It takes only a glance at history to recognize that the smart wristwatch has long captured the public imagination, but somewhere between Dick Tracy and Star Trek, the idea became mired in technical and practical constraints. "It really wasn't possible to build a watch with the advanced capabilities people were seeking a decade ago," says Chris Harrison, a professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University. "The technology and know-how didn't exist."
Over the last few years, that situation has changed. A slew of manufacturers have dashed into the market, and a spate of new devices has appeared. Current vendors and products include Samsung, Sony, Qualcomm, Pebble, Martian, I'm Watch, and ConnectDevice Cookoo. Others, including Apple, Google, and Microsoft, are expected to enter the market in the coming months. Although each offers a slightly different twist on the concept of a smartwatch, they're all attempting to extend the reach of the now-ubiquitous smartphone to the wrist.
Not surprisingly, the jury is out on whether these devices will have any major impact on computing . . . and life. On the one hand, the concept of receiving alerts and notifications on the wrist makes sense, particularly as individuals find themselves inundated with messages and social media streams. Smartwatches could provide information about everything from subway schedules to weather forecasts — all without having to constantly reach in one’s pocket. The devices could also serve as fitness and health monitors.
Yet there are questions, too. Will consumers spend $100 to $300, or more, for a smartwatch? Is battery life adequate? Will these small interfaces provide the level of usability consumers demand?
Also, many people — particularly younger consumers — no longer wear watches; they simply check their smartphones. In fact, IDC research manager Jonathan Gaw notes that only 14 percent of those polled said they had any real interest in a smartwatch.
Beyond the Smartphone
The idea of adding functionality to a wristwatch isn't new, of course. Calculators, compasses, altimeters, and other functions have increasingly appeared in wristwatches over the last couple of decades. A smartwatch attempts to add computational power to the device, allowing users to add apps and extending the reach of their smartphones. Gaw says smartwatches land somewhere between wearable computing devices and smart accessories. "The idea is for the watch to deliver glanceable interactions," he says.
The field is changing rapidly. "Computers have gotten really small, really fast, and really powerful. It is now possible to put a multi-gigahertz, multi-core processor with hundreds of megabytes of memory inside a smartwatch," Harrison says. "It is also possible to load apps onto a device and create new features and capabilities," like social media feeds, GPS and navigation data, photos, and much more. What's more, adding sensors to these devices could create entirely new types of features and capabilities.
Yet the market is clearly in its infancy. The US $150 Pebble Smartwatch, for example, complements an iPhone or Android smartphone by displaying text messages and e-mails on a 144-by-168-pixel monochrome e-paper display. It also lets users change the music on their phone, and incorporates fitness software that tracks steps and calories. The device, which sports an ARM Cortex-M3 processor, connects via Bluetooth and allows users to download and change watch faces. It requires a charge every five to seven days. Pebble Technology Corp., backed by 85,000 Kickstarters, claims it has sold more than 250,000 Smartwatches since the Pebble was introduced early this year.
Meanwhile, the newly released US $299 Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch relies on an 800 MHz processor and 1.6-inch color display with a 320-by-320-pixel resolution to show text messages, incoming call information, a calendar that syncs with Google, weather data, a pedometer, and other tools. The 2.6-ounce device — which supports third-party apps — also handles quick snapshots, voice memos, and the ability to control music on a phone. It delivers about 25 hours of use between battery recharges.
Gaw says that for now, smartwatches — and the batteries that reside in them — present many limitations. The interfaces aren't highly refined, input is difficult, features aren't yet robust, and keeping a device charged can prove challenging. There also are relatively few outside apps currently available, and it's unclear how well they will function on a device the size of a smartwatch. "Designers and engineers must make a lot of compromises in size, weight, and fashion," he says.
Time Will Tell
It's easy to forget that smartphones, now wildly popular, took years to evolve. A number of manufacturers introduced smart handsets in the early 2000s — including Microsoft, Nokia, and Qualcomm — before Apple produced a product that captured the public's imagination (and dollars). Whether Apple or another major manufacturer can hit a home run with a smartwatch remains to be seen. Harrison points out that Google is taking a similar, but different, tack with Google Glass: "The goal today is to put computation closer to a person's eyes, ears, and fingers."
In fact, Harrison and other researchers are exploring ways to improve smartwatch input and other functionality. For instance, his research team at Carnegie Mellon has developed a text-entry method that uses zooming technology to enlarge characters. The ZoomBoard relies on a QWERTY soft keyboard that allows users to achieve a typing rate of about 10 words per minute.
Speech recognition similar to Apple's Siri is another possibility for input, as speech recognition algorithms are improving and cloud processing is becoming faster. "The technology could play a role in certain situations but it doesn't solve everything," Harrison says.
Harrison believes the current generation of smartwatches — mostly mimicking conventional watches — may eventually evolve into wraparound wristbands with flexible LED displays. "A band would deliver five to ten times more space for displaying information, and do it in a way that provides a better user experience."
He also believes current smartwatches have a place in the scheme of computing. "Form factors will evolve, designers and engineers will experiment, and prices will drop. Smartwatches will slowly grow into a market segment over the next few years."
Samuel Greengard is an author and journalist based in West Linn, Ore.