How wearables & smartwatches are transforming travel

With a slight vibration on her wrist, Sara glances at her smartwatch as she finalizes an email. She proceeds to pack her bag and make her way to the other side of the airport. At boarding time, her heart rate rests at 60 beats per minute (by her watch’s count) while the remaining passengers straggle in at the new gate. A subtle vibration and tilt of the wrist had told Sara all she needed to know to beat the crowd.

Meanwhile, Will races through the parking garage to catch a plane - only he doesn’t know where, or when, it takes off. After tearing through 352 unread emails on his phone, he finds his flight confirmation and discovers he has just minutes to make the flight. He makes a Home Alone-style mad dash through the crowded airport, trying not to fumble his ID and boarding pass. Overheated and drenched in sweat, Will finally takes the last seat on the plane before the doors close.

Thanks to the real-time alerts delivered by her smartwatch, Sara’s flight experience was pleasant. Will’s? Not so much. To be the prepared passenger, the prepared meeting attendee, the prepared youth league soccer parent: that is the promise of wearable technology.

Wearables are seeking to establish a place among the most necessary of gadgets. Whether it is a smartwatch, a fitness band, a wearable virtual reality display, or even a ring that allows you to communicate with a smart device using gestures—wearables, like smartphones before them, are pushing the boundaries of how we interact with technology.

Wearables are tracking our movements to help us understand our health and our habits. Wearables are working as secondary brains, pushing us reminders, notifications, and easily accessed information. They are a considerable market, full of new products every year, and the market is only just starting its upward trend.

Wearables, like smartphones before them, are pushing the boundaries of how we interact with technology.

The wearables market:
here today, growing tomorrow

The number one “Kickstarted” product ever is the Pebble Time - a phone-paired smartwatch that crowdfunded $20,338,986 over the course of a few months.

Kickstarter’s third most popular campaign? Pebble Time’s predecessor, the original Pebble, which raised $10.2 million. Pebble’s makers initially touted the watches as more of a watch than a full-fledged computer. They thought that tech-conscious people wanted something different than another small smartphone. They wanted something to wear—a wearable.

Since the Pebble’s debut, the number of wearables shipped around the world has grown rapidly. The nine million sold in 2013 doubled to 20 million in 2014. Analysts predict 148 million wearable computer devices will be sold in 2019. Activity trackers, like the FitBit, predate smartwatches by a few years. But at the moment, smartwatches are the wearable item most consumers are looking for. Besides the Pebble series, Android smartwatches started coming out in 2014, with rapidly arriving entries from LG, Sony, Asus, Samsung, and Motorola. Early adopters saw the possibilities of watches tied into Google and its context-aware Google Now service. With considerable buy-in from app developers, the next wave of watches will extend the watches’ connection with everyday life even further.

Apple Joins the Party

Apple made its entry into the evolving smartwatch scene in 2015 with their premium-priced Apple Watch. Unlike the Android devices at the time, the Apple Watch was stylish, felt natural on the wrist and was brimming with potential. Apple didn’t simply clone the existing watches. Apple introduced its own unique design elements: a rotating dial (crown), bands with universal fit, two sizes that catered to both small and larger wrists, and even a gold version which retails for $12,000. While the higher-end models had only micro-niche appeal, they signaled that Apple took the smartwatch category seriously, and saw a future in wearable technology, far beyond eager early adopters.

Market reception for the Apple Watch was mixed. PC Magazine didn’t think it was different enough from competitors. Many critics cited the battery life as a major caveat to the always-ready experience. Others, such as the Wall Street Journal, loved the watch, saying that “the smartwatch finally makes sense.” The broad consensus, however, was that while the Apple Watch was an amazingly designed device, consumers should wait for further iterations of the watch before purchasing.

A recent report from IDC suggests that people have decided not to wait. The Apple Watch is already second in the wearable space, with 3.6 million units sold in the second quarter of 2015, behind only industry veteran Fitbit with 4.4 million units. After analyzing Apple’s third quarter earnings report for FY 2015 (which did not directly disclose Apple Watch sales), Time estimates sales of the Apple Watch resulted in $1 billion in revenue for Apple . The demand for the Watch, and thus wearables on the whole, is strong as 2015 progresses.

The Appeal of Smartwatches

In many ways, smartwatches’ success isn’t surprising at all. According to a 2013 study by Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, the average person checks their phone 150 times a day , and Google reports this number is as high as 250 times per day . It’s difficult to conceive of any one possession capturing a person’s attention that often, yet we feel compelled to do it. Most of these are glances that take less than two seconds, but the small effort to reach in your pocket, pull out a phone, tap a button, and unlock the screen starts to add up. Moving this “glanceable” information to the watch is faster and more efficient.

A primary reason consumers are increasingly moving towards wearables like the smartwatch is cutting out that effort—along with, of course, having something new and cool. Over time, consumers will find additional reasons to purchase smartwatches and other wearables.

As the watches continue to grow in technical ability, design, and features, the uses for them are growing as well. Passionate developers will create powerful apps to expand the out-of-the-box functionality of the devices. Their appeal will slowly radiate out from the small circles of tech-focused early adopters.

Apple gave us a glimpse of future advancements with the release of their smartwatch. It featured familiar watch looks and controls, but also new ways for users interact with their innovative Force Touch and haptic vibrations that serve as notifications. With the Apple Watch, you do things you might not even do with your phone, like drawing pictures and sending them off to friends.

Interacting with wearables

The smartwatch presents glanceable information, but it also provides improvements on what we use cell phones for normally. In effect, it’s often an extension, and in some cases, a complete replacement.

As with smartphones, you can touch your device. Apple’s Sketch capabilities include simple drawings. Android watches can detect an emoji you draw with your fingertip.

Intentional movements can be signals to your device. Gestures registered by certain Android watches include shuffling through notifications by flicking your wrist.

And if touching a device is too old school for you, Google’s Project Soli will simply detect common hand motions near the watch – you don’t even have to touch it.

Wearables can initiate an interaction with vibrations and sounds as well. As mentioned before, the Apple Watch brought haptics from phones to watches. Travel booking providers can push messages and reminders to customers’ wrists. Airlines can do the same; a buzz on the wrist could indicate, for example, that it’s time for that prepared passenger to board (she’s a preferred status customer, obviously).

Developers and smartwatch makers do well to keep buzzes and haptic alerts in moderation though, as interaction design agency Punchcut warns. “Too many beeps and buzzes could become annoying, confusing, or burn through your users’ precious battery life.”

Travel booking providers can push messages and reminders to customers’ wrists.

Voice lessons for
your watch

Voice is an increasingly useful form of interaction with wearables. There is Siri on the Apple iPhone, Google Now on Android devices, Cortana on Windows 10, and voice recognition dictation software on computers. Wearables take vocal recognition to a different level--it’s simply more natural. By saying, “OK Google”, you can speak directly into the smartwatch on your wrist.

The idea of talking into your wristwatch has been a futurist trope, ever since Dick Tracy radioed headquarters back in 1931. Now it’s become a reality to speak to your watch to not only communicate, but set up your life. This vocal interaction has intricacies that are still being sorted out and improved. It’s not as simple as just asking a question, because even highly advanced vocal recognition software still blunders occasionally, but it’s getting closer.

Improvements have been made so that these services don’t need exact prompts. Google Now, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana are moving closer to a colloquial understanding of most everything we could ask. Instead of asking “Can you give me the closing hours of the Apple Store on 123 West Main Street,” it’s as simple as saying “what time does the Apple store close?” The software understands your prompt, and knows to look locally to find the nearest store.

For travel, saying “Hey Google, I need a flight from DFW to SFO on July 10 in the morning that returns July 14,” is quite a mouthful.

data all about you

Unlike previous interactions, biometrics, or regularly collected data about your body statistics and movement, provide a new type of passive interaction method. Just as GPS opened the door for new applications for smartphones, biometrics will unlock new doors for smartwatches.

While Fitbit pioneered the biometrics platform in their fitness lineup, smartwatches, first on Android then from Apple, included biometric features inside a general purpose premium device. Fitbit trackers gave us a way to track steps and monitor our sleep patterns. The biometric-enabled smartwatches help wearers readily understand that information at any given time.

Golfers can use the accelerometer through the Ping app to track their swing. Homeowners can use the knob on their watch to control house lights through Insteon. Joggers can use the Strava app to display their real-time heart rate and distance on their Apple Watch, without even bringing along their iPhone.

No longer are we just recording or quantifying what we are doing. Devices like the Apple Watch let us readily interact and learn in real-time. Within a weekend of wearing a FitBit, you can have more heart rate readings than you’ve had in your whole life.

In 2014, Virgin Atlantic tested a wearable biometric wristband capable of measuring each passenger’s heart rate. By collecting each unique heart rate, airline staff could identify each passenger and provide them with personalized service.

For corporations that require a large amount of stressful travel of their employees, they can collect data and monitor for employee problems to fulfill their obligations for employee safety and wellbeing (legal duty of care). This information, collected willingly from employees, could then be shared with travel managers to better plan the timing and logistics of future trips.

Wearables may also be used to collect biometric data from pilots, air traffic controllers, train conductors, and bus drivers to further ensure passenger safety.

Data across all of your devices

Mobile, tablet, smartwatch, laptop – many consumers have one of each, all with their own separate experiences. Continuity is all about getting your devices to share data and to interact with each other seamlessly. In many ways, these devices are still evolving to build relationships with each other, just like people are forming attachments to the products themselves.

Take shopping, for example. Shopping behavior already includes instances where many start the process by clicking on an ad on laptop, phone, or TV, and come back to buy on another device. By 2015, mobile alone will account for one-quarter of U.S. online travel sales. It won’t be long until wearables enter the mix, too.

Imagine you’re shopping on your laptop, scoping prices on an expensive vacation package. While you’re out for a run, your watch dings to notify you prices hit your purchase threshold. You tap your watch and the order is placed.

Apple is certainly hoping to fill this need. You can message someone on your phone while you’re waiting in line at an airport, and then pick back up on your MacBook through the iMessage app once you’re on the airplane. Unique handoff features let you move between devices for browsing and between calls from the phone to the computer.

The watch carries continuity through Siri, while Apple Pay is made efficient with the watch on hand (or wrist, technically) at all times.

You can message someone on your phone while you’re waiting in line at an airport, and then pick back up on your MacBook through the iMessage app once you’re on the airplane.

Traveling with wearables

Travel is one of the busiest affairs that we conduct – planning, packing, scheduling, and moving between planes, cars, and trains. It’s intuitive to check on ticket times, look up plane arrivals, or find transportation in an emergency with a smartwatch.

Watches are, after all, where we look to orient ourselves inside the length of a day, or within a moment. It’s no coincidence that a lot of the applications and features highlighted at the Apple Watch’s original reveal in 2014 were based on travel.

Android Wear, Samsung, and Apple all include Map applications in their core platforms -- which is an extremely useful tool if you’re lost walking in the city, or just trying to navigate through the city with your car. From a practical standpoint, the wrist itself makes navigation easier by allowing the wearer to make quick glances at a map. Apple's Map also has built-in features like hotel reviews from TripAdvisor and reservations from

In addition to the core Map app on Apple, the CityMapper app’s vibrating buzz notifies even a dozing passenger when they have arrived at their public transit stop. It’s also easy to see step-by-step instructions on when and where to catch a train.

Travel companies have created a host of other applications for smartwatches: Expedia, IHG Translator, Orbitz, Mariott, Hailo, Uber, only name a few.

Creative ways the travel industry is being reshaped by wearables

Itinerary Management Tools

TripCase delivers notifications like flight alerts and powerful features like getting Uber rides, marking places to remember, or the ability to share an itinerary. For Apple Watch, Android Wear, and Samsung Gear owners, TripCase simplifies navigating the airport by displaying your flight’s terminal, gate, and arrival time with just a quick glance of the wrist.


Hotel giant Starwood developed an app which will allow an Apple Watch to be used as a room key. It also created a Google Glass app which handles bookings and directions to your hotel.

Marriot is letting customers pay with Apple Pay, making it possible to have your Apple Watch take care of the bill for you when you walk up to the front desk.


Airlines Japan Airlines, Iberia, Air Berlin, American Airlines and Vueling are working to let passengers download boarding passes directly onto their smartwatch.

Other airlines such as British Airways, Air Canada, Emirates, and EasyJet are notifying customers of updates via smartwatch apps.

Booking Providers

Expedia built an app for the Samsung Galaxy Gear watch, with a focus on simple notifications rather than a more involved booking process.

Travel Guides

TripAdvisor allows Apple Watch users to swipe their watch to discover the highest rated nearby attractions and points of interest based on the time of day.

Planning for tomorrow

“You have to build your technology with very flexible architecture, so that notifications can be sent to basically any device,” said Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. “We build the technology so that those same notifications can easily go to a Google Glass or someone’s watch.”

As you’ve seen, and read, technology is moving quickly. Every year Apple, Google and other tech companies find ways to further integrate apps and devices into our lives. Anyone can start understanding where wearables like the smartwatch are heading by strapping one on.

At the same time, travel providers need to experiment early, or miss the adoption curve. The changes are happening today, and you can overlook them if you’re not paying attention.

“Wearable technology is fast becoming a prominent means of customer notification and communication. We’re looking to take it even further – from a one-way means of communications to an interactive, on-the-go service experience,” said Samuel.

“As the adoption of wearable technology grows, we want to ensure that the travel industry is ready to leverage this technology and serve travelers on the device they prefer,” said John Samuel, senior vice president of Sabre Design.