The Consumer Tech Tipping Point – Are Smart Watches the Next to Go?

A really interesting aspect of the process of design and development of emerging technologies is the road leading up to the magic moment of mass consumer adoption.  Sometimes things fire off really quickly. Take the Next Thermostat as an example of an industry disrupting new product that found acceptance with consumers right out of the gate.  While a high profile launch was certainly part of the product’s successful adoption,  buzz alone isn’t responsible for the company’s stellar reviews and the 4-star ratings their product has received.

While the Nest has been successful and is an example of an almost perfect product design, it is unlikely that a thermostat is going to impact our culture in the way that things like electric cars, smart phones, tablets and next-generation TVs will.

It is generally the hope of those coming out with innovative new products that their offerings will become smash hits in short order. With the advent of social media, crowd-funding sites, and an increasingly connected culture, the potential for this has increased. But as history shows, the real big ideas — the ones that transform how we behave — their tipping point can take decades.

The iPad’s journey started 26 years ago

A prime example is found in tablet computers. Today they are ubiquitous and the iPad is a household term.   The idea of a tablet computer was commercialized with the Apple Newton in 1987. 11 years later, after letting the device fail, Apple took it away from us. At the end of 2002, Microsoft and Viewsonic worked to give us the Viewsonic v1100 Windows Tablet, and while other stylus-based Windows tablets soon hit the market, slow adoption killed them off not long afterwards.

The tablet isn’t a new idea, and the concept has existed in the form of ideas long before any hardware had ever surfaced. Arthur C. Clarke’s NewsPad  concept was way ahead of its time in 1968. We went from science fiction to science and then… that cool thing that we dreamed of failed to meet our expectations. Is it all about product execution? With tablets, things basically sat stagnant between the failure of last decade’s Windows tablets and Apple’s release of the iPad.

It wasn’t as if these prior attempts at tablet computing weren’t met with enthusiasm by early adopters. A decade ago, they had a place in our homes and businesses. People loved the idea of being able to leverage the tablet form factor. But still, they failed.  They didn’t last. They didn’t become must-have for consumers. They didn’t transform how we do things.

The failure wasn’t because we didn’t want the technology.  It was more about the fact that our expectations were just too far ahead of our ability to deliver a device that wasn’t simply a kludge mess, especially at the at the price point demanded by the market.  Poor batteries, heavy cases, stylus-based input and complete lack of acceptable touch-screen functionality were all factors that contributed to the disappearance of this first wave of tablet devices.

It took years, to improve batteries, processors and screens. The price of memory fell. Advances in touch / multi-touch allowed our fingers to replace pen-like input devices, and the app-ecosystem perfected by Apple (and adopted by everyone else) gave users a plethora of software options.

Tablets are now part of our everyday lives and have started to displace traditional PCs/laptops for many. But the tablets we have today aren’t a direct evolution of the previous attempts the marketplace has seen. Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and plenty of others have released tablets of one flavor or another over the last two years. They aren’t fully featured like laptops, which would have been the logical assumption given previous attempts, including a predecessor to the iPad, the clever and interesting ModBook.

But all things evolve, and with the most recent movements seen in the tablet space, one could speculate that faster, more robust devices are indeed on the way. This is demonstrated by what Microsoft is trying to do with the Windows 8 Pro Surface tablets, the aggressive roadmaps shared by Android tablet manufacturers and speculation about Apple’s plans for a hybrid/touch-enabled Macbook of some sort. As the industry rumor mill churns, more chatter surfaces about Apple’s initiatives to bring on additional touch-centric designers and developers. Speculation is that perhaps this is aimed at continuing the success of the iOS devices as well as putting energy towards something new. Will Cupertino release a laptop/tablet hybrid? A new version of the newton? Touch enabled monitors? A gesture sensitive TV? Vehicle Infotainment? Glasses? What about Google? Samsung? Sony?

It is happening with TVs also

We also see this trend in form-factor evolution in other types of devices. The most obvious is that of connected TVs. Looking back at the failed WebTV venture and doing a relative comparison between what happened with Tablets, it is pretty easy to start to connect the dots in the story of TVs as legitimate computing / digital content consumption platforms.

The TV game is well underway, and perhaps I should focus in more detail on everything that is happening there in another post. At Roundarch Isobar, we are working with other Aegis companies (like Carat and Vizeum) to collaborate on processes and technologies that are aimed at serving a world of true media convergence – TV/Internet hybrid devices and next-generation content delivery platforms. There is an incredible amount happening in this space right now, and from what I see every day, the future of entertainment and media consumption are going to be very, very cool.  The living room is in the midst of a major technology evolution, from advanced TVs to streaming content and 2nd screen experiences with phones and tablets. We see our common definition of “content” being redefined as programming is reinvented. Everything becomes personal, adaptive, and more valuable.

But not just TVs

Where is computing going? We are in a very interesting time when technology components are getting smaller and faster, batteries and processors are cooler and almost everything ahead will be smarter and connected by default. In my recap and analysis of CES 2013, I touched on the fact that we realize that sensors are now everywhere and the “Internet of Everything” is upon us. Wearable computers aren’t close to being as powerful as our smartphones, but that is just a matter of time. Most wearables in the marketplace are small, single-point solutions that use very little battery and are generally only capable of capturing simple data and providing output via vibrations, LEDs, or through a proxy connection to a smartphone (over bluetooth, etc).

There is something to be said for the idea of leveraging the guts of a smartphone to process data from sensors and the like. It creates a little app/hardware/data ecosystem of it’s own, and in the near future, the smartphone will continue to be “the hub” of our digital lives. It makes complete sense, but our human nature will likely see us deviate a bit from this, and we will see more robust devices emerge over the next couple of years.  Through our sponsorship of the MIT Media Lab and our work with a variety of clients where we are doing design and prototyping of wearable devices, it seems we are headed into a time when everything is connected and over time, those connected “things” will individually become more powerful. It makes for some fantastic theoretical concepts around how to design systems and ideas around a future where all data can be processed and delivered in almost real-time and completely in context to physical or natural input.

The near-term is necessary to get us there. We are a short way before flexible screens are at the right price point (and are being mass produced) to see flexible screens embedded in wristbands, clothing or incorporated into other objects, but we still need to evolve our battery technology to bring safe, high capacity and low cost power sources to market that work within a tiny form factor.

Just like tablets and connected TV’s, wearables are in an evolutionary phase. Right now, they aren’t even close to being powerful enough to be leveraged for many of the tasks we currently rely on smartphones for, and there is a lot of evidence that they don’t need to be – at least right now.

The next thing to tip?

The next big thing is likely to be 3D printing. But the implications of that are far larger than media consumption, digital content and communication. 3D printing is poised to be completely disrupt manufacturing / physical goods and healthcare. For some insights into what that might mean, check out our analysis of CES 2013, where we call out 3D printing in more detail.

Apple, Google and Sony have all patented digital eyeglasses of one form or another, and Google Glass has gotten a lot of buzz by both fans and haters alike. These devices are step in step with the idea of smart watches, however less mature and with a perceived market that is smaller. Let’s face it, people would rather wear a watch than a pair of glasses — at least for now. The overall experience of an eyeglass device has potential to exceed that of any wrist-based device, as the heads-up display and real-time contextual awareness of something like Google Glass is pretty compelling.   But if you think about the long road ahead, a watch that could speak to you and respond to any command you were to give it would be a clear competitor. They aren’t the same though, and if we must evolve technology into real-time wearables, there is likely to be a place for both of them among consumers.

Could it be as mundane as a reinvented wrist watch?

Before we look at where this might go, let’s reflect on a little big of history.

In World War One, trench watches evolved from the pocket watch, which hadn’t changed much since being invented in the 1500’s. Trench watches, a transitional technology for the most part, evolved into the modern-day pocket watch and aside from a few gimmicks along the way, have remained relatively similar in form and function since the early part of the last century. While it is said Patek Phillip invented the wrist watch as a means to appeal to victorian-age women with a desire to tell time while still remaining fashionable, it was not until the functionality of a wearable timepiece became necessary during warfare that wrist watches were adopted across society.

The Trenchwatch was a big innovation back in the day. People found them hugely valuable

While still a high-end item for the most part, the industrial revolution provided the opportunity for these amazing devices to hit the mainstream and the trench watches evolved into the modern-day wrist watch. Since then, not much has really changed.

We did invent technologies that made watches more accurate and able to be powered without winding, but the general concept has really remained the same.  The last couple of decades have seen various attempts at wrist watch reinvention. Swiss watchmaker BWC announced their Liquid Crystal Quartz watch in 1971, and it began the “screenization” of timepieces moving forward.  Hamilton Pulsar P1, launched in April 1972 was really unique and extremely high-end, with a $2100 price tag.  The Pulsar used a red LED to light up the face – high tech at the time. And if you look at pilot and dive watches over the years, they’ve got all sorts of cool features (if you know what you are doing).  Not all steps forward are linear – some focus on function and others on form. Today you can buy some really interesting watches at Tokyo Flash.

Enough of it. Regardless of what we’ve seen in the past, all of the progress in watches has been in either evolutions of timekeeping and display or by replacing the watch itself with a shrunken down other type of technology. Today, watches are just as likely to be worn as jewelry as they are used to tell time, outside of the edge cases, like the pilot who’s instrumentation goes out on them and they need to avoid the Bermuda Triangle.

1982 Seiko TV Watch. Cool or Cumbersome?

Since Dick Tracy’s rocked his 2-way wrist radio in 1946, people have been thinking about packing additional technology into the wrist watch. For me, I really started thinking about this as a kid. As a 9 year old in 1982, I would have killed for the Seiko TV watch.  My first real experience as a wrist-tech early adopter was in 2000 when I was given a Casio “Wrist Camera” as a gift. It was cool, albeit limited. At the time, 120 x 160 greyscale images were a lot cooler than they are today and transfering them to my PC over a IR connection seems as ancient as smoke signals. Somewhere along the line, I also purchased a set of wrist walkie talkies that now have a special place in a drawer in my garage, I think.

Acceleration in technology is met with an evolution of mentality.

Chips are faster.  Memory is cheaper. Screens are better. Batteries are more powerful. Everything is connected.

With these facts comes a new wave of thinking around mobility and endless emerging concepts related to wearable computers.

Today, it seems we are at the cusp of the smartwatch revolution and it makes complete sense.

Let’s go back to the trench watches for a moment. They were invented because it was too cumbersome to continually pull something out from our pockets each and every time we needed to check the time. Here we are, 100 years later and we now suffer from the same problem when accessing our smartphones. How many times a day do you go digging into your pocket or bag in order to check the time, see how many emails you have, or (god forbid) check your social network feeds? For most, it is a regular thing.  While it would be great for this to not be a problem, human beings now seem to really love them some twitterin’ and facebook posting what they are eating for dinner, so our natural reaction is to appease our need for smaller, faster, and lighter computers.  Perhaps if strapping your mobile phone on your belt wasn’t a fashion faux pas, smart watches wouldn’t have a chance in the first place!

The very latest

Here is an overview of what appears to be the current state of smart watches today. While a lot is happening, we are still in a ramping phase, where nothing currently available is being considered as the next big thing. It seems to be happening though, and soon enough we will have several breakout products vying for consumers’ attention.

I’d like to think that the type of device that would jump ahead of the competition would need to include all of the functionality that is currently packed into the average smartphone. There is a problem with that, however. We can shrink components down, and in the next 5 years, a ton of progress will be made on that front. But now, there really isn’t a comparable amount of space to pack components together to house all of a smartphone’s components.  Form factor isn’t the issue though. That can be achieved by engineering.

The real issue with having a full smart-phone comparable experience in a watch has to do with the user experience. The tiny screen offers significant challenges for UI/UX design. At such a small size, relying on touch as your primary source of input isn’t ideal. In a dream-device, you’d have really incredible voice control and other sensors.  In the future, you’ll probably be able to have all this and more, and control it with your brain.  In any case, the primary failure of every one of the smartphone’s out there is their HCI models. None really do a great job and the real innovations we need to see relate to the user experience, not necessarily just the hardware available.

It’s a design and technology catch-up problem. Despite the best efforts across the industry, there just isn’t a lot you can do until we have even faster, smaller, and cooler ways to crunch data, leading to realtime computing where a device ends up more like part of your subconscious.  That requires input and output. It’s Siri on Steroids. This too will be solved, and Apple is working on it, as is Google, Microsoft and a whole range of universities and startups.  When you can speak to your data, the whole game changes and our constant need for a glass display that we interact with goes away.  Not to be too dramatic, but when this happens and our software becomes invisible to us, it enables things like Kurzweil’s singularity theory.  Ok. Moving On.

Since I started putting this write-up together a few months ago, a lot of buzz has been created around both Apple and Google’s suspected plans to develop smart watch of one sort or another. This week, a Samsung executive revealed that they are working on an entry into the wearable computing space. Without disclosing any details about their strategy, the announcement comes on the heels of the Apple and Google rumors.

Take note that Samsung isn’t new to this. The Korean company has made two previous attempts to bring smart watches to market. The first attempt came in 1999 when Samsung unveiled a device called the SPH-WP10, a wrist-based cell phone. At that time, their strategy was announced publicly that they were focused on creating a product that would appeal to “specific generations of mobile telecommunications service users,” in particular the youth market. It didn’t take off, and after a decade of no movement, Samsung made another attempt in 2009 with the S9110 Watch Phone. This device was also a full-featured phone to be worn on the wrist.

These devices didn’t fly for a variety of reasons ranging from poor battery life to unresponsive touch screens, the need for a stylus, and other factors that made them a poor experience for consumers.  The reasons why any of these products failed really comes down to one of three things, or a combination of them: 1) The product didn’t work well. 2) It was an answer looking for a problem.  3) The experience of using it had too much friction and the cons outweighed the pros.

Anyway, Samsung has been on a roll lately, leading the market in smartphones and TVs. With the recent explosion of new devices in this category, it seems Samsung is ready to take another stab at making a wrist worn device. Having seen their flexible display technology, it will be very interesting to see their designs when released.

Despite the future possibilities, a lot is happening today.  We have smartphones to act as a conduit for data and a place to offload processing and that means that until wrist-sized hardware is as poweful as your phone is today, it makes more sense to use the watch as a companion device/accessory.

The three types of smart watches available today:


1. Passive Displays: basically an accessory to another device, likely a smartphone. These provide users with a snapshot of data, news headlines, tweets, status notifications, and serve as an extended display. Control for volume, mute, call answering/hanging up and other basic features are likely to be included.

2. Phone-Only: Just the basics… No interactive screen and not an extension of another device. These devices are intended to make calls. With the addition of voice recognition and text to speech processing they could be fully controlled by speaking. This is a big advantage over some of the past attempts (even the recent Sony devices) that demonstrate the challenges users have when trying to use a touch screen that is only an inch wide and that isn’t very responsive.

3. Fully Interactive Smart Watches: This appears to be where we are headed now that Google, Apple and Samsung have joined the party. We will likely see these big players start with rock solid passive displays and as processors, batteries and screens catch up to design possibilities, fully interactive and functional devices come to fruition.

So, aside from speculation and industry buzz around big players like Apple, Google and Samsung, what other emerging devices are shooting for a share of this emerging market? There are surprisingly a lot of things available in the market today. I thought I’d share a slight range of different products/companies looking to innovate with wrist/wearable products.

Let’s take a look at a range of smart watches:

S.W.A.P – Smart Watch and Phone
Not sure this is going to really take off. Many users comment that the use of a stylus is clunky and weird. You run the risk of losing the stylus and it’s tiny size almost makes the user look like a giant when using it.


Sony – SmartWatch
Like Samsung, Sony has made attempts in this space before (and continues to), however reviews by users are less than good. One recent attempt was the Sony Ericsson LiveView, which was plagued by a variety of problems. Last year, Sony released the Sony SmartWatch. While they were ahead of their enterprise competitors, the device hasn’t lived up to expectations, including a recent release that only had Bluetooth 3 (not Bluetooth 4) as well as an odd, proprietary charging cable. Sony shouldn’t be counted out quite yet, as a safe assumption is that they are simply evolving their strategy in a changing marketplace. Check out a review over at Slash Gear ( .

3G Watches – Phone Watch
Lower tech attempt at getting a communication device on the wrist of early adopting consumers that want to emulate Dick Tracy. These devices are basically off-brand watches that double as a mobile phone. I’m not sure how well these device perform, but from the video on their Web site they appear to run an early version of Android and are touch enabled. I wouldn’t expect these devices to be high performers, but for those looking for a quad-band GSM device that can be worn on the wrist, make phone calls and access the Web or use apps, they might be the ticket.


If you haven’t heard of the Pebble, you probably don’t keep up to speed on general web happenings. Not only interesting because it is an emerging smart watch platform, but Pebble made a lot of noise in the news as it absolutely smashed records as a crowd funded project on Kickstarter. Analysts are looking at Pebble as a potential indicator of the future viability of crowd funding sites/services. If Pebble doesn’t go well the whole crowdfunding model could tank. “Pebble is like the Facebook IPO of crowd funding—they have to deliver or it will bust the [crowdfunding] marketplace,” Shervin Pishevar, a venture capitalist at Menlo Ventures, told The Wall Street Journal’s Pui Wing Tam.

Early reviews are in and people seem to love what they see. The Pebble runs apps, is designed to be customizable, and offers features like callerID, email, SMS, iMessage in iOS, calendaring, Facebook message integration, twitter, weather and other things that one would assume to be expected at this stage in the game.

The Pebble might currently be leading the today’s pack, but as noted above, the oncoming competition is strong. Maybe Sony should buy them since Pebble seems to have gotten it right from the start.


Metawatch – Strata Smartwatch
The Strata is another project that took off on Kickstarter and quickly realized it’s goal, surpassing it by almost 200% in funding dollars. Intended to work as a secondary screen for both Android and iOS devices (4s) over Bluetooth, the Strata by MetaWatch looks like a unique offering in the space. Like the Pebble, this device will allow you to use apps to see calls, SMS, schedules/appointments, email, Facebook, Twitter, weather and the other types of data that one would expect from a passive display smart watch. Designed with style and real-world use-cases in mind, the Strata is one to watch as this battle continue to plays out.

The Futaba OLED Watch
Hello future! Perhaps the most exiting somewhat-working concept/prototype watch that has been shown off is what Futaba presented at the CEATEC show in Japan last October. This device is beautiful and leverages flexible OLED screens to wrap the display around the arm. This is just a concept device and it is not clear if it will ever go into production. If it does, it will likely be more evolved than what was shown off last fall. If nothing else, this is an exciting glimpse into what might be coming. Style aside, the use of flexible OLEDs is perfect for this type of form factor. It will be exiting to see if the Japanese manufacture makes a move on US sales or partners with someone to bring this to market. Let’s hope so, as it might just make the competitive line-up more exciting.