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Evolution of the smart watch: Part 2

Benj Edwards
21 February, 2013
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Smart watch technology marches on

Since the time computers filled a room and consumed gigawatts of power, man has imagined a computer small enough to fit on a human wrist. By the 1980s, that dream had been accomplished with the creation of the “wrist computer,” although to limited effect. It would take almost three decades before the computerised watch – the “smartwatch”—would finally take centre stage.

Here’s Part 2 of a survey of smart watches throughout history, from early precursors to modern marvels. To see Part 1, click here.

World Network Limited Web-@nywhere (2001)

This obscure watch, the Web-@nywhere, appeared only briefly around 2001. Using a dock attached to a PC via its serial port, you could transfer 128KB of text from websites for later reading on the go. Of course, you would have to read that minuscule amount of text on its two-line, 18-character LCD, which sounds like an exercise in self-punishment. Web-@nywhere’s creator, Hong Kong-based World Network Limited, primarily marketed it through mail-order catalogs, which may partially explain why few folks remember it.

Photo: World Network Limited

Fossil FX2001 Wrist PDA (2002)

Stylish watchmaker Fossil got into the smart watch business in 2002 when it released the FX2001 Wrist PDA. Unlike later Fossil Wrist PDA models, the FX2001 served primarily as a complement to a Palm OS-based PDA, displaying address and date book information that you beamed via infrared link. The FX2001 could not run user-loaded apps, which limited its appeal.

Photo: Fossil

Timex Ironman Data Link USB (2003)

Timex updated its Data Link product line in a big way in 2003 by letting you load different programs, or “WristApps,” onto its Ironman Data Link USB watch. Those apps would then display on the watch’s dot-matrix LCD. Gone was the optical transfer method. In its place came a wired USB link to a PC, which served as conduit for the applications. Timex provided several different WristApps on its website, including games and fitness utilities.

Photo: Timex

Microsoft SPOT Watches (2004)

In the early 2000s, Microsoft dabbled in smart watch technology by creating Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT), a fancy marketing name for everyday appliances outfitted with embedded computers. The first application of SPOT came with watches that received wireless news and weather updates through MSN Direct, a subscription service that transmitted the information through the FM radio band in certain major cities.

Two of the first watches to use MSN Direct came from Suunto (with the n3 at left) and Fossil (with the Abacus AU4000 on the right) in 2004. MSN Direct never quite caught on, and Microsoft shut down the service in 2008.

Photos: Suunto, Fossil

Fossil FX2008 Wrist PDA (2005)

During the same year it launched its first Wrist PDA (2002), Fossil announced a more complex wrist computer that ran the Palm OS operating system. As such, it could run just about any Palm-based app, making it a very versatile smart watch. Problems with production delayed the actual release of the Palm-based Wrist PDA until early 2005, when it launched to mostly lackluster reviews as the FX2008.

Photo: Fossil

Citizen i:Virt W700 (2007)

While Fossil created the first smartwatch that served as an extension of a PDA, Citizen created the first major smartwatch to pull data from cell phones using Bluetooth. Its first entry in that category came as the i:Virt W700, released in Japan in 2007. Citizen continued to refine its Bluetooth-enabled smart watches over the next three years, but none of them made much impact on the US market.

Photo: Citizen

Sixth-generation iPod nano with Griffin Slap (2010)

Strangely, the modern smart watch era began not with the launch of a smart watch, but with the release of the diminutive, square-shaped sixth-generation iPod nano in 2010. Soon after its launch, iPod accessory maker Griffin Technologies announced a new Nano case, the Slap, that allowed users to wear the Nano on the wrist like a wristwatch.

Only one month later, a Kickstarter project called “TikTok + LunaTik” that aimed to provide watch-like bands for the nano, raised almost US$1 million, breaking a new record for Kickstarter projects and significantly pushing the crowd-funding platform into the mainstream. Since then, numerous smart watch prototypes that look suspiciously like iPod nanos with wrist bands have shown up, and now people are wondering if Apple might create its own smartwatch.

Photo: Apple

Sony SmartWatch (2012)

In 2010, Sony Ericsson released the LiveView, a tiny OLED-based wrist-mounted display that linked to smartphones running Android via Bluetooth. Critics didn’t like it. Two years later, Sony revised the concept with the SmartWatch, which did mostly the same thing, and critics absolutely hated it. Still, both are notable for being smart watch attempts from a major electronics manufacturer – even if neither has been successful.

Photo: Sony

Pebble E-Paper Watch (2013)

In early 2012, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Pebble Technology began a humble Kickstarter project with the aim of bringing a prototype E-Paper smartwatch to the market. The Pebble immediately gained attention for its low-power e-ink display, which allows for a very long battery life, and seamless integration with both iPhone and Android smartphones via Bluetooth. It can also run custom applications and, of course, tell the time.

Pebble Technology asked for $100,000 on Kickstarter, but it raised more than US$10 million, delaying the launch until January of this year when the Pebble finally shipped in very limited numbers. Between the Pebble and the recent media frenzy over a potential iWatch, one can’t help but wonder if the smart watch’s time has finally come.

Photo: Pebble

 By Benj Edwards (@benjedwards), TechHive.

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