Building a Better Smartwatch

6 Aug, 2013

After living with the Pebble smart watch on my wrist, designing a Pebble watch app, and immersing myself in smart watch news, rumors, and trends, I wanted to compile a design wish list for upcoming smart watch manufacturers. You hear that Apple, Microsoft, Google, Samsung…even you Pebble (if you’re around long enough for a v.2)? These are the features you’ll need to include in your smart watch in order to make it a must have for everyone—not just gadget geeks.

Smartwatch design

What Pebble Did Right

Although my review of the Pebble Watch is critical, I am a big fan of what they were able to accomplish with their Kickstarter project. In addition to racking up over $10 million in funding, and launching a global brand, there are some things that they definitely got right with the design of the initial Pebble watch:

Now that we’ve established a solid foundation with Pebble’s positive attributes, here’s a breakdown of the features that should be included in any upcoming smart watch that wants to be a contender in the wearable marketplace.

Voice Assistant

Voice is the killer feature of any future smart watch

Apple and Google are pushing voice interaction via Siri and Google Now respectively—making natural language recognition smarter, more powerful, and more useful on mobile devices and beyond.

Space is obviously extremely limited on a watch face—much more so than a phone screen. Any kind of manual data input on a watch beyond a couple simple taps or swipes is a non-starter. Voice solves that data entry challenge and it is the killer feature of any future smart watch. The ability to speak through the watch for phone conversations, to dictate & send messages, control connected devices (including smartphones, tablets, televisions, etc.), and process answers to user queries e.g., “How’s the weather in Boston?” or “What did the NASDAQ close at today?” would make the watch very compelling.

There is a watch being developed called Kreyos that claims to use voice commands, but I’m skeptical about the reliability. Voice interaction, especially via natural language, is extremely difficult to do, and even harder to do well. I’d put my money on Google or Apple getting this right long before a small start-up.

Better Than Bluetooth?

As a companion device, the watch needs a means of communicating with the smartphone. Currently, this is done with Bluetooth which, in my experience, kind of sucks. For one, having Bluetooth constantly enabled quickly drains my phone battery. Bluetooth connections also tend to be unreliable—dropping frequently, and range is limited (if I set my phone on the kitchen table and go upstairs to the bedroom, the connection drops). Having to keep the phone on (or very close to) my person at all times kind of defeats the purpose of having the watch.

Unfortunately, our options are limited here. Wifi (Apple already has a built in data streaming solution over Wifi with Air Play) can clearly support our data needs, but it’s battery intensive, and, more importantly, losing the ability to connect the devices when the user is out of range of a Wifi network is unacceptable.

Perhaps a combination of Bluetooth and Wifi would work? A cellular data connection? Maybe something completely different (these types of data connections aren’t my speciality). The bottom line is the connection needs to be reliable, have a decent range, and be robust enough to support streaming voice data.

Smartwatch Design

Reliable Notifications

As I stated, the watch works extremely well as a glanceable extension of the smartphone interface. It’s great for notifications and push alerts when it’s working. I suspect that as the major players in mobile produce their own versions of smart watches, the device integration will be seamless when syncing across the same operating system (iOS phone to iOS watch, Android phone to Android watch, etc.).

Pebble could step up here as a cross-platform/OS contender if they’re able to fix the challenges they currently have retrieving notifications from iOS.

Deeper App Integration

In addition to notifications, giving the watch access to deeper app integration could be huge. The Pebble watch can already control music apps (play/pause, rewind, fast forward in addition to displaying artist, song, and album info). There is also integration with RunKeeper, displaying your workout data, time, and distance, while you run. These types of simple interfaces that allow the watch to display data from a smartphone app, the Internet or even control other devices could really invigorate the developer community and create entirely new uses for a smart watch. Think Android widgets on your watch face.

Full Color Touch Screen Display

The last piece of the puzzle is the display. The two color backlit e-paper Pebble display works well, but it already looks antiquated in our current world of hi-def retina displays.

Most of us have also grown accustomed to being able to touch our screens, and the non-touch surface of the Pebble (while functional) feels like a step backward. In addition to one or more hardware buttons the screen would ideally be capable of detecting touch input—further opening up the prospects of app innovation.

What Else?

That’s my list for a game changing smart watch. Can you think of any other must have features for your perfect smart watch: NFC? a camera? a flashlight?

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