Smartwatch 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 computerized watch—the "smartwatch"—would finally take center stage. Here's a survey of smartwatches throughout history, from early precursors to modern marvels.
Mimo Loga (ca. 1941)
In the 1940s, the first calculator watches appeared. The Mimo Loga, seen here, had embedded movable logarithmic tables on the rim of the watch's face that functioned much like a slide rule. It allowed the wearer to perform simple calculations on the go. Although non-electronic, it was the first time a wristwatch would assist in performing calculations. It would not be the last.
Hamilton Pulsar (1972) and Time Computer/Calculator (1975)
Another stop on the way to the modern smartwatch came with the release of the world’s first electronic digital watch, the Hamilton Pulsar, in 1972. With the push of a button, it told the time in red digits rendered on a primitive LED display.
Three years later, Hamilton released the world’s first electronic calculator watch, the Time Computer/Calculator, which required users to input numbers with a stylus because the number buttons on its face were small and recessed.
Seiko D409 Dot Matrix LCD Memory Chronograph (1983)
In 1982, several watch manufacturers demonstrated wristwatch prototypes that could store arbitrary information that the wearer added. In 1983, Seiko released the first mass-produced databank watches, the D409 series. Serving as electronic memo pads, early D409 models could store 112 characters in memory for later recall. Users input the characters via a stylus on a novel touch screen LCD near the bottom of the watch face.
Companies continued making similar databank watches that stored memos and phone numbers throughout the 1980s, but few of them qualify as smartwatches. Still, they demonstrated user input and memory storage.
Seiko UC-2000 (1984)
Around the time it introduced the D409 watches, Seiko also released the Data 2000, which allowed users to input notes into memory via an external keyboard. The following year, Seiko went one step further with the UC-2000, seen here, which worked with an optional keyboard/printer computer unit that used the watch as a display. While connected, you could write and run BASIC programs or load programs from ROM cartridges that displayed on the watch face. Detached, the UC-2000 could display memos, but could not run programs. It was almost a smartwatch, but not quite.
Epson RC-20 (1985)
In 1985, Epson released what was probably the first true stand-alone computer watch, the Zilog Z80-based RC-20. Users could load different programs onto the RC-20 using a ROM-loaded accessory, then run them on the watch’s dot-matrix LCD display without any tethers or support units. In a sense, it was the first watch that could run apps.
Timex Data Link 150 (1994)
Many digital watch models of the 1980s integrated databank functionality, whether programmed through keyboard input or computer transfer. The Timex Data Link 150 was the first databank watch to support wireless data transfer between computer and watch. In this case, you could transfer appointment and alarm times from a PC to the watch via an optical sensor on the watch’s face. You simply held the watch up to a PC monitor and special software on the PC made the monitor flash in a pattern that the watch could translate into data. Still, the Data Link 150 could not run programs.
Seiko Ruputer (1998)
After the Epson RC-20, it would be more than a decade before any company significantly extended the wrist computer concept. In 1998 in Japan, Seiko released the Ruputer, a wristwatch-size computer. At its heart lay a 16-bit, 3.6MHz CPU; 128KB of RAM; and 2MB of storage. You could load any program written for the platform through transfer from a PC and see the results on the Ruputer’s 102-by-64-pixel LCD.
While an impressive technical accomplishment, the Ruputer remained a niche product. The Ruputer appeared in the U.S. almost two years later as the Matsucom onHand PC.
IBM Linux Watch (2000) & IBM WatchPad 1.5 (2001)
IBM significantly advanced smartwatch research in 2000 when it created its Linux Watch (left), the first smartwatch to run the Linux operating system. It packed 8MB of RAM and 8MB of flash memory into a small package run off a lithium-polymer battery.
The following year, IBM collaborated with Citizen to create the WatchPad 1.5 prototype. That watch also ran Linux, only this time on a 74MHz ARM CPU. Neither watch appeared as a commercial product, but they served as important proofs-of-concept for the smartwatch category.
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 smartwatch 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.
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.
Microsoft SPOT Watches (2004)
In the early 2000s, Microsoft dabbled in smartwatch 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 smartwatch. 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.
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 smartwatches over the next three years, but none of them made much impact on the U.S. market.
Sixth-generation iPod nano with Griffin Slap (2010)
Strangely, the modern smartwatch era began not with the launch of a smartwatch, 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 $1 million, breaking a new record for Kickstarter projects and significantly pushing the crowd-funding platform into the mainstream. Since then, numerous smartwatch 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.
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 smartwatch attempts from a major electronics manufacturer—even if neither has been successful.
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 $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 smartwatch’s time has finally come.