Watches Return as Wireless Wearables Materialize

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Commentary of wireless watches.

The wrist watch almost disappeared as many people turned to their cell phone to tell time.  With super accurate time readily available from the cellular network, the inconvenience of keeping the watch on time went away.  Now, we are beginning to see the resurgence of watch-wearing as a new breed of wearable wireless watches come on the scene.

I am one of those who ditched the watch I wore for most of my life.  I wore mostly the old reliable Timex models.  During the digital watch revolution, I wore several different types including the old LED Pulsar.  My long time favorite was Casio’s calculator watch with its tiny but very useable keyboard and a stop watch for timing my runs.  That watch is still working after several decades surviving at least four broken plastic bands and as many battery changes.

My most recent watch is an “atomic” model that automatically syncs to and becomes updated by the NIST’s WWVB time-tick radio station.  WWVB pumps out 70 kW ERP of power on 60 kHz (yes, kHz) into an antenna array covering many acres to blanket the U.S.  Its time signal is synched to an atomic clock that is kept dead-on-accurate to better than 1 in 1012 parts.  The watch also updates itself for daylight savings time and leap years but not time zones.  A cool watch (radio) for only $20.

Watches have always been fashion statements and status symbols.  And watches are major jewelry.  There is the prestigious Rolex and the many Swiss timepieces that cost thousands or even tens of thousands worn by the affluent.  And let’s not forget the specialty watches for sports and industries.  The orange-faced Doxa dive watch and the Breitling navigation models are popular examples.  These unique watches boast tiny specialized dials that are barely visible to the human eye.  I am not sure where Mickey Mouse watches fit in all this but I still see them now and again.  The latest specialty watches are designed for sports and fitness fans to monitor pulse rate and other bodily factors.  Watches didn’t go away completely and it looks like we will see a resurgence in the near future.

The new class of wrist watches are wireless.  They connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth like a headset.  These watches tell time, of course, but also serve as a peripheral that makes your phone more useful.  The so-called smartwatches let you use most of the features of your smartphone without ever taking it out of your pocket or purse.  Most of them can make phone calls, receive calls, receive texts and email, access the Internet and social media.  Some even feature a camera or fitness monitoring functions.  The screens are typically in the 2 inch diagonal range and some are touch screens.  Some are also voice activated.  Many have accelerometer and gyroscope sensors for gesture functionality. 

Some of those offering smartwatches are Pebble, Sony, Samsung, and Qualcomm.  PH Technical Labs has their Hands-On Talk (HOT) watch in the works and Apple is said to be working on an iWatch.  Surely others are in development.  Prices are in the $150 to $300 range, about the price of the latest smartphone with a new contract.  Keep your eyes open for developments in this area.  Watches are far more acceptable than other goofy wearable devices like the disturbing and beyond-creepy Google Glasses. 

The wrist watch format may not appeal to everyone and it does not solve any problem other than allowing you to check the time more conveniently and letting you keep the phone in your pocket rather than taking it out for every alert. But it will no doubt attract many gadget-hungry geeks looking for the next best thing.  It is not yet possible to put the entire smartphone is a wrist package.  It is just too small.  We will still have to wait a while longer for the true Dick Tracy TV watch of the 1940’s.  The watch extension makes lots of sense.  I predict this will be a successful niche even though it is just one more thing to recharge or put a new battery in.  I may even buy one for myself.  But now instead of brain cancer concerns will I need to worry about wrist cancer from the constant Bluetooth RF signals?

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Lou Frenzel

Lou Frenzel is the Communications Technology Editor for Electronic Design Magazine where he writes articles, columns, blogs, technology reports, and online material on the wireless, communications...
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