Smart rings are meant to be invisible, and that’s the problem

It’s a great product, but only for a tiny market.

Photo by Daniel Cooper / Engadget

Sometimes, you’re in bed and the glow from your smart ring’s optical heart rate sensor creeps into your peripheral vision. It got me thinking about how Samsung (and potentially Apple) will join the smart ring market, and why that’s a terrible idea. You see, these companies want devices that make their presence known in your life, embedding themselves in your routine. But smart rings blend into the background on purpose, which limits how much you can, or will want, to do with them.

Back in February, Samsung announced the Galaxy Ring, a health-tracking wearable baked into a ring. When it launches later this year, it will continuously monitor your sleep, breathing, movement and reproductive cycle. Entirely coincidentally, I’m sure, Bloomberg reported Apple was also conducting investigations into its own smart ring platform. Both companies are not-so secretly gunning for the Oura Ring, the market leader in finger-worn wearables. And I’ve been testing one of these for a long while.

Oura tracks your sleep, temperature, activity, post-exertion recovery and menstrual cycle. It’s a marvel of engineering to get so much technology into such a small and elegant package. The downside, if you can call it that, is there’s no way to access the data the ring collects, or its insights, unless you have a phone on hand.

But here’s the thing: It’s not that often I find myself actually opening the app to see what the stats are saying. If I wake up feeling like crap, there’s normally a self-evident reason why that needs no further explanation. And on those rare occasions when I wake up and don’t know why I’m feeling bad, the last thing that would occur to me is to check my phone. Who wants to look at fine-grain data when your head is pounding and your eyes refuse to focus?

That friction, that small gap between having the information there and it being easily accessible is a problem. Yeah, you can get a notification if your "Readiness Score" — Oura's proprietary metric for overall health — falls below a certain level. But I’ve been using this thing for long enough that I’ve never taken up the habit, and I suspect others would struggle to do so, too. It’s nice to have that information on those rare occasions when I’m thinking enough about it to look at my data over a longer period of time. But I can’t imagine myself looking at this data once or twice a day.

It’s also not that useful for workout tracking, principally because you won’t want to risk your $300 gadget in the gym. The first time I took it to work out, I picked up a pair of metal dumbbells, realized their knurled handles were rubbing against the metal of the ring and quickly took it off.

Because there’s no direct method of input, it’s far too easy to forget it’s there and not make use of its information. If you’re all-in on using a ring to track your fitness because you won’t wear a smartwatch or fitness tracker, and you’re always checking your stats, then it’ll work for you. But, deep down, I prefer a watch with a display that’s easy enough to check as a matter of instinct. And it’s this that I think should be a concern for Samsung and, potentially, Apple, as they look to move into this space. A smart ring caters to a niche inside a niche – quantified self obsessives who refuse to wear a watch. They obviously believe that’s enough of a draw to devote time and money to building their own, but I’m not sure it’ll be a blockbuster.

Not to mention these rings only have a few hooks to keep users inside their specific corporate bubble. Both Apple and Samsung have dedicated health-tracking apps and it’s likely whoever buys one of these will have one fewer reason to switch providers in future. But compare that to the watches, which offer health tracking, messaging, app interactions and mobile payments. Smartwatches are beneficial to these platforms because they help draw together various features from the phone. Rings do not.

Perhaps this is another sight tech’s biggest players now just need to copy and destroy their smaller rivals rather than striving for new products. Smart rings cater to a small market, albeit one that big tech could dominate with very little time and effort. Especially given the strength of their relative brands, which means these devices will more or less sell themselves to diehard fans. But is that all a new product can be in 2024, and is that what we could or should expect these companies to be doing?