Cellphones liberated many of us from the need to wear a wristwatch – they could tell you the time and let you check your friend’s Facebook status. But now the watch is poised to make an unexpected comeback in the shape of “smartwatches”, which let you check your messages and social media without having to fish your phone out of your pocket.
Not convinced? Many still aren’t, but big tech is banking on smartwatches being the next big thing. The first of the big name smartwatches was unveiled yesterday at the International Radio Exhibition in Berlin, Germany. Called the Galaxy Gear, this $299 Android-powered smartwatch has been developed by Samsung to communicate wirelessly with the firm’s phones.
While other firms have launched similar gadgets in the past, it is Samsung’s launch that has really fired the gun on the race to corner the coming smartwatch market.
The idea is that smartwatches will liberate us from the hassle caused by the cellphone itself – sparing us the bother of retrieving our smartphones from our pockets to see who has called, tweeted, texted or emailed. Instead a flick of your wrist could tell your smartwatch to get wireless updates of texts from your phone. Other “micro interactions” could also be programmed, such as voice commands to check Facebook messages or call your best friend.
Such watches could also take on the traditional role of a phone. Holding the Galaxy Gear to your ear lets you answer a call, Dick Tracy style, for example.
“For everyday moments you don’t have to take out your smartphone anymore,” Samsung research director Pranav Mistry says.
But it doesn’t end with less fiddly phoning: as they are in contact with your skin, smartwatches offer the perfect wearable platform for “quantified self” fitness apps. Developers could build in dedicated workout tracking devices like the FitBit or Nike FuelBand.
Samsung isn’t the only company developing such tech. Apple is readying an iWatch to connect wirelessly with iPhones, while others hatching smartwatches include Google’s Motorola Mobility operation, LG of South Korea and Qualcomm of San Diego, California.
Then there’s the host of crowdfunded start-ups typified by Pebble of Silicon Valley.
Competition comes in the form of Google Glass, which also controls a smartphone via micro interactions: the voice command “OK Glass” gets the system’s attention before you tell it to, say, reply to a message or share a picture.
Thad Starner, head of Google’s Glass project, believes it’s early days and that there will be many ways to interact. “Wristwatches are certainly another way to do micro interactions. Simple features like displaying caller ID can be very powerful. I suspect we’ll see a suite of devices in the future from which a user can choose what suits them best.”
Robert Milner, who works on smart devices at UK-based Cambridge Consultants, agrees. “It is users that will drive the form these devices eventually take. Smartwatches could be a stepping stone to Google Glass, for instance, but in sports, glasses could get in the way. The watch is perhaps a better platform for adding multiple features. It is far from obvious which way this is all going to go.”
Whatever happens, it is ease of use that will win out, says Starner.
“The difficulty is in creating interfaces that provide the maximum utility for the minimum visual or manual attention on the part of the user,” he says. “Creating the right set of features is where the magic is.”