Smart watches could be the next big thing in the consumer electronics market, with some predictions estimating that 5 million watches will ship in 2014, but they need to get smarter to really take off. So far we've seen smartphone accessories, with standard features including Bluetooth connectivity, a remote music player, apps like Facebook and Twitter, GPS capabilities, and, of course, a clock, but can these watches become smart machines?
Technology research firm Gartner considers a device a smart machine if it does things we thought only humans could do and has the ability to understand natural language, interact with humans, and learn.
Devices like the smartwatch, smartphone, and wearables like Google Glass currently act as digital assistants, but they could become smart machines if they interact better with humans and learn to anticipate our needs, Gartner reports.
"I think there will be lots of innovation around smart watches and other wearables, but even something like Google Glass will only be a smart machine if it has learning capability," said Kenneth Brant, research director at Gartner. "We expect digital assistants will become smarter through 2020, and many more will be smart machines with greater natural language capability and greater learning capability."
Some of the major smartphone players have already released smartwatches that serve as a second screen to receive notifications and use specific apps without having to use a phone. So far, most of the watches are compatible with Android devices only.
Sony was ahead of the game, releasing its $149.99 SmartWatch in early 2012, and it now offers the SW2 (SmartWatch 2). The SW2 has added NFC (Near Field Communication) pairing and the ability to act as a remote for your smartphone camera.
Samsung recently joined the market with its $299 Galaxy Gear, which seems to be most publicized smartwatch to date. Galaxy Gear offers a large Amoled screen, single-core 800 MHz Exynos processor, and a camera in the wristband, which sets it apart from previous smart watches. You can also view photos, find your phone, use Samsung's S Voice, and make hands-free calls (as seen in the ad below).
The company recently announced that Galaxy Gear sales have exceeded even internal expectations, which is good news for the market.
Even though Qualcomm is a name usually found on the inside of a smartphone, not the outside, it has released its own Toq Smartwatch for $349.99. The company is taking the opportunity to showcase its technology to attract companies to build a watch based on its design.
Featuring touch buttons in the wristband that also houses the battery, the Toq incorporates Qualcomm's AllJoyn messaging protocol, WiPower LE wireless charging, and Mirasol display. Users can receive messages and send canned responses set up in the connected phone, charge the device by setting it on the wireless charger, and listen to music with a Bluetooth-connected wireless stereo headset (available next year). The reflective MEMS-based display is a low-power solution that uses interferometric modulation (IMOD) technology. It is always on and uses ambient light, so it's easy to see and doesn't need to be woken up to check the time.
Offering a second screen for your smartphone isn't the only kind of smart watch out there. Some are designed specifically for working out, like the Adidas miCoach Smart Run. The Android-powered watch features a wireless music player (to be used with Bluetooth headphones), training and coaching apps, a GPS chip with Bluetooth and WiFi, an optical heart-rate monitor, an accelerometer, and a TI OMAP4430 processor. Nissan has also announced a smart watch that connects car and driver by displaying vehicle performance analysis, the driver's vital signs, and their social media presence. The watch, intended for racing, is still in development.
While there are many other designs and products out there, the immediate question about the smart watch market is whether the rumors are true that industry giants like Google, Microsoft, and Apple are working on such devices. Involving more operating systems and search technologies like Siri and Google Now in a smart watch could enable users to get information even faster and make devices smarter.
"The question is can it learn about your habits and continue to learn about the types of questions you're asking it," said Gartner's Brant. "If as you ask questions of it, the machine has the ability to learn, a smartphone or a smart watch will truly be a smart machine."
Will smartwatches be game-changing devices that can do even more than Dick Tracy would have imagined? Maybe not this year, but they've arrived, and the potential to wear a smart machine on your wrist is there.
"Digital assistants are doing things we didn't think machines could do years ago," said Brant. "I don't think it's a question of can it be done, but when will it be done."
This article orignally appeared in EBN's sister publication EDN as part of the Hot Technologies: Looking ahead to 2014 feature, where EDN editors examine some of the hot trends and technologies in 2013 that promise to shape technology news in 2014 and beyond.