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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
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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"
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