Watch This…

By now you’ve probably seen the Samsung commercial, connecting the delightful dots between every communicator-watch we remember from movies and shows we love –

(Video Since Removed)

I get the appeal of the smart-watch as a cheaper, less creepy alternative to Glass, or similar products, but I have to wonder – is the “smart-watch” a product consumers really want? Would you buy one? Google apparently thinks you would.

Okay, even I have noticed the number of people I’ve seen walking around with wrist-watches has certainly declined as smart-phones have become ubiquitous – and I have to admit I do feel pangs of nostalgia. Let’s take a quick look at some clock history!

(If you want to skip the history lesson, scroll down to the highlighted text)

Clocks have always been among the coolest pinnacles of mechanical technology. Picture the genius master craftsmen hunched over their workbenches, inventing the clockwork cogs, gears, or other mechanisms that would fit together and self-animate as if by magic to “measure” abstract concepts with precision. I’ve always been fascinated by ancient machines, from the Antikythera mechanism and Da Vinci’s clockwork devices. Clocks also have a long history of serving multiple purposes, from decorative to world-changingly useful.

In the fifteen-hundreds people first speculated about how one might navigate at sea using clocks, but it took over two-hundred years for inventors to first build remarkable clocks called marine chronometers which could, aboard ships, determine longitude – this technology revolutionized navigation. Even earlier in history, special astronomical clocks were used to keep track of the seasons, allowing people to plan their planting and harvests. In fact, some people speculate stone-henge was an early astronomical clock.

In 1858 a magnificent clock tower – now known as the Elizabeth Tower – was constructed in London, housing a huge bell known as “Big Ben.” According to Guinness, just ten years later the first wristwatch was manufactured.

Pocket Watch

Pocket Watch

For a long time, wrist-watches were nothing more than an accessory in women’s fashion – any respectable man carried a pocket-watch. It wasn’t until WWI – when soldiers found it much more convenient to strap their watches to their wrists than to fumble for a watch-fob in their pocket – that men began to wear wrist-watches.

As a testament to the acceleration of technological innovation – where it took over two-hundred years for the marine chronometer to go from paper to working reality, it only took one-hundred years from the invention of the first mechanical wristwatch to the invention of the first digital electronic wrist-watch. Repeating the history of clocks serving multiple purposes, just 10 years later the first calculator watches were introduced – and thus began the world’s fascination with wearable tech.

(History Lesson Over)

People have tried out the smart-watch idea several times over the last 20 years or so, but the market has never really responded well. However, for whatever reason, this year appears to be shaping up as the “year of the smart-watch.” Apparently, manufacturers from Apple to Toshiba are scrambling to bring their own smart-watches to market.

In concept, smart-watches sound pretty cool, but is that really enough to bring back the wrist-watch in a big way? The hurdles these products need to jump line up to make a pretty intimidating circuit. I hear this argument- “I already spent a ton of money on a smart-phone, why should I drop another bundle of cash on a smart-watch?” Let me voice a few other concerns:

  • Every single smart-watch I’ve seen so far looks bulky and/or unattractive. They need to make a fashion statement – and not look like a Pip-Boy.
  • It literally takes me one second to get my phone out of my pocket – I don’t see a smart-watch saving me enough time to make it worth the money. They need to really save time.
  • Battery life is likely to be pretty poor – I don’t need to keep track of another gadget charging on my night-stand. They need to run for a very long time on a charge. Furthermore, I don’t need another device draining my phone’s battery life. They need to be useful without damaging my phone’s usefulness.
  • I don’t want everyone around me hearing my phone calls, using a smartwatch as a phone seems pointless if I already have a phone – especially if I’m already using a Bluetooth headset. They don’t need to replace my phone.
  • Those watch-screens are tiny – 140 characters is already short, but it looks like you can only read about 4 words at a time on some of these smart-watches. They need to make excellent use of their tiny screens.
  • I can already control my music with my headphones, and most of my devices use voice control – what makes the smart-watch useful as a remote? This is a place where a little innovation could possibly lead to some really cool applications – With the proper development, teaming up with systems like ninja blocks, a smart-watch could bring quick touchless/remote control to un-connected devices – it could serve as a magical “everything-remote.”

The biggest problem, as I see it, is that manufacturers are putting time into developing features for the smart-watch that I don’t see as being very useful. I think the smart-watch could be a really great device if it were able to offer some really serious functionality. The smart-watch can’t do that on its own – and here’s where I think manufacturers are getting caught up. They appear to be designing these watches to extend the functionality of smart-phones – but I don’t think that’s enough on its own. Notification Center isn’t good enough on the iPhone to warrant giving it its own device. In order for a smart-watch to be really useful, it needs to bring something more to the table. My suggestion (and I’m certainly not the first to say this) – a virtual personal assistant… This is where it’s pretty clear Google has a leg up on the competition, with Google Now – but it remains to be seen if they will integrate the service in a useful way with their smart-watch. Apple still has a long way to go with Siri.

I think at this point unless someone has something incredibly awesome up their sleeve, the tech stars just haven’t aligned to do the smart-watch justice. For the sake of dreaming – I think people would buy a stylish wirelessly charged watch that acts as the interface for an AI personal assistant named Jarvis. And maybe that reality isn’t too far off.

Until then, as a friend of mine put it –

“I love tech, and I wouldn’t buy one of those.”

From what I’ve seen so far, I think I agree.

  • For a current list of all the smart-watches on the market, check out this link.
  • The Long Now Foundation is currently constructing what is quite possibly the most remarkable clock ever attempted – the 10,000 year clock – which will be built into a mountain in west Texas. This project was part of the inspiration behind Neal Stephenson’s fascinating book Anathem.
  • Check out this link for some pictures of incredible clock-towers around the world.
  • Read up on some more watch history on wikipedia!
  • Check out this project to bring Jarvis to life.
  • Cota by Ossia is one of the most promising wireless power development projects.