5 Tech Trends That Will Bring Back the Wristwatch

Wednesday Jan 23rd 2013 by Mike Elgan
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The smartphone killed the wristwatch. And the smartphone will bring it back. It's about time.

People don't wear wristwatches like they used to. And the reason is clear: Since everybody's got a mobile phone, and the phone tells the time, a watch is unnecessary.

But the mobile phone has always been an insatiably greedy platform -- it needs more features, more power, more convenience and, above all, more pixels.

Get used to the idea of the big platform companies selling or supporting wristwatches that serve as additional screens for and controllers of the phones in our pockets. I believe that Apple and Google will do so, and a large number of small companies -- including Pebble (which shipped it's long-awaited smart watch today).

Pebble is a great example of the coming wristwatch revolution. It connects via Bluetooth to either an iPhone or an Android phone. You install apps on the watch through your phone. It has a high-contrast, sunlight-readable eInk display.

Pebble is cool, but it's just the beginning.

Five strong trends are all converging to make smartphone wristwatches a near certainty. Here are those trends:

1. The Multi-Screen Functionality Trend

Until very recently, every device we used had its own screen. And the screen on one device wasn't connected to apps displayed on another screen, for the most part.

But now, thanks to Apple's AirPlay Mirroring, Microsoft's SmartGlass, Nintendo Wii U and other products, people will get increasingly familiar with the idea that two devices work together as one.

With these "living room" technologies, your smartphone can be a controller or provide additional contextual information for whatever's happening on your TV.

This is how the new wristwatches will work. Your watch will show you incoming texts, emails and Caller ID information, as well as other data fed by apps running on the phone. You'll be able to control what happens to some degree on the phone by interfacing with the watch.

2. The Wearable Computing Trend

Nerdy geeks like me (and possibly you) are looking forward to becoming cyborgs when we wear Google's Glass gadget.

Google's Project Glass involves the development of eyewear that beams visual information into one eye. It has a camera, and other sensors, and it enables the wearer to get contextual information, communicate and take pictures and videos without the fondling of a phone.

Google Glass hardware is interesting. But the secret sauce of Google Glass would work equally well on a wristwatch -- voice commands, augmented reality information and so on.

It's very unlikely that Google Glass will ever become a widespread, mainstream device and for several reasons.

First, it's got a camera on it. Humans don't like cameras being pointed at them all the time. If you don't believe me, go ahead and point your smartphone or digital camera at someone the entire time you're speaking to them. Second, single-eye display technology bothers some people like 3D does. Third, eyewear is fashion and people aren't going to turn to Google for fashion.

Eyewear-based wearable computing will be huge, but among geeks and specific professionals. The general public, including white collar workers, will never go for it en masse. But they will wear wristwatches.

3. The Voice Interaction Trend

Apple's Siri, Google's Voice Search, Nuance Dragon NaturallySpeaking and other products are training the human race to interface with computers and phones by talking -- just like on Star Trek.

Products like Wolfram Alpha, Google Knowledge Graph and to a certain extent Facebook's Graph Search, are moving us toward a world in which queries are answered not with possible options, but with specific answers. Ask a question, get an answer.

When you tell Siri to reschedule your lunch meeting or when you ask Google Voice Search who's playing in the Super Bowl, you don't need to type and you don't need to read. You talk, then listen.

And if you can do that with a phone, you can do it through your wristwatch without taking your phone out. Tap the watch, talk and hear the reply.

4. The Flexible ePaper Trend

It's true that smart watches have been around for years. But they tend to be gigantic and suffer from limited battery life. Recent advances in flexible eInk will enable much thinner smart watches that use less battery power.

One recent project on Kickstarter is called the CST-01. It's not a smartphone-connected smart watch, but it's interesting for other reasons.

The CST-01 will be the thinnest wristwatch in the world, according to its developers. It uses a similar screen technology as Amazon's lower-end Kindle eBook readers. Because the screen is eInk, it's super readable in direct sunlight. And it's also flexible, enabling the display to wrap around the wrist.

The developers claim the watch will function for a month between recharging, even though it's got a much bigger screen than most smart watches are likely to have.

Flexible eInk technology will enable even the most full-featured smart watches be thin and light.

5. The Bluetooth 4.0 Era

The newish Bluetooth 4.0 radically decreases the amount of power a connected device needs. A special "low power mode" completely changes how something like a smartphone-connected wristwatch can function.

Unlike past wristwatches, which both consumed massive power and also needed to be turned on in order to interoperate, a new generation of Bluetooth 4.0-controlled watches can go into a super low-power mode for weeks if necessary, then wake up to display information coming from the phone.

The combination of low-power eInk screens and the low power mode of Bluetooth 4.0 -- and the fact that all the heavy processing is happening either on the smartphone or the remote servers that the smartphone is connected to -- means that connected wristwatches can work for much longer between charges.

Make no mistake about it. Smartphone-connected wristwatches are going mainstream, and will be supported by mainstream companies like Apple and Google.

If you asked me, I’d say it's about time.

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