By Scott Stein

Qualcomm’s upcoming new next-gen wearable chip platform, called the Snapdragon W5, promises battery gains for upcoming Google Wear OS watches. On paper, the chips promise more powerful processing speed and better battery life, and they could allow smart watches to do more things in a low-power, always-on mode. 

The 4nm system chipset, which is smaller than before, could also lead to smaller watch designs. But, it could also be hinting at where a new wave of smart glasses and other wearables are evolving. The new chips look to have better battery life, higher performance, global LTE support and can work with multiple cameras for more advanced image recognition processing and video chat support. This might be a clear arrow to where future follow-ups to devices such as Meta’s Ray-Ban Stories glasses aim for next year.

Qualcomm’s newest watch chipset should boost battery life. It also adds more low-power always-on features. Qualcomm

Watches: Longer battery life at last?

Qualcomm’s made these promises before: the Snapdragon 3100 chip seemed like it would solve battery life issues, but Google Wear OS-compatible watches still tended to average a day or two of battery at best. 

This time, however, the chip could mean watches that last 43 hours instead of 28 on a 300-mAh battery, or up to 72 hours on a 600-mAh battery. These numbers suggest two to three days of use, which may not sound like a big change. But if it’s a real two to three days of wear, that could mean skipping a day of charging without any worries at all, something the most popular smartwatches don’t do well. 

A day without charging would mean a night where the watch could be worn to track sleep. Sleep tracking features have become more prominent on watches such as the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 and the Apple Watch, and Fitbit’s sleep tracking-focused metrics could play a big role on the upcoming Google Pixel Watch. We still don’t know what chips Samsung’s next watch, or the Pixel Watch, will have. Qualcomm’s new chipset has already been confirmed on a few upcoming watches: one from Oppo, and Mobvoi’s next TicWatch. It certainly sounds like Qualcomm’s new chips are worth waiting for on an Android watch if the battery gains are as good as advertised.

Apple could be following a similar path. The company’s expected to have a step-up watch model this fall, which could be ruggedized and have a better battery life. WatchOS 9 adds deeper sleep-tracking features, perhaps indicating that the next watches could skip a night’s charging more easily. 

The longer battery life means the watches can do more in a lower-power “ambient” state, which could be used to limit certain watch functions. W5-powered watches could get notifications, use Bluetooth, stream audio and track health metrics including heart rate while in a low-power mode. The audio and health features in particular could end up being used by products that aren’t even watches at all.

Wristcam, a camera-equipped Apple Watch accessory. Could more Wear OS watches come with cameras built-in?Mike Sorrentino/CNET

Watches with cameras: For video calls, or QR code and ticket scanning

Qualcomm’s new chips will improve camera-enabled features, supporting 16MP camera ISPs as well as video calling. Previous Qualcomm watch chips have also had a version of this feature. Qualcomm’s first reference design models of its W5-chip watches, and models coming this year, aren’t yet expected to have cameras onboard, but cameras would make sense for a variety of reasons. Beyond taking photos or having video chats on-wrist (which, as I’ve experienced, isn’t all that useful), the cameras could possibly be used to help scan tickets or QR codes, adding to NFC and mobile payments to push how watches could check into events or interact with the world. 

Qualcomm’s pushing the idea of more advanced machine learning for image recognition on these watches, possibly in similar ways to how phones are increasingly recognizing text or objects with cameras. Could there be future assistive use for features like this? Very possibly. For example, where delivery workers could use watches to scan packages or take photos of delivered items in ways that tablets and phones are currently used.

Could this mean smaller kid’s watches, too?

Battery life isn’t the only advantage of these new chips: Qualcomm sees the smaller chip design as a doorway towards smaller-sized thinner watches, especially ones in the 38mm size and maybe even smaller. That could mean a wave of new watch designs, but it could also mean watches that choose a slimmer design over battery life gains, with smaller batteries onboard. 

Qualcomm’s head of wearables, Pankaj Kedia, told CNET that interest in phone-enabled, camera-connected watches for kids is a trend. These new chips might also be aiming to fold more of these connected features into designs that could fit kids (or anyone else).

Last year’s Ray-Ban Stories glasses were camera-enabled. Could advances be coming?Scott Stein/CNET

Smart glasses: A hint at a new wave?

Meta’s first-gen Ray-Ban Stories glasses use Qualcomm’s 4100 line of watch chips, Qualcomm’s Kedia confirmed to CNET. For smaller wearables on eyes or anywhere on the body, these W5-series chips could end up being a better fit than Qualcomm’s older and larger XR1 and XR2 AR-VR chips.

This is the part that intrigues me most: Could the W5 be a harbinger of a wave of wearables that live between wrist and head, or in combinations of those two? Meta’s already talked about wristbands being the next wave of VR/AR headset interaction. Could chips like the W5 enable watches and headsets, and more advanced glasses, to start interacting and dovetailing? And could Meta’s next pair of glasses use these chips, too?

Kedia confirms there are plenty of possibilities, saying of Meta’s Ray-Ban glasses, “the reason they use that is because size and battery life are important.” Kedia hints at the trend continuing. “Now with this platform, we have significantly improved the camera experience, the modem experience, reduced power, reduced size. Expect more customers, different types of customers, different form factors, to leverage this platform.”

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