Wristband Computing: iWatch an Accessory or the Next Big Thing?

Wristband Computing: iWatch an Accessory or the Next Big Thing?

Summary: Recent speculation of Apple releasing an "iWatch" sometime in the near future has many industry watchers closely observing Cupertino's activities. Will wearable computing devices finally become commonplace, and are there actual use cases?


dick-tracy Behold, the iWatch.

Well, at least that's what a lot of people are currently calling it. It's rumored that Apple has 100 engineers working on the product, so therefore, it must exist, right?

My colleague Adrian Kingsley-Hughes wrote an excellent post yesterday about what Apple must do to keep an iWatch "real" and not a fantasy.

I'm not going to speculate on when this iWatch is going to be released, nor will I try to figure out what the thing might cost or even look like.

However, I think it is reasonable to assume that such a device is under development, and that there are certain features and design principles in an "iWatch" or a Wrist Computer that are inherently desirable and make the most sense.

Wearable computing is not a new concept. Aside from voice recognition and AI, it's been sort of the holy grail of the evolution of human interaction with computing devices, going back at least since the late 1980s. Up until recently, wearables have been very much vertical market and highly specialized products, used by the military for things like aircraft maintenance, combat awareness and also to some extent in the medical industry.

Companies such as Xybernaut attempted to commercially market wearable computers back in the late 1990's, combining wrist mounted input devices along with head-mounted eye displays and external, portable CPUs.

These early wearable computer configurations were extremely bulky and obviously very expensive for the time, and the company eventually filed for Chapter 11. 

However, with the advancements on Systems on a Chip (SoCs) used in modern smartphones and tablets, which have allowed for considerable minuaturization and cost reduction of mobile devices, wearable computing is again gaining renewed interest.

The first product that has gotten attention is Google's Project Glass, which is an augmented-reality display unit that is worn like eyeglasses and contains various sensors and runs on the company's Android OS.  

At the moment, Project Glass is a "Developer" platform and will begin shipping in 2013 in extremely limited amounts, at $1500 per device. A consumer version is expected in 2014, although no price has been set.

Augmented Reality glasses obviously would have a lot of potential applications, but it remains to be seen whether or not they would be adopted widely due to social constraints/objections and also initial pricing issues.

I think it is realistic to assume that using economies of scale, something like a Project Glass could be lowered to $1000 or $500 per unit, but that would still be out of the range of most consumers and probably would be used initially for vertical types of stuff, although in much larger deployments of wearable computers that we have seen previously.

Now, a wristband computer, that's another matter entirely.

Personally, I see the wristband device as an accessory to an existing mobile computing device, such as a smartphone or a phablet. Because of its size, there would be a lot of constraints on what you could do with it, however there would still be a wide array of potential applications and there would be fewer social boundaries to using them as opposed to an Augmented Reality device like Glass.

First, I don't see this as a standalone device in and of itself. It's too small to have enough storage for applications and data, and you couldn't put a very powerful SoC or a high-resolution color display on it, because it wouldn't be very battery-efficient.

This is the kind of device where battery life would have to be measured in days to be practical, and I would also assume that the charging mechanism for this type of product would be wireless as well, through magnetic induction such as the 5W Qi standard.

I see something like this running on a low-power microcontroller (such as a chip that uses an ARM Cortex-M reference design) similar to what runs inexpensive E Ink based book reader devices like the Kindle and the NOOK, with a very simple, small touchscreen display.

The wristband could possibly even have an E Ink-based display itself so that it could be viewed in bright light outdoors and use a low-power, short-range implementation of Bluetooth as its primary communications link, with very limited memory and storage.

This device would have perhaps as little as 256MB-1GB of internal storage, 64MB-128MB of memory, and a CPU clocking as slow as 100Mhz if not considerably less. And as Adrian said in his piece, it has to cost $200 or less for widespread adoption.

There are things that I think are natural for a wristband device to have. First, a pedometer/accelerometer and also the ability to take the pulse of the wearer, as well as a gyroscopic sensor, so that any number of fitness and health applications could be developed.

A device like this would take the place of dedicated products like the Fitbit, and be capable of much, much more.

Rather than being an being an autonomous computer in and of itself, I see the Wristband as being a remote display and interaction unit for applications running on a smartphone. These would not be running scaled down smartphone apps per se, but more along the lines of a remote "telemetry" display, and Wristband-optimized remote control UIs.

These "telemetry" apps would be presenting the same kind of information density that say, Windows 8's and Windows Phone's Live Tiles do today. Or even something like the widgets in Android.

Pebble, a startup company is offering "Smart Watches" for pre-order at $150.00 each that run these same kind of simple informational apps. The Bluetooth-enabled smart watch that can interface with Android and iOS devices is avaliable for delivery in April/May of this year.

Like the Pebble, the Wristband would be a Thin Client of sorts, using various API's to talk to the smartphone apps over a Bluetooth connection. This could include things like the notification system, an email reader, stock tickers, or a music playlist and even things like maps and directions, or "local awareness" sort of things for restaurants and shopping.

Certainly I think the use cases are here for a Wristband or even a Project Glass-sort of thing, particularly among the fitness and active/outdoor lifestyle folks. But whether it will gain the sort of traction that smartphones or even tablets have gotten is a big question mark, considering that many people have discarded their watches in favor of simply carrying a smartphone to tell the time.

Will wearable computing devices finally become commonplace? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Mobile OS, Apple, Emerging Tech, Google, Smartphones


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • It has to solve a problem.

    Even if people don't know they have it. One of the first that comes to mind is security. Being a unique device, it could act as a security device to enable mobile payments, logins, passkeys and the like.

    Battery life? Days is right and that is the hard part on a device like this. Display? I think it has to be a high resolution, high quality display like IGZO or other high energy efficient tech. E-Ink still looks to crude IMO.

    The funny thing, the first successful wrist device will only be a so-so watch from a time standpoint. It has to do something else.
    • so-so watch

      agreed. I just don't know about the idea of a watch, it would have to have all the features of a smartphone in order to be something and I'm sure it will not be a $50-100 device. Most places I go to here in Los Angeles or Orange County I hardly see people with a watch. I have not used one since I got my first cell phone and that was 11 years and counting.
      • I think that is an important point

        The smart phone has taken over the time keeping function.

        And smart phones are getting bigger, not smaller, due to the benefits of a larger display. Until a new and much more compact display technology comes along, I do not see the point in a smart watch at all.

        But Apple is more than welcome to try.
        • many of us think phones are getting too big

          I think you are missing a few important issues. if you asked most people if they are using there smartphone today in ways they "wanted" to 3-5years ago, most people would say "no, I had not even considered the way I am using my smartphone now". as people like @Bruizer have alluded to, we don't know today how we will find an "iWatch" useful, but if there is an iWatch, clever people will find clever ways to make our life more clever using it.

          There were rumours, back in about 2009, that apple would bring out an "iPhone mini", now those rumours are basically dead now, but the point was that when the iPhone came out is was a massive brick of a phone. To be honest, it still is. Some people love massive screens (and they often say the iphone screen is too small, and then go out and buy phablets), but some people don't want large awkward brick sized phones. Outside of the small community that reads ZDnet and similar webpages.

          I personally have the old style nano on a stainless steel watchband as one of my watches. it gets several days operation as a watch, and you can plug a bluetooth dongle in to listen to music without a wire running to your wrist. It was so close. you will find many articles on what apple needed to do to improve the nano in that area... but apple went in a very different direction and basically when back to it;s old design and purpose (arguably backwards) with the new nano, but possibly so they could do a watch "properly".

          I agree with the iWatch being an accessory to your phone. many people prefer having there phone on silient, but you don't always keep your phone in your pocket... if your watch vibrated when you got a call or message, that would be very useful. even more so if it vibrated and told you who the call was from, so that you knew if you wanted to get to your phone and answer it. I agree that the idea of talking into your watch or reading a message (worse, writing a message) on your watch is not worth pursuing.

          finally, you said apple is welcome to try. This is the best bit, Apple didn't invent the touchscreen smartphone (I owned and used a touchscreen smart[hone back in 2003), but once they made one Samsung and a the rest of the market rushed to make (decent) "me too" devices (arguably some of those devices are as good or better now) similarly apple didn't invent the tablet, I owned and used a HP tablet also around 2003) but since the iPad came out tablets have become a completely different and very serious marketplace. So I personally will be very happy if apple tries. The will not be the first, but if they allow themselves to release a product, it will be good, and it will spawn a new market with many good competitors.
          • Big phones or "phablets"

            I like a 5in mobile device that can dub as a mini-tablet and yet make calls. Some do agree they are getting big but thats why the 3.8 and 4.3-8in devices are still being made. They have a variety to choose from in size, style and colors unless they are an apple fan and have an apple device (excluding the ipod nano & shuffles). When it comes to the iwatch, Its Been Done Already.

            Search GSM watch or watch phone and see all the flavors that pop up. It's a great concept but not very practical with it comes to battery life and then having to carry multiple batteries around (i know from 1st hand experience). True technology has improved since then but even though that's still the achilles heel of the idea alone. Agreed, it will be just another accessory, nothing more, nothing less which is what the GSM watch phones were back then. The only thing different now is that More people will want one just because apple has its name on it. I think apples people are good and stirring the pot but it really bothers me that they put the notion out there that they are the ones to have always started something "new and innovative".
            Free Webapps
      • I think it is a companion to the phone.

        Not the phone. Security would be a split role between the two. If you loose one, the other becomes harder to activate. If you have both (the device on your wrist and in your pocket) activation can be short circuited. Mobile payments would be the same. Neither could do it on their own (well the phone might be be more clumsy in the processes) but together the process would be fast, easy and seamless; most important is, however, secure.

        Or some other aspect like messaging or something else. The watch part is only because it is on the wrist.
        • I guess that might work

          but can you pair more than (1) device at a time to phone (bluetooth)? There are already connection problems with some phones, so this watch thing for anyone making one will be a tough one.
          • the is a bluetooth limitation

            bluetooth is an old and limited technology

            simple example, I am walking along using my bluetooth headphones. then I get to my car, so I press pause, take off my headphones and hop into the car. two minutes later I want to make a call on the bluetooth handsfree car kit, but the phone is still happily paired to the headphones. The I get to my destination get out, and put my headphones back on, they might work, or they might need to be re-paired.

            Yes, in this story I could have turned the headphones off, or I could have gone into my phones settings and changed the details, but we shouldn't have to. wireless should not be less convenient than a set of physically wired headphone and physical phone cradle
        • but why

          Why do you need a companion to a phone. If not need, what shortcoming from a phone would a watch solve? People who don't like large phones will buy small phones. People who like large phones don't want to look at small screens.

          Are people willing to haul yet another device out the door besides their wallet, keys, cell phone, tablet.

          The one problem apple has is that watches went out of fashion and it hasn't returned. They are hoping that this will bring watches back into fashion.

          Maybe someone will come up with a good use of the watch. But I just don't see any justification for one. To me its apple trying to stay in the headlines because they don't have a product for people to talk about for the next 4 months.
          • "watches went out of fashion"

            please make sure you tell watch making market this...

            people may by watches for the bland purpose of telling the time less, as they now carry another device that does that

            but "out of fashion" - I think you should possibly look at what the fashion industry has to say about watches vs smartphones
      • It need not to have all the features...

        Think of the first gen iPod. It had limited input capability so you used iTunes on a Mac/ PC to do more complex functions. This is the same thing between the I watch and iphone...
      • freelance eng.(designer of smartphone tech)

        how do you read it? if the screen is one inch by one inch imagine how big the text is. i would not buy that . Apple quit wasting your time and develop the next generation smartphone instead.
        Dave Hargraves
      • Very true

        Not only is it not solving a problem, but few wear watches anymore. I would much rather have a phone concealed in a pocket than a dangling, fragile, chunk of tech hanging from my wrist. A phone in my pocket doesn't give me a funky tan line on my wrist, either. Plus, nothing says "rob me" like a flashy new $300 Apple gadget displayed proudly on your wrist. The ONLY people I could see using this thing are people who jog with iPods. Even then, a neck strap or clip on makes more sense unless your headphones are Bluetooth.
        • developers

          "very few were watches"... I would agree with very few by cheap watches just for telling the time

          and if you would prefer to have a fob watch, than a wrist watch I think you might have found yourself in the minority for the last 100 or so year... past and future

          if you are in an area where wearing a $300 watch says "rob me" than that may be a valid reason to not get one yourself, but have a look at "real" watch prices, $300 is not a "flashy" expensive watch.

          I hope developers of tech have more vision than this
    • @ " has to solve a problem "

      How about : " Never losing your mobile phone again " ? ? ?

      Would THAT be enough for you, genius ?
    • Great idea!

      Making it a layer of security is a great idea--a kind of two-step verification. Someone would have to steal both watch and phone (and have the password) to access anything. Did you come up with this or is it something they might already be working on?

      There are already a variety of "smart" watches on the market (mostly Android-based) that haven't taken off, but with a unique function, it could happen.
  • Different use...

    The wrist device is only an interface (bluetooth) to a phone, and small local display.

    Should have an RFID reader on it (helps when looking for your bag in a crowded airport/bus... And should alarm with reminder if it gets more than 5/8 feet away from tracked bags. (alarm should identify which bag/device is out of range).

    It should include a pico projector to allow the user to step up to a wall for a large display (normally powered off).

    Much of the processing should actually be done by the phone in a pocket - of course an alarm if the phone gets left behind.

    It should also be able to be used as a compass - for use in pointing a direction to go, as well as maybe a text for the destination (not for driving directions, this is for finding something in a Mall/large hotel/amusement park/...)

    Should also be able to provide base medical monitoring (glucose, heartbeat, monitor pacemakers...)
    • IWatch is not for time watching but wearer watching

      Yes. Already oxymeters are available in that size. Glucose monitoring using 62 Ghz Raman spectra are in final stages of testing. Heartbeat monitor ( including sending data to cardiologist, endocrinologist etc ) could be through iMessage service of iPhone. Thus real time monitoring of patient could be done by specialist as well as dosage of medicine delivered into the patients body could be done by an expert system, running in the iPhone.
  • it would be cool

    to have a Bluetooth extention to a phone so that when the phone rings, the wrist 'watch' shows who is calling, and allows you to talk with the caller on a speaker. This way you do not have to pull the phone out of the pocket for a quick yes/no type of a conversation.
    • bt headsets

      thats why people use BT headsets.
      Also, how many times in the last 100 calls you made where you conversed less than 10 words.