Remember Dick Tracy? He was a comic strip detective with a high-tech wristwatch that let him talk to the police (by 1964, he could video conference with them). A quick Google search on "watch phones" will lead you to a number of commercially available products and prototypes of video conferencing watch phones that have been around for over a year.
Whether or not an "iWatch" is part of Apple's game plan, the basic technology seems to be there. For example, Apple not only has the phone technology down pat, they recently released the FaceTime video conferencing system supported by the new iPhone 4 and iPod touch. It's true that the iPhone is a little large for your wrist, but Apple is pretty good at miniaturization. Just take a look at the new, almost watch-sized version of the iPod nano. Products from other vendors are also demonstrating the potential for ultra-small solutions, taking us closer to a future first described in a 1930's comic strip. This article looks at a few of these.
Small, wireless speakerphones
The ZOMM is a small disc-shaped Bluetooth speakerphone that's also billed as a "wireless leash and a personal safety device." Weighing in at just 0.49-oz. the ZOMM can be attached to your key ring or worn on the included belt clip. Just touch the backlit Z button in the center of the disc to quickly answer a call, or press it twice to send the call to voicemail.
The product's "wireless leash" concept is great. Imagine you were that unfortunate Apple engineer who accidently left the prototype of a yet-to-be-released iPhone 4 at a bar. If you had a ZOMM paired with the prototype, as soon as you walked 30 feet away from the iPhone, ZOMM would alert you by vibrating, sounding an audible alarm, and flashing its blue light.
I did run into a problem when I was using the iPhone 4 to record video. Video recording uses a great deal of the phone's processing power. The ZOMM doesn't get a response from the iPhone, so it thinks that the devices have been separated. The alert then goes off until you touch the ZOMM's button.
Unfortunately, ZOMM does not pair with the iPad because the iPad requires a Bluetooth speaker profile and the ZOMM acts only as a Bluetooth headset. It's a slight distinction, but it makes a difference in this case. Perhaps that will change if ZOMM changes their profile or the iPad expands its Bluetooth support.
Finally, the ZOMM acts as a panic button in emergencies. Hold the Z button down for nine seconds and a loud siren sound is played. Keep holding it down and it will automatically call an emergency number that you can assign. When someone answers, you can ask for help or have ZOMM play a message you have prerecorded.
ZOMM is powered by a rechargeable battery that gives you two hours of talk time, which works out to be about three days of normal use. It's probably best for short calls versus marathon conference calls.
Atomic 9 BT Wristband Speakerphone
I got a chance to try out the Atomic 9 Bluetooth Wristband Speakerphone on my iPhone 4 and iPad; my colleague, Andrew Weiner, tested it with his iPod Touch 2G (with Skype) and on a Blackberry Curve 8330. All devices paired with the speakerphone within seconds.
The Wristband Speakerphone includes audio caller ID and voice-activated commands to place and answer phone calls (for phones that support those features) as well as vibration and sound alert options. The device works up to 30 feet away from your cell phone and will beep when you walk out of range. Its battery recharges via USB and provides up to 4 hours of talk-time and 160 hours of standby time. You can use it to play music as well as answer calls.
The speakerphone plays iPhone ringtones when a call comes in, so you can identify the caller by the ringtone associated with his or her contact listing. The device has limited text-to-voice capability; when a call comes in, you can touch one of the volume keys and the device will "speak" the phone number. It would be great if a future version of the produce would also speak the contact's name, but for now you will need to customize ringtones for true caller ID.
Neither the ZOMM nor the Atomic 9 device displays the time. However, you can use the Atomic 9 device with the iPhone's Voice Control feature to ask, "What time is it?" The iPhone will "speak" the answer through the Wristband Speakerphone. Unfortunately, you'll have to experiment to get the timing just right. Holding down the Atomic 9's main button for one or two seconds redials the last number, but three seconds activates Voice Control. Four seconds and you've turned it off. I understand the desire to minimize the number of buttons on the iPhone and other small devices, but now you need the sensitivity of a locksmith to time your button clicks.
Mini MP3 Players
Apple embraces the "smaller is better" philosophy with its new iPod nano. It's not as feature-rich as an iPhone—you can't make phone calls or run apps—but it's great for listening to iTunes music and even has an FM radio built into it. What it does demonstrate is Apple's ability to cram a lot of features into a small, watch-sized device. Steve Jobs even remarked that a colleague plans to wear one on a wristband, displaying the nano's built-in clock app.
I don't know if Mr. Jobs' colleague intends to use this product, but Incipio's recently released Linq ($24.99, myincipio.com) would certainly work. The small, rubberized case protects the nano and lets you access its touch screen. It straps to your wrist for easy access. Linq looks like a winner.
As mentioned, the new nano doesn't offer the ability to run third-party apps, but neither did the original iPhone. I know the small screen and relatively limited memory would present a challenge to app developers, but it also provides an opportunity for a new breed of nano-sized apps.
The final challenge for these devices would be power. A typical digital watch can be used for months or even years without replacing the battery. But a hypothetical iWatch with phone, music, and app capability would require a lot more power. By necessity, such a device would have a small battery and require charging every night. I'd love to see Apple incorporate cordless charging technology into all its mobile products. Currently, that technology is used in products like PowerMat ($49-$99, powermat.com), which I've used to charge my iPhone and Nintendo DS. All you do is set the device down on the PowerMat and it charges it wirelessly via an electromagnetic field it generates. Unfortunately, current technology requires that you slip the iPhone into a wireless receiver case. Some phones can use a PowerMat replacement battery, but Apple doesn't allow that. It would be terrific if such charging technology could be built directly into the iPhone—or iWatch.
I still want a wrist-based camera… but make it optional!
With a few more hardware features (Wi-Fi, a speaker/microphone and/or Bluetooth) and the software to support it, a future version of the iPod nano could make VoIP-based FaceTime calls via Wi-Fi. Of course, without a camera, the video would be one-way, but perhaps that's the way to go. Cell phones with cameras are already banned in gyms and other locations. I want to see my contact, but I'm not sure they would want to see the view from my watch. Although I don't have a nose quite as "impressive" as Dick Tracy's, considering where a watch is usually held (looking up towards your nostrils!) a camera might not be desirable. And there are times early in the morning or late at night when I don't want to subject a caller to my image. At the very least, I'd want to be able to turn the camera off quickly!