Watching Technology

I have to admit being enthusiastic about wearable computing, specifically smart watches. Lately, this area has generated a lot of buzz in the market with products like the Pebble and rumors of Apple entering the market.

The idea of smart watches is nothing new; we all remember the tiny calculator watches. I skipped those but was the proud owner of a Timex Internet Messenger Watch in the early 2000's. Paired with wireless service from Skytel (yes, the pager company) my watch could receive short messages via e-mail and even get alerts from Yahoo! It ran on a hearing aid battery that lasted about a month.

Later, Microsoft got in on the fun with their SPOT technology. SPOT, or smart personal objects, was a Microsoft initiative to Internet-enable everyday devices. They started with watches but I recall a few kitchen appliances and clock radios also supporting the technology. Watch sellers like Fossil and Swatch all made watches supporting the technology. They featured rechargeable batteries that would last a week at a time, and received data via an FM radio signal available in most metro areas of the US. The watches connected to a service called MSN Direct for notifications, weather, news, sports scores, and could even sync calendar reminders from Outlook. The watches disappeared in 2008 or 2009, and Microsoft pulled the plug on the radio transmissions in 2011.

At a Blackberry WES conference, I saw an early version of a watch from a Canadian company called Allerta. This became the inPulse smart watch. The inPulse used Bluetooth to connect to a Blackberry and displayed notifications, calendar, and allowed customization of the watch face from your PC. Battery life was horrible (just a few days) but the screen was nice, and it proved what can be done with just one button.

The inPulse grew up to be the Pebble Smartwatch, which was a huge success in its Kickstarter campaign, although the growing company has had challenges meeting the demand. The Pebble syncs up with iPhones and Android devices, but additional app support is thus far limited. While reviews are good, it is not yet a mainstream device. A recent distribution deal with Best Buy is obviously aimed at changing that.

Rumors persist that Apple is working on an entrant in this category. As a complimentary product to the iPhone, it makes sense, and Apple also has a history of introducing products into categories that prior to their entry have been somewhat niche and, well, geeky. Other companies are rumored to do the same - Microsoft (again), Sony, and Google are all rumored to be working on products in this space.

Having used a lot of the products I mentioned above, the products that will be successful in this space need to have great battery life (one week minimum), a decent screen, and a backend set of services that deliver relevant information when and where people want it. (Google Now seems particularly well suited for this use) It also needs to be reasonably sized - all of the products above are or were what would be considered "large" for a watch.

Other ideas I've heard of in this space include using the watch for identity purposes - using NFC or other low-power radio. Walt Disney World is already testing this concept with the MagicBand (all it is missing is the time). Plenty of other "sensor" products are on the market already like the Jawbone UP for tracking physical activity and sleep could be integrated as well.

With smartphones now becoming a solidly mainstream technology, wearable computing could be the next big leap in personal communication and information gathering - it will be interesting to see where this all leads in the next year or two.