Right now, smartwatches really don’t offer the features that elevate them to useful status. Many seem like a $200 extension of your smartphone that really doesn’t add a lot of value—you’re really just moving a tiny portion of your phone’s functionality to your wrist. Sure, smartwatches with voice-control features like Google Now reportedly work really well for basic commands like sending messages, getting directions, or checking pedometers, but when is it ever that tough to pull your phone out of your pocket, and is the small added convenience worth a couple hundred bucks?
For many, the answer is no. Smartwatches really need to have some innovative technology built in before they become truly useful.
Here’s what we’d put in the ultimate smartwatch.
Glass covers made from Gorilla Glass and Sapphire have come a long way, but for smartwatches to really be practical they need to stand up to damage from different causes and environments. For those of us that are more active, these things will need to be able to handle anything from scratching to full water submersion and even extreme environments. Yes, there are smart watches like the Galaxy Gear Live that can actually be submerged in water, though they’re only listed as water-resistant, not waterproof, which isn’t useful for things like water sports. I can imagine a smartwatch that divers could use to easily adjust and monitor their equipment or researchers could use in harsh environments like Antarctica.
Whether it’s in the ocean, the sky, or the heat of the desert, there could be hundreds of uses in a variety of environments, assuming the hardware can handle it.
MIT researches have a developed a thermoelectric bracelet that helps regulate a person’s temperature by jolting their skin with pulses of hot or cold. This doesn’t actually make your body cooler, but it does trick your mind into thinking you’re cooler. And according to MIT, it really works. Users of prototypes have reported actually feeling cooler while using these bracelets. If these features could be put into our smartwatches, we’d all feel comfortable, and likely save some energy turning off our AC units while we’re at it. Smartwatches need useful features like these to really get moving.
There are currently analog watches that wind themselves as your arm moves. Meanwhile, companies are developing dance floors that power themselves on kinetic energy. I can’t see why these two concepts couldn’t be married within a smartwatch that could actually charge itself as you move around. There’s no need to charge a device that’s capable of being charged by your own movements, so why not add that in?
Ultra-sound bug repellent
Imagine if your smartwatch emitted a high-frequency noise that warded off mosquitos, flies, and other pests. It would be great, right? Sadly, the science on this says that devices like these don’t work. Despite that, there are still apps available that promise that mosquitos will be scared off by sounds (pro tip: don’t buy these). At any rate, this article is about possibilities. A smartwatch that actually does emit a signal that scares off mosquitos and other pests could be extremely useful for those that spend a lot of time outdoors, or even for those in areas where insect-spread diseases like malaria and West Nile virus are still a large concern.
Your phone’s camera can act as a scanner for a number of things when powered by various apps. QR codes, barcodes—even everyday objects can be scanned and searched using your phone’s camera. The best smartwatch would have such a scanner. Suppose you could scan a barcode at the grocery store and pull up nutrition information instantly on your wrist. Or suppose you needed to quickly scan some text and save it to a note-taking app on your phone with a quick button press. If you take things one step further you could have an iris or 3D scanner that could have a number of applications as well.
Pedometers, heart-rate monitors, and other bio-tracking tools are already available in smartwatches, but we can do better. Recently, a California company called Scanadu funded development of a medical device called the Scanadu Scout through Indiegogo. Once developed, this device will ostensibly provide you with body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, oximetry, ECG, and HRV information, simply by placing it on your forehead. Now, imagine this device cooked into your smartwatch, where it could provide you with all of your vitals at a glance. This could be particularly beneficial for the military, especially if biometric information could be shared between devices and soldiers. This might allow soldiers in the field, or at command centers to see which of their fellow soldiers have been injured or are under high levels of stress through alerts and notifications.
British firm Musion, the folks behind Coachella’s now famous holographic resurrection of rapper Tupac, are making massive strides in holographic technology and creating some stunning visual exhibits. Right now, these holographic displays require a lot of equipment and months of planning to put on, though the technology is steadily improving. Let’s cross our fingers that this technology will make its way to the communications world so we can speak to 3D holographic representations of anyone on the other line, right on our wrists.
There are currently a number of bars that employ radiofrequency identification (RFID) technology to allow patrons to pour and track their own drinks. This frees up wait staff to focus on more complex orders while the beer drinkers can take care of themselves. Right now, many of these bars use special wristbands or cards that are linked to the patron’s bar tab. Whenever a patron wants a beer, they grab a glass, scan their wristband on the tap, and pour away. On top of that, you’ve probably also noticed a number of places that now allow you to pay with your smartphone using things like Google Wallet. What would be great is if all of these things were cooked into your smartwatch. This way you can literally buy a beer (or whatever) by waving your hand—could anything be cooler? Unlike some of the other items on this list, this one is actually quite plausible.
A design firm called Pensa has developed a piece of external hardware called the GoTenna, which pairs with most Android and iOS messaging apps. Messages are sent via Bluetooth from the phone to the GoTenna, which then converts the message to an analog version that’s sent over radio signals to receiving users, who must also be using the GoTenna. This device require you to have the GoTenna and a smartphone to send messages, but imagine if the GoTenna was built into a smartwatch to allow people to communication during emergencies, without relying solely on traditional methods. You never know what type of disaster will happen when and being able to communicate in emergencies is a useful for users of any type of device.
The bottom line
If we tried to add all of the above technologies into one watch the way they are now, you’d need a wagon to carry your arm around, but hopefully as these technologies develop, we’ll be able to make them smaller, and perhaps one day cram a ton of functionality into one wrist-based do-it-all device that either pairs with our smartphones, or perhaps does everything on its own. Sure, smartwatches aren’t spectacular right now, but give them some time and some innovation and we might all be drooling for one.
Photo credit: John Biehler via Flickr.