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It’s Time for Wristwatches to Get Smarter

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Even as I argue for larger screens on popular smartphones, some manufacturers are looking to leverage smaller displays that help navigate a barrage of daily data. We first saw the inPulse watch in late 2009, but the device and its 1.3-inch screen now supports Google Android phones (s goog) in addition to BlackBerry (s rimm) handsets. Similar to Sony Ericsson’s (s sne) (s eric) LiveView, the $149 inPulse watch pairs with a phone over Bluetooth and displays high priority data such as text messages, calendar events, email, and instant caller ID information.

While I like the idea of notifications in a wristwatch, the user interface and interaction can be a challenge. The inPulse uses a single button system, which is fairly limiting. Sony Ericsson’s LiveView appears to offer more flexibility by adding a touch-sensitive bezel to a pair of hardware buttons. And although Apple’s (s aapl) latest iPod Nano isn’t marketed as a watch, it does tell time and there are a number of watch-bands that accept the Nano with its full touchscreen. The TikTok and LunaTik bands may be the most prominently known choices due to raising more than $941,000 in funding through individual donations via Kickstarter. Even so, controlling any of these “smart watches” are still constrained by the small screen, causing me to wonder if voice controls are in the future for such timepieces.

What makes these devices appealing, however, is the potential for new mobile development platforms and applications. Apple, for example, could expand its current programming tools to support apps on the Nano. The LiveView watch works specifically with Android phones, so developers can leverage Google’s SDK and add Live View compatibility into mobile apps. And the inPulse team provides API documentation for programmers, or even talented hobbyists, to create their own apps using Java. The inPulse watch itself can be modified using C programming and would-be hackers can create or test code by using a freely available inPulse watch simulator. This opens up a world of possibilities. For example, the Nano stores and plays local music, but both the LiveView and inPulse have apps that support remote control of music playback on a paired phone.

The entire opportunity for smarter watches reminds me of the ill-fated Microsoft SPOT (s msft) watches that launched in 2004. Yes, I bought one and thought that watch with connectivity — these used FM radio waves — was the wave of the future. But soon after, smartphones with always-on mobile broadband connections trumped the limited purpose watches with their MSN Direct service. However, Microsoft’s SPOT concept was a good one: quick bits of information on a small, wearable display definitely added value when I had the service and supported hardware.

Perhaps such smart watches were ahead of their time seven years ago. With the advances in display technology, mobile software platforms and cellular connectivity, it might be time for intelligent timepieces to make a comeback.

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24 Responses to “It’s Time for Wristwatches to Get Smarter”

    • Oh you speak from my heart. I collect mechanical watches. I have the same feelings about old mechanical cameras (of which I also have a few). That does not mean I do not want a camera on my phone.

      But if something is going to replace that mechanical watch on my wrist, it better be able to tell me when I have calls, when I get text messages, emails, hell, even initiate calls. I also want it to do all this though my 7 inch tablet and I don’t want to have a phone on me.

      • “and I don’t want to have a phone on me”

        In the sense that this says to me “I don’t want to carry N devices when I can have 1 device that does N functions”, I agree.

        I already carry ONE device that functions as my:
        Music Player
        Mobile Internet Access Point
        Time Piece
        Brief low-end Email and Calendar notifier
        SMS/MMS gateway
        Plugin for my wired phone headset, to act as a phone call device

        I’m not going to replace with N devices. But, I DO want to replace it with something that is more convenient than a candy-bar device.

        Carry both a bluetooth watch AND a phone? no. That’s a step backward.
        Carry both a PDA and phone and watch? definitely not. That’s two steps backward.
        Carry a watch that does all of the above? yes.

        I wouldn’t begin to suggest that this replaces the work-of-art (on the level of both beauty and technical sophistication) that is the classic time piece … but I don’t carry one of those, and never will. That’s not who I am (nor will I ever be). That group of people aren’t going to be satisfied by this discussion, and shouldn’t be part of the target of the discussion (anymore than a classic watchmaker would/should include me in their target audience).

      • Yes and no. Here’s how I am thinking about this.

        I am currently carrying a (mechanical) watch (that recently broke), a phone and a wired headset. But lately I started carrying a tablet style device as well. So the goal is the same. Decrease the bulk. And I think the best way to go is losing the phone.

        What do I lose by losing the phone? I lose the convenience of reaching in my pocket and seeing who is calling, controlling my music, etc. I have my headset on my at all times so I could still do that if it is plugged into a tablet. But the 7 inch tablet does not fit in my front jeans pocket (that I can easily reach by one hand right now). So I would have to have it in my coat pocket, backpack or messenger. All of these places are hard to get to.

        So I do not have the convenience of being able to glance at the screen on demand for quick information. But a watch that replaces this functionality I would consider. And from watch, phone, headset, tablet, I can lose the phone so I am -1 on devices.

        The question is, will it drive me crazy or will it be an improvement in the quality of life. Also, can I find a “watch” that can conveniently do all this? This watch presented here is a decent start. Finally, can I find the right tablet with both phone and tablet functionality? The EU version of the Galaxy Tab does this I understand. What really makes me excited about these prospects is the possibility of a 7 inch Pixel Qi display (such a device was recently announced by ZTE – but that might be wifi only).

  1. What I would like is something like the Griffin iSlap with a bluetooth handset and a caller ID display rather than an iPod Nano in it. That way I can have my smart phone tucked away in my bag and I’m still able to take and place calls and check the time.

    The same motion you use to take one of these off your wrist positions it in your non-watch hand the way you would hold a phone. It also prevents the “crazy person talking to himself” syndrome you get with standard headsets.

    • I was wondering about this. Full cellphone is out of the question. But does a bluetooth device have the same effect? Is there a relatively safe communication method such a watch can use to talk to my near by phone or tablet?

  2. Sorry, I just don’t see the utility or these meeting a real need. Displaying SMS messages and caller ID from your phone? If you are going to reply to the SMS, you’ll still need to take out your phone. These will die the same death as the SPOT watches and Windows Longhorn Auxiliary Display Platform (remember those?) for the same reason: They’re redundant to your smartphone which is, or already has become your primary computing/communications device and doesn’t need a wearable display.

    Do we really need to see Facebook on our watches? It’s just as rude to keep looking at your watch during a meeting or dinner than it is to keep looking at your phone.

    Another downside of the SPOT watches, as you could attest: Battery life. Yet another gadget to keep charged every day.

    • “If you are going to reply to the SMS, you’ll still need to take out your phone.”

      The operative word is “if”. The point of a wearable display is to see if the incoming message needs an immediate reply, or a reply at all. If you’re the type of person that feels obligated to answer every notification you receive, then a BT watch isn’t going to add any convenience or save any time.

      I personally couldn’t care less about Facebook and RSS notifications, but do see the value in a BT watch for SMS, caller ID and calendar notifications–all of which require only a couple of seconds to read. One of the reasons I still wear a watch is that it’s far less distracting in social situations to glance at a watch than it is to pull out a phone.

      • Andre

        How many of us really need to respond to that email or SMS immediately that we would need to wear a screen on our wrists instead of taking out the phone.

        Sure in some locations that would make sense, but I am not so sure about the need for urgent notifications. I have lived in both worlds — instant notification and checking email/SMS when and if I want to. My productivity hasn’t gone down a wee bit, though I have a lot more control over my sanity :-)

      • Om

        “Need” is a pretty loaded word. We don’t “need” cell phones, but we value the convenience.

        I don’t need a watch, since my phone could act as a timepiece, but I prefer to get the time discreetly and instantly by just turning my wrist rather than digging my phone out of my pocket.

        By the same token, a simple turn of the wrist is far less disruptive for vetting notifications than reaching for my phone. Again, it’s a matter of convenience, not productivity.

        I realize I’m in the minority these days with preferring wristwatches, but I’m not the type of person who likes to constantly have my phone in my hand and fiddle around with it just to fill time.

      • “I am not so sure about the need for urgent notifications. I have lived in both worlds — instant notification and checking email/SMS when and if I want to. My productivity hasn’t gone down a wee bit, though I have a lot more control over my sanity”

        That’s a more philosophical stance than a practical one. If you prefer to batch your calls and messages, then clearly you don’t need a BT watch.

        I personally don’t think any call is urgent unless life and limb is involved. When I talk about looking at notifications to see which ones need an immediate reply, I’m really referring to deciding which calls and messages *not* to answer now. There are times when I unplug from the Matrix–for instance, when I’m at dinner with friends or at a movie–in which case I’ll put my phone in airplane mode.

        Answering messages in real time and deferring replies don’t have to by mutually exclusive behaviors. Your responses should shift with your priorities.

      • @Andre

        I just don’t see simple SMS, calendar, email notifications as compelling enough to justify additional cost, daily charging, etc just to see if you should take out your phone. If these wearable, “invisible” everyware devices are going to catch on, I think it will be due to compelling features like context and proximity aware alerts and notifications.

        First, we need to make our smartphones smarter, then wearable auxiliary displays for our phones will make more sense and be much more useful. Context/proximity/location awareness and predictive capabilities will be the areas where I think we’re going to start seeing the intelligence.

      • @Brian

        “I just don’t see simple SMS, calendar, email notifications as compelling enough to justify additional cost, daily charging, etc just to see if you should take out your phone.”

        That’s exactly how I feel about BT headsets–but there’s a market for them nonetheless. I don’t expect BT watches to have universal appeal, any more than other phone accessories. There are plenty of niche items that can hold their own in the market.

        “Context/proximity/location awareness and predictive capabilities will be the areas where I think we’re going to start seeing the intelligence.”

        Psychologically, I can’t see myself relying on location awareness to turn off notifications or to give me context-sensitive reminders like shopping lists. I’ve been using smartphones since 2000, and I noticed a huge nose dive in battery life after they started incorporating GPS and tower triangulation into their default functionality.

  3. I have the Liveview and while I am a fan of the concept, oh boy, does Bluetooth suck the joy out of it. I’d much rather see WiFi used for something like this. Also, the battery issue needs solving, charging a watch every other night is no fun. Do kinetic chargers work hard enough for these applications? Bonus then would be a sealed waterproof unit.

  4. johnkzin is on the right track. I personally want to get rid of my 3-4 inch phone and move to a 7 inch tablet and can be supplemented with a wrist device. So those two need to communicate with each other and one has to have the phone capability. I would like to have the option of both wired and wireless headset on the wrist device. That could be difficult when it comes to waterproofing the whole thing. Notifications for text, mail, calls, facebook etc. updates would be preferable.

  5. Wanna know what I want in a wrist watch, these days?

    Start with the current iPod Nano. Give it a wide ballistic nylon velcro wrist-band (in multiple colors, but I’ll take mine in black) with a snug attachment so that I don’t have to worry about it falling out. Have a nice ballistic nylon flap with another swatch of veclro, to protect the face.

    Give it basic phone capability (GSM/UMTS calls, addressbook/contacts sync, dialer app), bluetooth and/or wired headset (required for calls, no speaker phone, no “hold up to your face” phone), and an app for TXT/SMS/MMS/iChat (but you need to use an (external) bluetooth keyboard and/or iPod Touch or iPad app for sending, and add an app syncing messages/pictures/etc. off to the iPod Touch or iPad). Support a wifi-tethering app (for your laptop, iPod Touch, iPad, etc.). Wired headset doubles as an external antenna extension.

    Add a digital clock (12h and 24h) clock version of the clock app. Support for quick switching to multiple time-zones.
    Stop Watch App.
    Calendar/To-Do list app, that syncs with MobileMe.
    MobileMe mail notifier (tells Sender/Subject/Time only, as they arrive).

    No camera (facetime nor picture).
    No Web Browser.
    Probably no need for the App Store (unless you want to add a 3rd category of iOS apps, for the tiny screen; but I don’t think the Nano actually runs iOS, so probably no need to go in that direction).

    That’s what I want in a wrist watch (and also about what I currently want in an iPhone).

  6. I liked the concept that the SPOT watches had, but the FM connectivity left a lot to be desired. Plus they were pretty much one way only devices so they were VERY limited in use. That and having to charge your WATCH every night kind of sucked.

    I like the idea of tethering the watch to a phone. It’s a very good idea. Imagine the output of WeatherBug or some other Weather Application being available at a glance and weather alerts vibrating the watch and automatically scrolling on the face. You could even acknowledge calendar event notifications and others that you don’t want to act on right away. The ideas have no bounds if you ask me.


    what they have done smart is to provide a way for anyone to program for the watch. It could potentially be made to do just about anything, on any bluetooth enabled device. Their one button design is a bit limiting tho, imo.