Simband, sensors key to Samsung wearables push

The Korean electronics maker looks beyond today's Gear Fit with new hardware and software platforms designed for "the future of health." And it wants other companies to join in.

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Ram Fish, Samsung's VP of digital health, with the Simband James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Samsung on Wednesday made a new push into digital health, and it doesn't want to go it alone.

The Korean electronics giant introduced new open software and reference design hardware to better measure certain health characteristics of wearables users, including heart rate and blood pressure. Its Simband fitness band reference design incorporates a new sensor module that can be used in future wearables, while a cloud-based software platform called Samsung Architecture for Multimodal Interactions, or SAMI, can collect sensor data from the devices for analysis.

As far as possible capabilities, new sensors in acoustics, optics, and electrical generation will be able to sense materials in the air, and track glucose levels in a user's blood. The University of California at San Francisco will run trials to help Samsung test the sensors for accuracy, while other partners, such as Belgium-based nanotechnology research center IMEC, will provide other needed features and testing.

Better understanding one's physical well-being is "the single biggest opportunity of our generation," Young Sohn, chief strategy officer of Samsung, said during an event Wednesday at the SFJazz Center in San Francisco. "Our goal is someday you have sensors that know much more about your body."

While the new technology is sure to appear in Samsung's own mobile devices at some point, Samsung wants other companies to participate as well. To that end, Samsung launched a $50 million investment fund, the Samsung Digital Health Challenge, to get startups to develop digital health technology for the new platform.

"What's important is we're trying to rally the best brains out there to work with us in a common mission to improve in monitoring our vital signs," Sohn said during a round table with reporters following the event. "We think this problem is a much bigger problem than any one company can solve. It's a global challenge."

Health has become a big focus area for companies across the tech sector. Several have introduced health-centric gadgets, such as the Jawbone Up24, and countless others are working on smart glucose meters and similar products. Other companies see an opportunity to mine patient data or collect readings on individuals to predict when they'll get sick and tailor treatment.

Samsung has made a big push in health with its mobile devices, with the Galaxy S5 and Gear Fit incorporating heart-rate monitors and health-focused apps. Apple, Samsung's smartphone archrival, is also said to be investing heavily in health and fitness, and the next generation of the company's mobile operating system, iOS 8, will reportedly have a strong health-tracking bent with an app dubbed Healthbook.

The new software and reference hardware revealed by Samsung on Wednesday are still in the early stages. Samsung won't be selling either as commercial products but will open them up to developers and partners in the coming months. It plans to offer an open application programming interface, or API, for SAMI in the fourth quarter in conjunction with Samsung's next developer conference.

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Young Sohn, president and chief strategy officer of Samsung, at the company's digital health event. James Martin/CNET

As for Simband, Samsung teased the device during the event but didn't give reporters any hands-on time with the health-tracking wristband. It called the gadget an "investigational device, not available for sale." The device is more ambitious than current smartwatches on the market, like Samsung's own Gear Fit, and is essentially a guinea pig band that developers can use to contribute their own sensors, algorithms, and technologies. Samsung plans to distribute that to developers later this year for an undisclosed price, but it won't be a product that consumers can purchase.

As part of SAMI, a digital bio-journal aimed at researchers and developers will give them access to highly detailed data on the human body, along with analytical tools.

"Simband is only half of the story," said Ram Fish, vice president of digital health for Samsung Electronics. "The other half is taking this data and turning it into valuable insights."

The executives took pains to stress that people will retain control over their own health data. Samsung won't own it or sell it to marketers, they said.

"SAMI's your data broker that makes it easy to collect any kind of data," Dr. Luc Julia, Samsung vice president of innovation, said during the event. But he said users still own their information.

The news is the first major initiative to come from Silicon Valley-based Samsung Strategy and Innovation Center. The group -- which is a part of Samsung's components business, not the devices businesses -- was formed in Menlo Park, Calif., to create new technology, develop partnerships, and make investments into hardware. Sohn, the executive running the group, also serves as president and chief strategy officer of the Korean parent company, Samsung Electronics.

When forming SSIC, Samsung also introduced a $100 million investment fund, the Samsung Catalyst Fund, to boost its US footprint and spur innovation in areas related to cloud computing and mobile privacy. Health care has been one of SSIC's first big focuses. In February, it announced a partnership with the University of California in San Francisco to create new sensors, algorithms, and digital health technologies for preventative health.

Updated at 5 p.m. PT: With details throughout.

 

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