumers were going to covet it. And it needed to do only a few things well rather than offer an entire world of apps.

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Samsung's early designs for the Gear Fit didn't differ drastically from the final product, pictured here in an artist rendering. Samsung

"It was really key for us to say this is not about putting the Facebook timeline on your wrist," Miloseski said. "What are the key aspects of each of those services that improve your life but still enable you to feel connected to your environment and the people around you."

Ahead of the curve

In Suwon, an hour south of Seoul by train, there's a Samsung operation few people see: the R&D center on the main campus, where Samsung's researchers come up with new technology. High-ranking Samsung executives occasionally take tours of the center, and Samsung even holds its own sort of internal electronics show to demonstrate new advancements to management.

It's at the R&D hub where designers and other executives learn what Samsung's capable of -- and just what components and technology they can use to develop new devices. When Miloseski took a tour shortly after coming on board, he got to see new display technologies and other prototypes Samsung was working on. "It was like going into a dark, sort-of-secret cave," Miloseski said.

It was during those meetings that Miloseski learned about Samsung's ability to make curved displays, like the one used in the Galaxy Round, a phone built on Google's Android software that was released in Korea in October 2013. When he and other Gear Fit team members started talking about the basic design for the device, they knew the screen had to be curved.

"The reason it had to be curved was it led to comfort ... [and] easier wear for our users -- for men, for women, for young, for old," Miloseski said.

But they "battled" with executives at Samsung's headquarters over a curved wearable. Samsung was working on curved screens for its TVs and one smartphone, but it had never made a curved Super Amoled screen small enough for a wearable. It also was very early days for the technology, so manufacturing was still spotty and expensive.

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Once Miloseski sold headquarters on the design, his team looked at hundreds of different screen sizes and radiuses for the display and tried those out with users. In some tests, the prototypes were simply tape with screens attached.

The SDA user interface designers pushed for a bigger screen so buyers could do more things like gestures. The industrial designers, though, wanted a smaller screen so even women with dainty wrists could wear the Fit. SDA settled on a 1.84-inch rectangular, curved screen to provide a balance between the two.

Also important was the band itself. SDA tried hard bangle bands and leather bands, and even tested bands with the battery components built into them. Overall, the team conducted dozens of tests with hundreds of users to figure out which band was right for the highest number of wrists.

"Even in the early days, when they didn't have screens on them, it was really about comfort," Miloseski said. "Could it be the first 24/7 device you don't take off?"

Ultimately the team settled on a pod design for the curved display and components, along with a flexible plastic band that adjusted easily with a clasp. That enabled Samsung to accommodate the nine common wrist sizes without having to make nine different versions of the product. The pod design also made it easy to waterproof the device and to let third parties make their own bands for the wearable -- including fancier bands so users, like Miloseski's wife, won't want to take off the Gear Fit when wearing formal dress.

"We made it harder [to build] by doing the things we did because style was so important," Miloseski said.

Coordinating with Korea

SDA wasn't alone in its development of the Gear Fit, though. Many components needed to be created from scratch -- including the curved battery, the curved display, and a new operating system. That task fell to engineers in Korea. Workers in Korea also oversaw business development and marketing, and SDA collaborated with designers at Samsung's headquarters. Groups in Korea continue to support the device with bug fixes and improvements now that it has launched.

All along the way, SDA workers took advantage of Samsung's model-making facilities, which let engineers and designers quickly build mockups that look like real products. The weight, screen, materials, and other features appear shelf-ready, but the devices are missing their internal components. The company also uses 3D printers to make bands with haptic motors to see what vibrations would feel like. The SDA designers printed out dozens of different prototypes for users to actually try out before they settled on their final design.

A few days before Miloseski was scheduled to meet with Shin, he received a call at home at 11 p.m. from one of his mechanical engineers working out of Suwon. He wanted Miloseski's exact wrist measurement. By the time Miloseski got to Korea, the mock-up was ready for him to wear -- complete with that over-sized curved display.

By the fall of 2013, SDA had determined the basic Gear Fit hardware design. It continued making slight modifications over the next few months, such as shrinking the pod design "by millimeters daily." That's also when the device's software became a bigger focus.

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A sketch from Samsung shows how the Gear Fit's pod design works with removable bands. Samsung

In terms of the operating system, Miloseski and his team tried Google's Android operating system, but decided it was "too heavy" and would drain the battery quickly. So Samsung built a stripped-down, real-time operating system that allows the wristband to run two to three days, according to CNET tests.

Samsung's mobile marketing department, led by Samsung President DJ Lee, got involved late in the process -- around the same time Samsung launched its first wearable, the Galaxy Gear. Lee also helped with product planning throughout the Gear Fit's development, and he and his team had a lot of say on how the new fitness band would be marketed, what color it would be, what the fashion strategy would be, and even what the device would be named.

The Gear Fit, priced at $200, has been on the market since April. It's unclear what sales are like -- Samsung won't say -- and the device has faced some criticism for its limitations. It needs to be tethered to a smartphone to fully function and only works with certain Samsung smartphones and tablets. Samsung has already updated the software to introduce a portrait mode, provide sleep tracking, and allow users to customize the Fit's home screen and background.

Even with its improvements, the Gear Fit -- and Samsung -- have a tough battle ahead. Consumers are still wary about buying smartwatches, and the future of the industry is unclear. Some analysts expect the wearables market to soar over the next few years, but others are already forecasting its demise. Market research IDC projects that from the end of this year to 2018, wearable shipments will increase nearly six-fold to 111.9 million. Forrester Research, however, predicts that by 2016, the functionality of smartwatches and fitness bands will be absorbed by other devices such as smartphones and sensor-laden headphones.

So far, no companies have really figured out the magical combination to attract hordes of buyers.

"The whole [smartwatch] space is still immature and all the devices on offer -- from all vendors -- are still seriously lacking in terms of mainstream consumer appeal," Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson said.

Miloseski admitted the Gear Fit isn't perfect. But, he said, it represents the right step for Samsung's wearables. Future gadgets will be more intelligent, and they'll have better software and services. But the first version of Gear Fit was designed to put Samsung on a path of making fashionable devices that blend more easily into people's lives.

SDA will make sure that focus continues.

"The thing about Samsung that I love is their willingness to be bold, their willingness to move fast, and their willingness to take bets," Miloseski said. "I would have never imagined inventing a new screen ... inventing a new operating system and having ... the decision [approved] to ship it in less than a year. ... That would not happen elsewhere."

Updated at 2:20 p.m. PT: with information about DJ Lee also helping with product planning.

 

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