Mobile // Mobile Devices
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9/5/2013
06:27 PM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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10 Smartwatch Features We Want

Smartwatches so far don't seem that bright. We propose 10 ways to make them indispensable.

Samsung's New Gadgets: Visual Tour
Samsung's New Gadgets: Visual Tour
(click image for larger view)
The smartwatch is a dumb concept, mainly because time-telling is a trivial, commodity function. If you have a smartphone, you can tell the time, and even if you couldn't, your smartphone could tell you the time with a notification of some sort. There are also clocks on walls, in cars, on computers and mounted on buildings for all to see. In an urban environment, the time tends to be obvious.

That's not to say timepieces are unnecessary. They can be useful for those who shun electronics; certainly they last longer between recharging or rewinding than smartphones. They can also work as jewelry and feats of mechanical engineering. But watches of that sort — intricate arrangements of gears — are artifacts of the industrial age that sell for thousands of dollars or much more. They have very little to do with the Samsung Galaxy Gear or the expected Apple iWatch.

But then the Samsung Galaxy Gear and the Apple iWatch, not to mention all the other contenders in the market, have very little to do with time-telling. The fact that these devices can display the time may be a convenient feature, but time-telling is hardly a core function.

[ If time-telling isn't a big deal, consider the healthcare implications. See Smartwatches Could Outshine Wearable Fitness Gadgets. ]

Smartwatches, in other words, have been mislabeled. The "watch" part doesn't matter. But labeling matters. It shapes the perception of a product. Were laptops marketed as "warm calculators," they'd have struggled in the marketplace, despite the fact that it's sometimes useful to employ a laptop as a calculator or for warmth in a cold room. It's time to drop "watch" and come up with alternative terminology.

Once we accept that we're talking about a wearable computer rather than a chronograph, we can think about what kind of computational device best suits the wrist. Maybe it tells time, among other functions. But there's no need to bring that up. Apple's forthcoming iPhone will include a clock and APIs to access time data. Yet, that will hardly merit a mention during its media event Tuesday.

And while we're revising our terminology, let's toss "smart," because our devices exhibit more problems, limitations and flaws than they do inherent intelligence. People are smart. Animals are smart. Devices do what they're programmed to do; their smarts are bestowed by their designers.

What we should have for our wrists is a networked sensor band. "Radio band" has a nice ring to it, but I expect there are other good alternatives. Whatever name we choose, we are freed from thinking that a screen is necessary. (You can't very well watch your watch without a screen.)

A screen may be useful, even essential if a wearable device is designed to convey visual information. But it is redundant for a device intended to be paired with a smartphone or to complement other wearable devices, like Google Glass, which also include a screen. The key is not to assume a screen is necessary, but only to use one when the device's primary function demands it.

So what is it that distinguishes our radio band? What is its essential nature, if our device isn't really designed for time-telling?

1. It's a modular sensor bay.
It can accommodate a variety of sensors to measure vital signs and whatever's going on in the wearer's vicinity. Going hiking? Get the barometer card, the temperature card and the GPS card. Looking after a child? Combine the GPS card with the audio I/O card and the network card.

2. It supports no-contact charging.
Once you accumulate a few electronic devices, charging becomes a chore. You're always swapping cables and adapters. Just being able to remove a device at bedtime and set it on a charging plate would be a superior user experience.

3. It supports motion-induced charging.
Devices that charge themselves are even better than devices that can be charged without wires. Apple is already thinking along these lines. A patent application the company filed last year describes a device using inductive charging that would work when "walking or running (e.g., through movement created by the user's footfalls or arm swinging"). And without a screen or on-device apps to consume energy, a lot less power would be needed.

4. It supports biometric authentication.
Maybe it has a fingerprint reader or supports voice-pattern recognition. Whatever the case, you'd want to be able to limit who can use your radio band if it's going to fulfill its obvious role as the key to your digital life.

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Becca L
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Becca L,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/24/2013 | 10:58:04 PM
re: 10 Smartwatch Features We Want
I do like your list. Prior to reading it I really did think smartwatches would fizzle out in the blink of an eye, but now I'm not so sure. Medical sensor applications could really be the selling point here.

This reminds me of some kid spy movie - never saw it but I remember from the commercials - a girl has a crafty watch that can do just about anything a kid spy would need to save the world. As they're falling down a big hole - falling - falling -falling - the boy turns to the girl and asks how long it's been. She says, "I don't know, my watch doesn't tell time"
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
9/9/2013 | 8:55:22 PM
re: 10 Smartwatch Features We Want
I would argue that a smartphone is more about the phone than anything else. Why else would people put up with $70+ mobile subscription fees if not for telephony? You can get a WiFi-capable iPod touch if you just want the computing aspect of a smartphone and it will cost a lot less.
Faye Kane, homeless brain
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Faye Kane, homeless brain,
User Rank: Strategist
9/8/2013 | 11:50:01 PM
re: 10 Smartwatch Features We Want
==-
Typical sales disaster that the computer people are blind to because they're all excited by techno gimmicks: a "smart" watch that does stuff nobody needs and doesn't tell you what time it is. I guess I have to wear a "stupid" watch on my other wrist.

It reminds me of the Metro interface. When will designers start thinking from the user's point of view instead of their own?

This WOULD sell:
Make one with a teeny little mass spectrometer. It analyzes your sweat and changes the watch face to yellow when you're sexually aroused. And red when you're very aroused.

You'd only need to make the women's style because it would always show infrared color on men. I wouldn't need one for the same reason.

When the price drops to $3 like everything else with a computer in it, hand them out to girls at the door of the bar and give them a free drink if they wear it.

-faye kane GÖÇ girl brain
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
9/7/2013 | 12:40:33 PM
re: 10 Smartwatch Features We Want
#3 is interesting and I wonder how well that patent will pan out as there is plenty of prior art. And the idea is not new either, it is used on high end mechanical watches for quite some time.
cbabcock
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cbabcock,
User Rank: Strategist
9/6/2013 | 9:00:10 PM
re: 10 Smartwatch Features We Want
I like this list. And I wouldn't underestimate the number of time related applications that might be found on a watch with smarts. It's not only about knowing where the hour hand is. Given my present location, how much longer to my destination, given present traffic conditions? Push a (soft) button and find out. Time plus GPS is a powerful combination. It would be a small screen surface, unless the smart watch had two wings that could fold out to triple the screen size. Users might laboriously input data, such as "airport" on a destination list, with a stylus and small keyboard, then work from list selection while on the go.
WKash
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WKash,
User Rank: Author
9/6/2013 | 8:44:02 PM
re: 10 Smartwatch Features We Want
My bet is that after the laughter dies down about why we don't need a 4th screen (desktop, tablet, smartphone, smart watch) the smart watch will quickly surprise us by becoming a watching device, not a watch, that serves as a uber sensor, keeping track of our health, our interactions with other sensors, and who knows what else. Look at the investor interest of companies like Sensoria sensor-filled socks that track your activity, stride, speed, distance, calories and most importantly how your foot lands on the ground. Clearly, the watch is just the beginning of the next wave of sensor mania.
ditto1224
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ditto1224,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/6/2013 | 7:14:29 PM
re: 10 Smartwatch Features We Want
While you raise some interesting points, i find it even more interesting that you take issue with the term "Smart Watch" because telling time is not the primary function you would buy this for. You couldn't be more wrong in this perspective and your analogy of the laptop completely misses the point. The concept of a smart watch requiring the main feature to be the time component is like a Smart Phone serving more as a phone than anything else (while anyone who has one will educate you in your understanding that the phone feature is likely the least used feature).

Calling it a smart watch is all about marketing, not about function. Call it a smart watch and immediately ANYONE and EVERYONE will understand it to be a wrist worn device that has "smart" capabilities much like the smart phone in their pocket/purse. Call it something else and most novice tech users may walk right past it or not give an online article a second look.

Smart product managers and marketing executives understand K.I.S.S. (because it works). Keep It Simple Stupid.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
9/6/2013 | 6:01:05 PM
re: 10 Smartwatch Features We Want
Good list. I think the sensors and medical application points could be a big deal. I wouldn't even be surprised, once someone gets the interface right, if that sort of technology leads to meaningful and measurable improvements in the users' health.

Our bodies produce a lot of data, but most of us rely on whatever content is captured during a single annual physical. With a perpetual stream of health data, people could not only feel encouraged to keep exercising, but also become aware of developing problems at earlier stages. Of course it could also inspire all kinds of hypochondria, just like WebMD has, convincing people with the common cold that they actually have the plague. But I think the upside is much higher.

Again, someone has to get the interface right-- and I don't think Samsung is particularly close, at this point. But once someone does, this kind of wearable device could appeal to a pretty broad market-- young, fitness-oriented people; older people who need to monitor their health; etc. Could have a market that substantially overlaps the smartphone market but that is nonetheless different in several important ways.
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
9/6/2013 | 5:06:18 PM
re: 10 Smartwatch Features We Want
I wonder if there is a way to implement intuitive voice controls. Voice interaction is still new enough that I don't always feel confident I know what to ask. I think I'd use Siri more if I were sure of the proper syntax to phrase everything.
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
9/6/2013 | 4:55:40 PM
re: 10 Smartwatch Features We Want
Really intuitive voice controls seem essential. Can you do enough smart things by tapping on that tiny space?
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