Google has announced Android Wear, which according to them is “a project that extends Android to wearables.” Up until this announcement Google Glass has been the company’s wearable computing focus, but Android Wear appears to be focused on smart watches.
Ever since Dick Tracy, it seems we have had a fascination with small computing and communication devices on our wrist. Smartphones have received most of the focus of portable computing, but smart watches actually have had as long a history as smartphones.
If it becomes a market success, smart watches will be another blow to Microsoft. In 2004 Microsoft introduced SPOT watches, which were watches with LCD screens that displayed small bits of content along with different watch faces. Microsoft was able to get watch manufacturers like Fossil to make them, and they gave it a “college try” before putting an end to the product in 2008.
SPOT is an acronym that stands for Smart Personal Object Technology, and included a wireless communication integrated with MSN Direct. Microsoft intended SPOT to be used in a variety of devices including coffee makers and weather stations, but the watches from Fossil and Suunto were the most sold of the products.
SPOT watches did not integrate direct with any computing device, be they smartphone, PDA, or notebook computer, but the wireless technology behind it enabled it to stand alone. Perhaps one of its most interesting features, the wireless technology of SPOT utilized open space in the FM wireless spectrum. Users were not charged for using the wireless communication, although there was a yearly subscription. Amazon’s WhisperSync most reminds me of how SPOT worked, the wireless communication was so integrated that users really did not need to know anything about it.
One of the difficulties with SPOT is that it didn’t integrate well with your personal information. If you integrated Outlook with MSN Direct you might be able to get your appointments to display on the watch, but none of your other personal information was accessible.
At the time, the reason why one choose to wear a SPOT watch is that they provided “glanceable information“, not too unlike the notifications we are now familiar with on smartphones. For example, I had a sports channel on my watch that showed the latest scores of my favorite team’s games as they were being played. I also got weather and stock updates.
The biggest problem with the SPOT watches was that they were much larger and clunkier than regular watches. Later iterations of the watches had better designs, but still wouldn’t be desirable for anyone with small wrists.
Another problem is that the phones had to be re-charged, about every five days or so. The watches used inductive charging and came with a charging cradle, but if you traveled you had to carry the charging cradle. Battery charging will continue to be an impediment for smart watches. People who still wear watches are not used to having to charge them at all as most have batteries or some built-in form of charging.
It’s interesting to me that so much energy has been spent on smart watches. With the emergence of smartphones, fewer people are wearing watches today, most simply check the time on their phone, which they always have on their person. Further, the new smart watches need to connect to a smartphone for wireless data and communication purposes meaning you now need both on your person at all times.
One difference between 2008 and now is the increase use of fitness bands like the Jawbone UP. More people are wearing these devices to track their activity and sleeping, and Android Wear will support that data collection too, however, I won’t wear a full size watch when I sleep at night. I’ve barely become used to wearing the UP band.
Pictures of potential devices show that the manufacturers are aware that design matters, but any watch that has a face is going to be larger that the fitness bands on the market today. Right now the smart watch category has not really been market tested. The Pebble is probably the most successful smart watch on the market right now, and so far I haven’t seen anyone who wears one, have you?