And now the fun topic: wrist wearable tech in general. I think there’s some basic keys to get down before anything else:

Persistent display
It’ll be pointless without this, any purported convenience factor goes out the window if you can’t just glance at it at any time. There could be tricks to get around it (based on movement1, or face tracking), but I can’t think of anything consistent enough. E-paper seems to be the current method of choice for other products due to the efficiency, but its limitations make it far from ideal.

Battery life
Related to the above, it’s got to last at least a day with the display always on, ideally it’d be good enough for multiple days. Something that would also help is a convenient charge method, like inductive charging or a simple dock, just take it off and place it down. A little something to reduce friction in common tasks goes a long way.

Persistent connection
If this is going to be used in conjunction with another device, the data all has to be up to date to be useful. Something like periodic coalesced updating might work to reduce battery usage while appearing close enough to live.

Comfortable and unobtrusive
A pretty basic one, but hugely important considering it’ll be on your wrist the whole day.

Usable screen
This can be at odds with the whole comfort thing above without getting creative. Nike’s trick was limiting the displayed data to just a few letters and numbers at a time and scrolling between them, allowing them to use a tiny display.

Affordable
If something is going to be a peripheral device there’s going to be some practical limit on pricing due to that.

A lot of that seems to be in conflict, with almost everything revolving around battery life. The comfort factor restricts how much battery can be stuffed in there, and that battery will restrict the display and connection possibilities, albeit the latter should hopefully be addressed with Bluetooth 4.0.

Looking back at the FuelBand for a second, it hits on the battery life, comfort, usable screen, and affordability, but that’s because of how limited it is. A smart watch probably wouldn’t able to get away with the same compromises simply because they’ll be expected to do more…how much more is a big wide open question. The obvious minimum stuff:

Time – The historical wrist worn device feature.
Notifications – Mostly because we normals can’t think of anything better.
Data display – …basically just another form of notifications in a sense, more persistent live data rather than periodic alerts.

Of course that’s as a peripheral device to a smartphone. Ideally it’d be more than just an external remote display for your phone, and if one were to act as a standalone phone it’d obviously require more.

Phone
The most obvious one for a phone. The form factor would make it a bit awkward for traditional phone use (hold device up to head), but doable if necessary. Luckily there’s some existing workarounds: speakerphone or Bluetooth headsets2.

Text communications (messages, email, social crap)
One hard part is composing text on a tiny wrist device. Voice recognition is the obvious answer (particularly with Siri and Google Now and whatnot), but that completely negates the aurally covert nature of messaging. Precomposed text clips are another, if temporary, silent workaround. There’s a few possibilities for fancy new smart keyboard designs, like one of those smarter autocompleting concepts floating around a while back.

And I’m just thinking of how to type stuff up. The display part is relatively simple for a single message, but texting and email and whatever else involves more than looking at a single message at a time. And when it comes to typing, along with whatever key interface, you also need to be able to see what you’re typing. It’ll be interesting to see how companies tackle this stuff, if at all.3

Media playback
A catchall category, but obviously there’s many factors within. Music should be the easiest one considering music players have been miniaturized for years, including to wristwatch size already. Viewing photos and videos should be fine, if just not ideal due to the likely small screen size…but the idea of having a tiny streaming source on your wrist is kind of cool. Hit a little button on your wrist, boom! Streaming music/video to your stereo/TV!

Camera
People use their phones take pictures. A lot. A wrist based camera could both increase the use, and decrease general quality of pics taken (both objective and subjective) more than ever. The arm might be good for stability (versus holding something out with your fingers), but the viewfinder will be small, and camera quality may be limited due to the comfort factor limiting housing size.

Everything else?
I’d put the internet as its own category, but the web is cramped enough on a phone as it is, even with mobile sites. I can’t imagine the web will be pushed as a feature, albeit I expect some random devs to come out with browsers if possible.

And those devs can be a big key since they’ll come up with random cool stuff that no one else will. There may or may not be a killer app, but each one will add value to the platform. The quality of the developer tools and accessible hardware could be a bigger deal than it is on the existing smartphone platforms, just because things will be so much more functionally limited out of the box.

Some other useful stuff:

GPS
Will a watch battery be enough to power GPS on top of everything else? If so it might be able to power a really convenient GPS implementation (…barring map/direction quality). Input a destination with your voice, simple screen and speakers guide you on your way. Same as anything else, but always being out on your wrist you can just quickly glance down for reference.

Fitness
Like the FuelBand, but more! Good smartwatches with good enough fitness tracking implementations could do to FuelBand (and others) what smartphones did to dedicated music players.


So will smartwatches be the next big thing? I’m not sure what to think. There’s a lot of basic technical hurdles for now, those are only temporary. It’s the implementation questions that are a bigger concern…and for some features the best implementation might just be omitting the feature entirely.

The whole thing could be a practice of working within limitations, obviously some companies are better at that than others. The question then becomes whether people want whatever limited product, which is why I’m not sure about them as standalone devices.4 As peripherals the limitations would be more understandable, they’re not meant to do everything so they won’t be expected to do everything.

And there’s a different angle I completely forgot about: the general watch and fashion market. I imagine this is substantial enough on its own to merit attention, even if the ubiquity of phones has likely hurt watches a bit. But it plays nicely into the limited peripheral role as above, as people would be getting it as an accessory rather than as the primary device.

  1. Supposedly Samsung’s will use motion detection “to switch it on when it is moved up towards the eye.” Again I have my doubts on how well relying on something like that will work, due to false positives and the user likely wanting to look at the watch (i.e. it’ll already be visible at times) without moving their arm up.
  2. Well there’s the possibility of wired headsets too but I imagine that’d be too inconvenient to rely on as the main method of voice communications.
  3. You know someone will make a Bluetooth keyboard or some other external peripheral.
  4. Extremely unlikely alternative wacky view: smartwatches become the new dumbphones, but with connectivity to other smart devices like iPads and iPods.