Wearable computers were once the stuff of science fiction, but they always hovered within the realm of possibility. Beyond the technical challenges presented by miniaturization and power consumption, the trick lay in coming up with a small-scale but practical user interface. Eventually, the PDA and smartphone booms incentivized companies to chip away at these issues in their quest for better, smaller and more versatile devices.
Over this period, smart watches failed to capture more than our imaginations. IBM Research and Citizen Watch's 2001 WatchPad packed Bluetooth, a fingerprint sensor (and the kitchen sink) but died on the workbench. In 2005, Fossil's Wrist PDA could not capitalize on Palm OS's reign. Fossil, Suunto, Tissot and Swatch all ginned up devices based on Microsoft's Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT) -- a sort of early, subscriber-based Internet of Things with an FM-radio backbone -- only to see the service walloped by Wi-Fi, cellular and FM Radio Data System (RDS) [sources: Baker; Minder].
A few companies have made limited headway more recently. After a rocky start, Kickstarter-born Pebble is slowly carving out a niche, but reviews remain mixed at best. Samsung's Android-powered Galaxy Gear sold 800,000 in its first two months but posted a 30 percent return rate at Best Buy [source: Reuters].
If, as some argue, the age of the smart watch is upon us, then Android Wear or Apple will likely lead the way. But while Google has already dipped its toe into the wearables market with Google Glass, Apple continues to keep mum regarding its possible offerings in the smart watch sector even as Android Wear prepares Android app developers for launch [sources: Chen; Google; Minder; Reuters; Wood].
For now, numerous questions remain. Chief among them: How specifically will these devices work, and what specs can we expect in terms of battery life, connectivity, glare reduction, screen quality, security and so on? Will Google charge a licensing fee? And, given its experience with Google Glass and its current talks with chip makers, will the company bring its own device to market, or focus instead on building its diabolical robot army aboard its secretive barge flotilla?
Because Android watches, like Android smartphones, will vary widely, we can only speculate. A strong reliance on WiFi or cellular, piggybacked off your smartphone, seem likely, and power issues and a lack of ports could necessitate OLED screens and nonstandard charging methods like induction, solar or self-winding. If Samsung's Galaxy (the phone) and Galaxy Gear (the watch) pairing is any indication, watch makers might also limit which smartphone a given Android Wear device can pair with [sources: Chen; Halleck].
Until Google releases more information, or until the first wave of devices hits the market this summer, we're left with more buzz than answers.
Author's Note: How Android Wear Works
Why have smart watches never caught on? Does it come down to timing and the availability of suitable technologies, or does the answer lie in culturally preparing the ground via marketing? I mean, remember when we used to think it was weird and rude to talk loudly to ourselves in public, or to stare blankly at other people, possibly while secretly filming them or accessing their OkCupid profiles? Thank goodness Bluetooth headsets and Google Glass put an end to that. Oh, wait ...
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