Are you planning to rush out and buy the new Apple Watch when it becomes available next year? Are these “wearables” like smart watches and Google Glass eyewear the next technological phase on the path to implanted “body tech?” Of course, we like carrying our electronic devices pretty much everywhere we go, but do we really need them adorning our bodies?
On the other hand, maybe it would be cool (or perhaps we’ll call it “a high-leverage strategic business advantage”) to have a heads-up display floating in front of our eyes so we can track current news, carry on multi-tasking communications, and have a face-recognizing camera that will tell us who the heck it is that we are talking with.
Google Glass is an early cut at this general idea of the personal heads-up display. It’s basically a thin frame holding a small display that curves out above your eye. You then can add various designs of pop-in sunglass shades or traditional frames for prescription lenses.
The idea is that Glass can display information from your phone right before your eyes, providing updates from incoming messages to sports scores. Then you can respond, and initiate actions, using the touchpad or Google Now voice commands (“OK Glass”). You also can use head gestures to control Glass — tilt up to wake and see notifications, or nod up to turn back off.
The Glass Explorer Edition is expensive ($1,500), somewhat clunky, and definitely off-putting to normal humans. Even with shades or frames installed, the result still is not subtle, with a box of electronics that wraps around the right side of your face, including a touchpad surface, audio output — and a camera. So not only do you look weird, but you threaten people with the possibility that you are surreptitiously filming them. As a result, movie theaters were among the first to ban Glass.
So while I have seen groups of people wearing Glass at tech conferences, I really haven’t noticed them anywhere else, much less when walking in downtown Princeton. On the other hand, we have gotten used to people with earpieces walking down the street talking to themselves, so this may just the beginning of an adjustment period.
Get Smart. OK, so maybe smart glasses are not a mass market product — yet — but analysts including Juniper Research have reported that wearables like smart watches have grown 40 percent year-to-year to 2014, and will continue to have strong growth in the following years.
But why do we need smarter watches? Actually, in some ways it’s a natural progression — think back to the huge pulley-driven medieval clocks in cathedral towers, which pendulum technology helped reduce into long grandfather clocks in the home, followed by the development of the mainspring, which led to smaller portable clocks for carriage rides and then to personal pocket watches.
Yet it’s still such a hassle to reach all the way into your pocket to tell the time, and further miniaturization made wristwatches into the convenient and popular choice. Wristwatches also became fashion jewelry, adorned in precious metals and jewels, as well as tech showpieces, with mechanical day/date displays and phases of the moon.
Then the development of electronic devices pushed us back to the pocket watch again, as we have stopped wearing wristwatches and now check the time by reaching into our pocket or bag for our smartphone. But again the phone is so far away buried in a pocket — wouldn’t it be so much nicer to bring the time (and a bunch of other stuff) out to our wrist?
Putting a display on the wrist immediately raises a major conflict of our desires — we want a small and light device that has great power and capabilities, but we also want larger screens. The growth in display sizes is illustrated by the iPhone (and similar products): The iPhone 4 in 2010 had a 3.5 inch diagonal display, the iPhone 5 grew to 4 inches in 2012, and the new iPhone 6 line stretches pockets with the iPhone 6 at 4.7 inches and the iPhone 6 Plus at 5.5 inches.
So we can rule out strapping a smartphone on our wrist. Instead, we can think through the kinds of capabilities a smart watch could provide, and their implications for its design and size.
Phone Information: The most basic thing a smart watch can do is to display information from your phone. This includes notifications such as incoming phone calls and text messages, calendar reminders, and other information alerts including weather, news, and sports. (This happens over Bluetooth wireless using the notification features built into the smartphone operating system.) The amount of information to display then drives the demands for the display: text-only, graphics, color photos, and/or video.
Phone Interaction: However, we don’t just want to receive a notification, we want to be able to interact and respond to it — for example to accept or reject calls, acknowledge messages, and control music playback. The watch then will need some kind of interactive control: buttons, touch-screen, and/or voice.
Voice Peripheral: We are becoming comfortable with taking to our devices, with intelligent personal assistants like Apple Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft Cortana. This seems a natural fit for smartwatches, to overcome the clumsiness of trying to interact with a miniature display and small buttons by adding a microphone so we now can talk to our wrist. Of course, it’s then only another small step to add a (tiny) speaker, to approach the dream of Dick Tracy’s 2-Way Wrist Radio (introduced in 1946, and upgraded to a 2-Way Wrist TV in 1964).
Passes and Payment: Beyond your personal interactions, the smartwatch also can be an interface to the external world, to present bar codes for tickets or to make wireless payments.
Computer Platform: Like the smartphone before it, once a smartwatch gets smart enough it becomes a computing platform in its own right, with the potential to customize it by developing and downloading watch apps. The first set of such apps are different watchface designs, so you can see the time with analog hands, digital numbers, words, or traditional Mickey Mouse. But the potential is much greater, to link the watch to smartphone apps for personal updates (the kids are home), or for dedicated business applications.
Peripheral or Stand-alone: The final design issue is whether the smartwatch is a peripheral that requires a connection to a smartphone, or whether it can be used independently. While it is heresy for some to think of leaving their smartphone behind, this would be handy for runners who want to minimize their accessories. But such independence adds additional cost and size to the watch, for example to store your music locally and to add a GPS sensor to track your route.
All of these desires and features then need to be squeezed into a not-too-bulky package that is reasonable to wear on your wrist. The product also needs to fit the customer’s design sense: Is it functional or fashion — can it be unabashedly tech nerd ware, or does it need to be a fashion statement? Does it look like an “Ironman” style sport watch, or a luxury chronograph that is acceptable in the executive suite?
Join the Fitness Band
As we consider wearables, we also need to answer an even more fundamental question: Is the wristwear device a watch at all, or it driven by a separate need, as a fitness band? Companies like Fitbit have had strong success in activity monitoring devices, which have grown into fitness bands and then fitness watches.
You can start out with a pocket or clip-on tracker like the Fitbit Zip for around $59 that encourages you to be active by counting steps and miles walked, and then shows your calories burned. The Fitbit One ($99) then adds stairs climbed and sleep tracking to monitor the quality of your sleep cycles. These of course also interface to smartphone apps to display graphs of your activity over time, and sync online with cloud services to add further encouragement through badges for major milestones and competition with friends.
Once you start using a fitness tracker, however, and want it monitoring you day and night, it’s obviously more convenient to have it on your wrist, where it also provides the bonus of a built-in clock. The Fitbit Flex (also $99) then basically moves the pocket tracker to a thin and light wrist band.
Yet once you have a wrist device in constant communication with your smartphone, it’s an obvious next step to have it also display smartphone notifications, as in the Fitbit Charge ($129), which adds Caller ID display (but not other notifications).
The other next step for a fitness band is to add additional body sensors, including for heart rate, skin temperature, galvanic skin response (for stress), or even UV light (for sun exposure). So, for example, the Fitbit Charge HR ($149, coming next year) adds continuous heart rate monitoring without significantly enlarging the band.
Once you’ve added this range of capabilities, the fitness band has developed into a serious computing platform, so it is ready to become a full-fledged smartwatch. The Fitbit Surge ($249, coming next year) adds features including notifications, music control, GPS tracking, and a touch-screen display, but is still positioned as a “Fitness Super Watch,” with the emphasis on fitness. It’s also grown significantly from a thin fitness band, both in width and in bulk, especially with the addition of the GPS sensor.
In comparison to companies like Fitbit, Apple is clearly positioning the Apple Watch not only as a watch (that of course has strong fitness features), but as jewelry. And Google and its partners like Samsung also are more watch- oriented.
Which makes the recent Microsoft announcement of the Microsoft Band a very interesting contrast. The Microsoft Band ($199) is first a fitness device, designed to monitor and assist with serious workouts. It also supports smartwatch productivity features including notifications and alerts. The design is clearly a band, with a thin rectangular (not squared) color touch-screen display, and even is intended to be worn with the display facing in on your wrist.
The Band is agnostic — working with iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone devices. It also integrates with the Microsoft Health online cloud service for data analysis and guided workouts. It has a microphone for voice input, a GPS sensor for route tracking, and includes a battery of other sensors to collect data about your performance, for heart rate, galvanic skin response, skin temperature, and UV exposure.
While fitness bands are great for focused use, they are a big commitment for a first-time user. Instead, you can start out with a simpler pocket tracker to get used to counting steps and monitoring your activity. Or perhaps you are more of a watch person anyway, and again you do not need to dive in with a high-end model. Instead you can look at the different models from the point of view of finding the basic requirements that you need.
The most basic smartwatch, then, would simply provide alerts and notifications from your phone. You don’t need a big display or fancy graphics to do this. Instead, you only need a line of plain text. And this is what the Martian Notifier watch ($129) provides. It’s a standard looking watch with analog hands (albeit available in a range of colors) that has a small window at the bottom of the face to display a scrolling line of text.
The Martian watches work with both Apple iPhone (iOS) and Google Android phones. When you get a call or other notification, the watch vibrates and displays the associated text. It also provides some interaction: you can shake the watch to reject an incoming call, tap the glass to dismiss or recall a notification, snap a photo remotely, and locate your phone.
However, interacting physically with a watch is very limiting, which is why voice control seems like a much more useful option. The Martian Voice Command watch line ($249 to $299) then adds both a noise canceling microphone and a directional personal speaker, so you can issue voice commands, listen and respond to messages, and even carry on hands-free (but not wrist-free) phone calls.
Yet while these watches satisfy our core requirements for a smartwatch, it’s natural to have a hankering for more features, and particularly for a larger graphical display. A basic watch display compared to a full smartphone could take the same approach as dedicated e-reader compared to a full-up tablet. With a simple back and white e-paper display, the e-reader can be lighter and smaller, significantly less expensive, run much longer, and even is more readable in bright sunlight.
Similarly, the Pebble Watch features a grayscale e-paper display to provide notifications and basic interaction, runs for five to seven days, and has recently been reduced to only $99. There’s also a more upscale Pebble Steel model ($199) made of metal and leather instead of polycarbonate and silicone. Both work with iPhone and Android devices.
The 1.26 inch Pebble display is large enough to show the sender and first sentence of a text message at a glance. The watch also has four push-buttons to cycle through messages and menus — for next, previous, select, and back. The display is readable in normal lighting, and has a backlight for evening notifications (or shake your wrist to light it up).
The other focus of the Pebble watch is as a customizable platform. There are over 1000 apps available that you can preview and download through the Pebble app. Or develop your own apps to connect the watch to your phone or online services.
As a sign of the times in how small companies like Martian and Pebble can find funding to get new products to market, both of these watch lines were developed using Kickstarter.com to find enthusiasts to back the product development and sign up as the first round of customers.
With Voice Control
Meanwhile, the major players also are moving into the smartwatch market, albeit with rather different approaches. Microsoft is actively on the fitness side, Apple is the fashion model, and Google is spreading a wide net. As with Android for smartphones and tablets, Google’s Android Wear is a software platform that can be adapted by different manufacturers to very different physical designs and looks.
Android Wear supports smartphone features like notifications (including from social media and other apps), has a big emphasis on voice control and voice search, and has a fitness component with apps to monitor real-time progress and display daily summaries.
The early watch designs include the Samsung Gear Live ($199) with a bright rectangular screen, and the interesting Motorola Moto 360 ($249) designed as a “modern timepiece” with a round display. LG has also circled the square, first introducing the clearly tech-look LG G Watch ($229) with a 1.65 inch rectangular display, and then recently releasing the LG G Watch R ($299) with a circular display. The Watch R has the appearance of a very traditional watch, complete with an outer dial with minute marks (which also cleverly serves to mask the frame around the display).
Round watches provide a more traditional and non-tech look with traditional analog hands, in comparison to unabashed rectangular displays with digital readouts and room in the corners for graphical weather updates. You can imagine the manufacturing pain of converting a 2-D rectangular grid of pixels into a circular display, so it’s clear that companies think that there is a significant demand for such less-tech looks.
Not the iWatch
Apple did not invent the smartphone or tablet categories, or online music or downloadable app stores, but it definitely revved up these products into high-visibility mass-market products. Will it do the same with the smartwatch?
The first thing to notice about the upcoming Apple Watch (due “early” next year, or maybe closer to spring) is that it is not an “iWatch,” although it is an accessory for the iPhone. Instead, the Apple Watch is presented as a fashion piece, a “precision timepiece,” available in two case sizes (for smaller or larger wrists), and in three “distinctive collections,” each with a multitude of models.
The base Apple Watch at around $350 has a stainless steel case and sapphire crystal. The Apple Watch Sport has an anodized aluminum case and strengthened glass, for a rumored price of around $500. And the Apple Watch Edition is the full-on fashion piece with an 18-karat gold case and “exquisitely crafted bands and closures,” for a rumored price of several thousand dollars.
Apple also declines false modesty by describing its product as “everything a watch should be.” The watch displays notifications and other information, has a pressure-sensitive screen for interaction, and adds a “Digital Crown” button to use as a controller by turning and pushing. It has a microphone and speaker for voice interaction, plus a heart rate sensor for fitness monitoring (but not GPS).
Where Apple can really make a difference, however is in the integration between phone and watch, since Apple controls both the hardware and the software on each end. Beyond the core applications and notifications, Apple is modifying a broad range of its apps not only to display text more effectively on the smaller screen, but also to work together — so, for example, you can view a text message on your watch, start responding, and then switch back to your iPhone to continue working on the response before you send it. Similarly, you can review E-mails on the phone and mark or even trash them.
Apple’s design sense also shows with the clever display for its fitness monitoring app. This shows three nested colored circles that fill in and close up as you move closer to your activity goals for each day. The app monitors time on the move, brisk exercise, and simply standing up (for at least one minute in 12 different hours during the day).
As it has done with iMessage and FaceTime communications directly between iPhones, Apple also is introducing Digital Touch apps to connect directly between Watch wearers. This includes simple apps to send a finger sketch or even a simple “thinking of you” tap, as well as a Walkie-Talkie app to talk wrist to wrist.
Apple also brings interaction with the outside world out to the Watch with Passbook display of bar codes for tickets or boarding passes, and integration with Apple Pay to buy coffee from your wrist.
In Gear w/ Samsung
In addition to Google and Android, Samsung has become a great competitor to Apple, as shown by its sales success and the years of patent litigation between the two companies. Unlike Apple, Samsung has a diverse product line with lots of choices for consumers, including its Gear wearable line, which spans fitness bands to both general Android smartwatches as well as smartwatches that integrate with Samsung Galaxy smartphones.
However, the big news from Samsung is the new Samsung Gear S watch phone. The physical design features a 2-inch curved display, so it fits more comfortably by matching the contours of the wrist. The smartphone features include the expected notifications and information, a full QWERTY keyboard on the touchscreen for text entry, and health and fitness monitoring using the built-in GPS and heart rate sensor.
But the final detail that makes the Gear S tick is the inclusion of 3G cellular wireless. Yes, this is a realization of the Dick Tracy 2-Way Wrist Radio, in that you can make and receive phone calls on the watch totally independently of a smartphone. As a result, you purchase the Gear S through a carrier like a smartphone, complete with a cellular data plan. It’s available for around $299 to $399.
So are wearables the next big thing? Will we all be talking to our wrists and holding our watch to our ear by the end of next year?
Is a smartwatch actually useful at all? On this question, I’d give a qualified yes, although it’s a big adjustment to start wearing a watch again. It is handy to just glance at your watch to check who is calling, or see a reminder of an appointment, or to skim an incoming message. It’s even better when you realize that you’ll never be embarrassed by having your phone ring at a meeting again. Just keep your phone silenced and stash it in your pocket or bag. Then when you feel a vibration on your wrist you can just casually glance at your watch to see what’s happening, instead of rudely reaching in your pocket and fiddling with your phone.
On the other hand, smartwatches can be rather expensive, especially for a tech device that faces a limited lifetime before obsolescence. In addition, these are peripheral companions to a smartphone with its own limited lifetime. So it’s not clear that smartwatches will be a huge mass market by themselves, much less for large investments in high-end smartwatch jewelry.
But these can become a nice business, and maybe smartwatches will become relatively common in three or four years — just in time to start considering moving on to bionic implants. Consider the fashion possibilities!
Useful and Even Fun
For your holiday shopping consideration, here are some examples of interesting accessories that can be useful and fun, whether you are working with a laptop, at home with a tablet, on the road with a smartphone, or out walking with a smartwatch.
Wireless speakers let you enjoy and share your music at home, streaming your music collection wirelessly from your device so you can hear the music louder and clearer, or share the audio from a movie or streaming sports event. They often also can be used as a speakerphone.
The Ultimate Ears UE BOOM Bluetooth wireless speaker ($199) is 7 inches tall and plays for up to 15 hours on the rechargeable battery. Ultimate Ears is the leading supplier of professional earphones for touring and professional musicians, and the UE BOOM lives up to that reputation by delivering strong sound that fills a room. The cylinder shape provides 360 sound in all directions, can be secured in a cup holder, and is water resistant for outdoor use.
The Sonos PLAY:1 compact wireless speaker ($199) is part of a larger picture, the Sonos Wireless HiFi System. Sonos offers a range of speaker and related products to “wire” your whole house with sound, with speakers in every room. Since the system uses your house’s Wi-Fi network, and not local Bluetooth, it can be controlled for anywhere, and with any computer or portable device, to have the music follow you from room to room, or to program different playlists for each area. The PLAY:1 is a great stand-alone speaker in its own right, with sound that can full multiple rooms, and then you can upgrade to two speakers for stereo, or grow into whole-house sound.
Wireless headphones let you enjoy your music or podcasts while traveling, with the bonus of noise reduction to reduce the strain of train or plane. These sync to your device wirelessly over Bluetooth, and typically also can be used with an optional cable (for example on airplanes), and even continue to work passively when the battery runs out. They also tend to have button controls for answering phone calls and controlling music playback.
The Phiaton Chord MS 530 Bluetooth noise canceling headphones ($349) are great-looking and -sounding higher-end headphones with strong active noise canceling. They fold up for travel, but use solid metal construction, weighing around 10.3 ounces.
In comparison, the Jabra MOVE wireless Bluetooth stereo headphones ($99) are light at only 5.6 ounces and play for up to eight hours. They provide quite good sound (albeit without noise reduction), with a clean and solid design with stainless steel arms.
For minimal visible impact during phone calls, the Jabra Stealth Bluetooth headset ($99) is amazingly small and light at 2.57 inches long and only 0.28 ounces. It has noise reduction and sound enhancement, can pair to two devices at a time, and adds a dedicated button to take advantage of voice control (Apple Siri or Google Now).
Wireless storage allows you to bring along much larger collections of music and movies and photos and files than could fit on your smartphone or tablet, and share your goodies with others. Since all devices from laptops to smartphones support Wi-Fi, you can open up portable disks and drives for shared access by turning them into their own local Wi-Fi hotspot.
The Kingston MobileLite Wireless G2 wireless multi reader ($69) is a small 5 x 3 inch device with both a SD card reader that you can use to access cards from digital cameras and a USB port for thumb drives and portable disks. You can view and copy media and files between your devices and the external storage, and share with up to eight users simultaneously. It also connects though to your home Wi-Fi or via an Ethernet port for external Internet access. It runs for up to 13 hours, or can be used as a power pack to recharge your phone.
For more dedicated storage, the Western Digital My Passport Wireless is an external USB drive that also supports Wi-Fi access ($199 for 1 TB , $249 for 2 TB). It can be hooked directly to a computer for fast USB 3.0 access, and has an SD card slot.
Portable power packs can recharge your devices on the go, so you will never be without them. Most have USB power ports that can charge any device with the appropriate cable.
The Ventev line of battery chargers illustrates the range of options. The Ventev Dashport r2240 dual USB car charger ($29) is a tiny bullet for your car cigarette adapter that provides two USB charging ports, each with 2.1A capacity for charging tablets. The ports even are illuminated so you can locate then in the dark. For daily use, the Ventev Powercell 3015 battery charger ($39) is a thin and light slab that can provide up to 12 hours of talk time. And for longer trips, the Ventev Powercell 6000+ combination charger ($74) is a multi-purpose helper that doubles the capacity and adds fold-out AC prongs so you can recharge it on the go, and use it as a USB adapter when plugged in. Ventev also offers handy Chargesync cables for charging and syncing that are colorful for easy identification and flat and tangle-resistant.
In your home, you can get rid of all your “wall-wart” USB charger adapters, by building USB power into your AC receptacles with products like the NewerTech Power2U AC/USB wall outlet. These fit into standard electrical boxes, with the usual two grounded three-prong AC outlets, plus two USB power ports with spring-loaded safety shutters. The Power2U outlets are available for 15A residential ($27) and 20A circuits for office or kitchen/garage ($27).
Then so you can see what you are doing, check out the MPOWERD Luci Solar Lanterns (starting at $14). These are designed to provide affordable and clean solar-powered lighting for remote places and people, squeezing down a disk one inch thick and five inches in diameter, and then inflating to five inches high.
Cases and keyboards can protect your precious devices and make interacting with them easier when you need to do some serious writing, more than tapping or speaking a brief message.
The Speck iGuy kid-friendly protective case ($39 for iPad, $29 for iPad mini) protects your tablet with flexible but tough EVA foam. The iGuy can stand on his own two feet for small people to watch a video, and has two grabbable arms for them to carry him.
For sit-down use, the Logitech Bluetooth Multi-Device Keyboard ($49) serves as a full-size desktop keyboard for a laptop, and also has a built-in slot to position a tablet or even a smartphone for typing. It also has a dial to switch between up to three different wireless devices.
Finally, when you need to repair your laptop or small electronics devices, the NewerTech Portable Toolkit ($17) includes tweezers and scissor claps, nine assorted screwdrivers, and two pry tools. And the Newer Tech iSesamo Pry Tool ($9) is a stainless steel blade designed for popping open even the more recalcitrant devices.