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Before they were stars: Smartwatches in pop culture

From the stone ages of the Flintstones to the futuristic sky cities of the Jetsons, the smartwatch has been a surprising yet underlying constant in pop culture.
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By Rachel King, Staff Writer on
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1 of 15 Rachel King/ZDNet

Since it was officially unveiled last fall, Apple has been answering critics arguing the iPhone maker is pushing out a brand new product category with its smart Apple Watch when there is little to no demand for such a device.

But based on even just a few examples in television and film, it looks like we've all been wanting to talk into our wrists for decades.

From the stone ages of The Flintstones to the futuristic sky cities of The Jetsons, the smartwatch has been a surprising yet underlying constant in pop culture.

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2 of 15 Rachel King/ZDNet

The Flintstones

The best thing since the invention of the wheel?

Sure, Fred Flintstone lived in the stone ages. But the lovable patriarch of The Flintstones was light years ahead of his time considering he maintained a steady job, a modern version of the nuclear family, a car (sort of), and yes, even a smartwatch.

It's not entirely sure what Fred did with such an advanced (and surely expensive) piece of technology (was that even a word in his era?) during his days at the quarry. But surely there are hardware and software giants out there from Cisco to Salesforce.com that would probably pitch this as an Internet-of-Things opportunity.

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3 of 15 Rachel King/ZDNet

The Jetsons

Compared to the prehistoric Flintstone clan, The Jetsons-- who are supposed to live in the actual future from now -- would seem like much more likely consumers for smartwatches.

I mean, these are the people who have what is likely the next generation of the Roomba in Rosie, not to mention the other ultimate tech wish list item: the flying car.

Naturally, a smartwatch does appear at least once in the series, as highlighted in a similar listicle by Gizmodo.

Making our meta dreams come true, one of Elroy's friends appears to be using his smartwatch to stream a television show: The Flintstones. Mind blown?

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4 of 15 Rachel King/ZDNet

Get Smart

As one of the earliest icons of secret agent genre on screen, Get Smart's Agent 86 (more informally known as Maxwell Smart) might have been a bumbling fellow.

But Agent 99's partner-in-crime-fighting (and later life) was surprisingly tech savvy as one of the first televised characters to utilize a watch as a phone.

Now all we need is a 4G-enabled smartshoe for making calls.

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James Bond

But the prize for the super spy with the most toys would undoubtedly go to that dashing and debonair British Secret Service agent across the pond, James Bond.

Looking at the extensive list of gadgetry (from the reasonable to the absurd) employed by Bond since the 1950s, a watch has been a constant (if not mundane already) medium.

Some of the more eccentric spins on the smartwatch in Bond lore include the deployment of a wire garrote for weaponry (From Russia With Love), a Rolex with a razor-sharp laser beam (Never Say Never Again), and radio-enabled pen that pairs with a smartpen (Octopussy).

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James Bond: The Spy Who Loved Me

One of the more unique watches in James Bond's wardrobe supports a communication channel beyond simple phone calls.

That would be fax messages, as depicted in The Spy Who Loved Me. The Seiko Quartz timepiece included a built-in telex, printing out missives from MI6 on label maker-like tape.

The instant telegram is a popular plot device in the Bond franchise as a similar fax system was installed on Bond's iconic Aston Martin in GoldenEye.

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7 of 15 Rachel King/ZDNet

Dick Tracy

When the smartwatch started to become a reality a few years back, police detective Dick Tracy became one of the most frequently cited inspirations in pop culture.

Part of that could be attributed to Tracy's preeminence in pop culture as a fedora-donning sleuth since popping up in comic strip form in the 1930s.

Millennials also became acquainted with the urban detective through the 1990 film starring Warren Beatty. McDonald's launched a tie-in promotion for the movie, doling out toy versions of Tracy's iconic watch with Happy Meals.

Tracy's version of a smart watch was actually described as a two-way radio, making it more like a Walkie-Talkie than a phone.

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Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Star Trekis arguably one of the greatest drawing boards in the history of pop culture for gadgets that have made the leap into the real world, from Motorola's Communicator-inspired Razr flip phone to the iPad. (Even the Enterprise's bridge in the 2009 reboot film resembles an Apple Store.)

While the very first Star Trek film is often forgotten (maybe rightfully so), so too is one iteration of the franchise's signature mobile communication platform, as seen here on Captain Kirk's wrist.

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Knight Rider

One would likely surmise that Knight Rider's most famous technological influence would be the talking car.

But often overlooked in the shadow of the artificially intelligent vehicle was David Hasselhoff's crime fighting protagonist's prescient model for the smartwatch.

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10 of 15 Rachel King/ZDNet

Inspector Gadget

When Gadget is an Inspector's last name, a boatload of random tech toys is only inevitable.

Compared to launching a helicopter out of a bucket hat, a smartwatch actually doesn't look all that exciting -- even when the program started airing in the 1980s.

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Sailor Moon

If mobile device makers are looking for a demographic to target, perhaps teens are the ones to court. Or more specifically, teenage girls tasked with fighting evil and saving Tokyo, and by extension, the world.

Sailor Moon and her crime-fighting friends (all of whom make the jump from middle to high school throughout the course of the series) go through a number of high-tech (and sometimes sparkly) gadgets for various strategic purposes, including a virtual reality visor for analyzing enemy weaknesses.

But one of the initial communication methods is a smartwatch, a relatively mundane piece of technology in Sailor Moon's universe compared to the wands waved around for instant (and slightly NSFW) transformation into their heroic alter egos.

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Power Rangers

The Power Rangers might be remembered more for their Sailor Moon-like transformations into their colorful alter egos. (As well as some terrible CGI that makes the stuff on ABC's Once Upon a Time look like a J.J. Abrams movie.)

But the crime-fighting teens also had a few pieces of technology to assist them, mostly around logistics.

The most obvious was the gang's riff on a smartwatch, sporting the vibe of a vintage microphone with a wristband.

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13 of 15 Rachel King/ZDNet

The Simpsons

Aside from decades of laughs and an iconic pink sprinkled doughnut, maybe one of the greatest gifts bestowed by The Simpsons was a smartwatch.

According to Mashable, this isn't the first nor the last example Springfield's finest residents accurately predicting the future of technology.

In 1995, the show jumped in a flash-forward episode to the wedding of Lisa, the Simpsons' clever and precocious daughter. But it's not Lisa depicted wearing the smartwatch (if anything, she would probably invent it), but rather her future fiancé.

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Harry Potter

Now this one isn't quite in the same vein as the other blueprints for a smartwatch, but rather a magical spin on the age-old pocket watch.

In the third installment of Harry Potter, it is discovered that -- SPOILER -- Hermione Granger has been using a device, dubbed a "Time-Turner," to squeeze in extra coursework in a single year. (No, really.)

Of course, Harry and Hermione end up using the Time-Turner in another battle of good versus evil. But depending on which laws of time travel you adhere to (i.e. grandfather clauses and whatnot), this enhanced watch should be used with the utmost caution. Even extra homework took a toll on Hermione's health.

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Toy Story

Throughout the last few decades of pop culture (and the preceding slides), there have been toy smartwatches in the present and real smartwatches depicted in the future.

Sandwiching two into one and thensome is Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear.

Along with a tricked-out utility belt, the toy space ranger hero's smartwatch is more of a fully-fledged personal weapons system. While Buzz's laser-wielding armband isn't as sleek or discreet as something from James Bond's watch collection, it's certainly more revolutionary (and threatening) than stuffed cowboy Woody's old-fangled empty revolver holster.

Based on more than a few recent analyst forecasts, Apple's imminent product launch will be the catalyst launching the smartwatch to infinity and beyond.

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