How Smart Watches Work


The Fossil Abacus Smart Watch. See more timepiece gadget pictures.
2008 HowStuffWorks

There's no doubt that with the popularity of smartphones that can manage virtually every aspect of our lives, the trend in technology is to get more and more "connectivity" into smaller and smaller packages.

Simultaneously, wrist watches have become a lesson in technological redundancy for many people. Ask a friend for the time of day and they're just as likely to glance at their smartphone as they are to look at an actual wrist-bound timepiece. The newest wave of smart watches aims to change all that

Smart watches are digital watches that do more – a lot more – that your old analog time tracking device. We're not talking about that once-amazing calculator watch that you had in elementary school. These are full-fledged digital tools.

Smart watches can run apps and play back all sorts of digital media, like audio tracks or radio streamed to Bluetooth headphones. Many of these watches have touchscreens, which allow you to access functions like a calculator, thermometer, compass and more.

Most of the current iterations of smart watches aren't wholly standalone devices, simply because they lack an Internet connection. So many of the watches are designed to link directly with other devices that do have Internet connectivity, namely your smartphone.

Just as with your smartphone, Internet access enables a smart watch with whole world of potential capabilities, like message notifications, GPS navigation and calendar synchronization. And of course, a Bluetooth connection to your phone means the watch can help you place calls or send and receive messages.

Some smart watches are made specifically for athletics purposes, letting you track your lap times, distance and route. They may work in tandem with accessories such as a heart rate monitor or cadence sensor. There are specialty smart watches built especially for sailing enthusiasts, helping them track variables such as speed, wind direction and wind speed.

To many people, these newfangled watches might look like a brand new technology. The truth, however, is that smart watches have been lurking on the fringes of gadgetry for a long time. The very first may have been Microsoft's UC-2000, a digital watch released in 1984 that could be programmed in BASIC via its keypad. In 2002, Microsoft introduced a technology called Smart Personal Object Technology, or SPOT, designed to add new purpose to everyday objects by integrating so-called smart software. Watches built around SPOT were discontinued in in 2008, but the idea of the smart watch lived on.

Many people think that it's finally time to usher the digital wizardry of smart watches into the mainstream. Keep reading and you'll find out why.

Watches on the Rise

Smart watches aren’t a new concept. Casio introduced this Easy Rec watch in 1999. Its key feature was the ability to record 30-second audio memos.
Smart watches aren’t a new concept. Casio introduced this Easy Rec watch in 1999. Its key feature was the ability to record 30-second audio memos.
© ERIKO SUGITA/Reuters/Corbis

Smart watches aren't going to sneak up on anyone. Digital watches with built-in computer functions have been around since the 1970s. But most of these watches had comparatively primitive capabilities.

Well-known brands such as Seiko, Pulsar and Casio have all produced watches with some digital capabilities. They could store bits of information, crunch numbers and even let you play some basic games. Swatch, Fossil and Microsoft all followed with their own versions, none of which really made an impact on consumers.

In terms of functionality, current smart watches generally don't do anything particularly groundbreaking. They simply shrink many of your smartphone's features into a form factor that you can wear on your wrist. But with miniaturized technology advancing at high speed, some people think watches are ready for the masses.

Analysts at NextMarket Insights see a huge potential for smart watches. They anticipate sales going from a relatively paltry 14 million in 2014 to a whopping 373 million before the end of 2020 [source: NextMarket].

Many companies, including some corporate heavyweights, are hoping that smart watches will mean big profits. Samsung, Sony, Qualcomm, Motorola, Nissan, Adidas and Timex already sell versions of smart watches. Blackberry, Toshiba and LG want to be in the mix, too, and as of 2013, there are loud rumors that both Google and Apple intend to crash the smart watch party as soon as possible.

Other numbers may be telling as to the direction of smart watch sales. NextMarket anticipates that about half of all smart watch sales will run Google's Android operating system [source: NextMarket]. For anyone even vaguely familiar with Android's current domination in the smartphone market, it's easy to see why Google could be an odds-on favorite to rule your wrist.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. To date, smart watches haven't created much buzz with buyers. There are some powerful products out there, though.

Smart Watches to Watch

The Sony SW2 made a splash at the IFA 2013 consumer electronics trade fair on Sept. 5, 2013 in Berlin, Germany.
The Sony SW2 made a splash at the IFA 2013 consumer electronics trade fair on Sept. 5, 2013 in Berlin, Germany.
© Sean Gallup/Getty Images

There are already dozens of smart watches for sale. Here are a few of the most–talked-about versions.

The Sony SmartWatch 2 features a 1.6-inch (4-centimeter) square touchscreen face in a body that's 0.3 inches (7.6 millimeters) thick. The touchscreen recognizes typical gestural commands, including swipe and pinch, and you can display a digital or analog-ish clock face by default. It's water resistant and has NFC capabilities, in addition to Bluetooth. In a nod to the importance of looks, Sony lets you substitute any 24-millimeter (0.94-inch) watchband for the rubberized factory model. It comes with a USB port for data transfer and charging, and under moderate use, the battery lasts about four days.

The SW2 is designed to pair with a number of Sony smartphones through Bluetooth. Once paired, you'll be able to use the watch to reject or mute phone calls, receive a call (if you have a compatible headset), control music playback, and check Facebook, Twitter and text messages. Because SmartWatch 2 is an Android device, you can download many apps from the Google Play store and run them on your watch. Sony indicates that there are around 200 apps specifically designed for SmartWatch. As of late 2013, it retailed for about $200.

A startup company called Pebble makes one of the best-selling smart watches as of late 2013. The $150 Pebble watch actually backs away from attempting to duplicate your smartphone's functions. Instead, it does a few things very well, and in a package that's more stylish than most other models. For example, you can choose from hundreds of watch faces to change the look of the watch with just a press. Pebble is 2 inches (5 centimeters) long, 1.4 inches (3.6 centimeters) wide and 0.4 inches (10.2 millimeters) thick.

It features an ARM Cortex-M3 processor and a 3D accelerometer, which is helpful when using the watch in tandem with an athletics-minded app like RunKeeper on your phone. It's also waterproof and boasts weeklong battery life. Instead of using a power-sucking touchscreen LCD display, it has a monochrome e-paper screen like the ones you see on digital book readers. That means you'll have to navigate menus using side-mounted buttons.

Pebble works with both Android and iPhone operating systems. Once paired to your smartphone through Bluetooth 4.0, the Pebble displays message text and allows you to control music playback. The maker promises that many more features are forthcoming.

Samsung's $300 Galaxy Gear is loaded with features, including 4GB memory, voice command input, a 1.9 megapixel camera (for both video and stills), voice memo, pedometer and speaker. It has a 1.6-inch (4.1-centimeter) display, and is nearly half and inch (about 1.3 centimeters) thick. It's designed to work seamlessly with apps such as Runtastic and RunKeeper. Samsung also includes a version of Evernote that's been tweaked to work best with their watch, so that you can easily pair photos and voice notes in a rush.

Goophone, a company perhaps best known for selling counterfeit iPhones, is taking the smart watches seriously. The Goophone Smart Watch is a wholly independent device; that is, it actually has built-in antennas so that you can use it to make calls sans your smartphone. A 2G version costs $250, while the higher-speed 3G variant is $300. It's equipped with a 1.5-inch (3.8-centimeter) screen, a 1.2GHz processor, 512MB of RAM and a 2-megapixel camera. It is truly a smartphone crammed into a wrist-mounted body. It runs on an older version of the Android operating system, which means that it won't work with many newer apps.

While some models are better than others, it's clear that even industry titans are still struggling to make successful smart watches. On the next page you'll see why.

Form, Function and Fun

One of the biggest challenges to smart watch development is finding a way to conserve battery life while powering a beautiful screen.
One of the biggest challenges to smart watch development is finding a way to conserve battery life while powering a beautiful screen.
© BRENDAN MCDERMID/Reuters/Corbis

Smart watches haven't exploded in popularity for various reasons. The technological hurdles are high. And the fashion faux pas are, well, unforgivable.

Let's start with the tech side. Because human wrists are only so big, wrist watches must be extremely compact. In turn, this means the display must be small. That means a populace accustomed to ridiculously oversized smartphone screens must learn to use a substantially smaller interface on a smart watch.

It also means that software developers must find intuitive graphical interfaces that fit a watch's limited display area. As programmers who create smartphone apps can attest, this challenge can make or break a product.

Battery life is another notable design challenge. Current battery technology will only power a glowing smart watch with myriad functions for a few hours. After that, it's back to the charger.

And then, of course, there's the fashion aspect of smart watches. Like it or not, a watch is a fashion item, and it reflects directly on your ability to dress yourself properly in the morning. Most manufacturers are still struggling to combine features and fashion in ways that don't shriek "geek." The designs tend to be clunky, obnoxiously large and likely to clash with any wardrobe that rises above casual. A smart watch at a black tie affair? Let the chortling begin.

Given manufacturers' struggles in perfecting smart watches, it's worth wondering why people would want them so badly, anyway. One reason is that smartphones are so demanding of our attention. Everywhere you go, you see people grasping and staring into their phones, as if they were the window to their soul (and perhaps they are).

A gadget that's more passive and less obtrusive -- such as a watch -- could potentially change the way we interact with personal gadgets. Rather than constantly occupying one or both sets of fingers, a watch can simply rest on your person. The right watch, then, might help you reclaim some of the mental territory that's been overrun by the smartphone army.

A Product to Watch

So far, no smart watch has captured the imagination and devotion of consumers. With so many companies dumping so much time and money into these products, it seems likely that at some point, a smart watch will strike industry gold.

It may be that the rumored products from Apple and Google could be the ones to succeed. Apple is known for its ability to combine usefulness with aesthetics, and Google's deep pockets and sprawling Android user base could help put a smart watch over the top.

Until the first home-run product arrives, it's anyone's guess as to where watches will go from here. Perhaps they'll always be considered smartphone accessories, permanently tethered to a more powerful handheld device. Or maybe an innovative user interface and better battery life will result in watches that cast off master gadgets as unnecessary, and perhaps ... unfashionable.

It might be that the limited real estate of a watch is simply too difficult of a hurdle for contemporary technologies to overcome. At the moment, each manufacturer is basically going fishing – throwing out their lines of products in the hopes that at least one of them will snag a following. So far, Pebble (perhaps the biggest underdog in the entire lineup) has done best, selling more than 250,000 units in its initial offering.

If such a small company can find a niche with its digital contraptions, you can bet that bigger corporations are working to do the same.

Author's Note: How Smart Watches Work

The world has heaping trash piles of dead-on-arrival digital gadgets. Smart watches, at this point, have a ways to go before they establish themselves as must-have digital tools. To emerge from the long, long shadows of super-smart smartphones, smart watches will need a killer usability that no other device can match. Currently, that killer app has yet to emerge. I'm betting that we'll see a product or two in the next year that will radically shift our concept of timepieces, for the better. -- NC

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More Great Links

Sources

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