Smart Watches: A History of Time

By following the sun’s shadow across the ground, Egyptians were the first people to “tell time”. As we began to migrate at a faster rate, time needed to travel with us; the portable clock was born–evolving from handheld watches like Germany’s 16th century clock-watch, to England’s 17th century pocket watch. It all changed in 18th century France though, when our modern-day wristwatch came to be. Until the 1900’s, wristwatches were mainly seen as a fashion statement, yet quickly, companies updated them to have function beyond telling time. This rapid development created a new genre of watches coined “smart watches”.

In 1927, the Plus Four Wristlet Route Indicator was created. Although “smart watch” is defined as “a mobile device with a touchscreen display, designed to be worn on the wrist,” the Plus Four was “smart” in a unique way. Before there was GPS technology, paper maps were the only way to figure out how to get from point A to point B. The Plus Four recognized the hassle of unfolding a large paper map, and shrunk it down to fit on one’s wrist. The watch itself came with twenty different tiny maps that looked like scrolls. The wearer would place one scroll in the watch, use the knobs on the side of the watch to scroll up or down to their current location, and then follow their movements by scrolling. The primitive GPS is laughable by today’s standards, but it’s purpose of assistive watch technology paved the way for modern features.

The year 1972 brought the first electric watch to the market, a milestone in smart watch technology. The Hamilton Pulsar P1 was the first all-electric watch. It even included an LED display, at the touch of a button of course. However, the watch came with a hefty price tag of $2,100 because of its 18-carat gold exterior. The Pulsar didn’t have a movable map or any other special features, but for the time, the display was impressive enough.

In 1982, a Japanese company, Seiko, released the Seiko TV watch. This watch could connect to a TV’s receiver box and the wearer could watch TV on their watch. It did require a bulky adapter cable, and the watch’s display was grainy and grey. So although the feature was incredibly inconvenient, it was the first watch to feature viewable media.

By 1983, Seiko returned with the Data-2000. It was the first watch that allowed data to be stored on it, including memos and important dates. The storage space was miniscule, but birthdays could now be saved onto a watch. Nevertheless, the crown jewel of the Data-2000 was the clip-on calculator. The large attachment included a full QWERTY keyboard that took up about half of the wearer’s forearm. The Data-2000 was the first watch to be touch-enabled, making it a milestone for smart watches.

Dominating the watch market, in 1995 Seiko unveiled the MessageWatch. By using FM frequencies, the watch could display caller IDs, weather forecasts, and even update sports scores. Never before could a watch connect the wearer to the current events by request. It is because of the MessageWatch that smart watches started to live up to their title.

In 2000, watches got a serious upgrade thanks to IBM. The IBM Watchpad introduced some familiar features like a fingerprint scanner. The wearer could use Bluetooth to use their scanned fingerprint as the password to their computer. The WatchPad also was the first to detect the wearer’s hand movements. Unfortunately, because of size limitations, the WatchPad couldn’t combine the features with a compact design, so the WatchPad was never released. Although IBM’s dream was never fully realized, it’s obvious that these early ideas defined later smart watches.

Famous for their GPS technology, in 2003 Garmin released their Garmin Forerunner. This watch was the first to be centered on fitness. With just two AAA batteries, the watch would measure distance, speed, and calories burned for up to fourteen hours.

Samsung began its smart watch legacy in 2009 with the S9110. The watch used a micro-SIM card to function as a phone, rather than a companion. The small touchscreen had an even smaller keyboard to send texts and emails. It was Bluetooth compatible so the wearer could even play music. Although the S9110 is the first smart watch by definition, it had some issues. The tiny keyboard wasn’t very practical, and the retail price of five hundred dollars was far too high for consumers.

In 2013, a company called Pebble started a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund about five hundred thousand dollars, but in less than an hour they had raised over one million. With such success, Pebble was able to create a revolutionary watch. The Pebble Classic watch synced to all Apple and Android smartphones. Pebble Classic acted as a notification notifier. It could alert the wearer of everything from social media to reaching their step goal, but what really set Pebble Classic apart was the app store. From the watch, the user could search through more than one hundred different apps and download them directly to the watch. These apps included flash games and Paypal. Along with a battery lasting 7-10 days, Pebble set a high bar for future smart watches.

By 2014 Samsung came out swinging with the Samsung Gear S. This watch was the first to be advertised as smart watch without needing a smartphone. Samsung’s goal was to separate wearers from their smartphones without cutting off contact with the world. Like Pebble, the watch was also connected to Samsung’s GALAXY Apps. The sleek design featured a solid wristband that was interchangeable with a wide range of colors, so Samsung managed to make it look less like a watch and more like a fashion accessory.

Then, 2015 brought on two huge products, the Apple Watch and the Fitbit. After being rumored for three years, the Apple Watch was released to the public. Its unique features included a “tap” notification system that replaced the classic vibration alert with a gentler tap. The watch included a crown for scrolling through apps ad texts. Previously, smart watches used a touch scroll, but by using a crown, the wearer could scroll more precisely. The Apple Watch was advertised as a more convenient platform for Apple Pay, allowing the wearer to pay with literally the flick of the wrist.

Although the Fitbit was first introduced as a clip-on activity tracker, it is important to note the explosion of fitness-focused wearable tech it caused. It could measure sleep quality and cycles, as well as activity intensity and duration. Fitbit set a standard for fitness tech, and maintained a strong hold on the industry.

In the present 2016, it’s hard to predict what watch will be the next innovator. As of now, the standout is the Fitbit Blaze. The watch combines everything we’ve come to expect from a smartwatch with additional Fitbit classic fitness tracking upgrade to create a seriously smart watch. The watch can connect with more than two hundred devices to use text and call features, GPS, and SmartTrack. SmartTrack allows the watch to detect exercise and automatically record it for the wearer, eliminating the stress of forgetting to log a workout. Though the Fitbit Blaze’s standout feature is the FitStar on-screen workouts. This app allows the wearer to have real-time coaching and workout instructions on their wrist.

Though smart watches have come a long way, from paper maps to GPS mapping, there is plenty of room to grow. Camera integration with apps like Snapchat and Periscope could prevent dropped-phone disasters and allow for hands-free video chatting. Also, with the rise in VR technology, full projected interfaces and keyboards could be made possible. The market is even open to expand smart watches to be family-friendly. For example, a child-friendly watch that saves parents from the worry of a young child leaving their phone at the park. The possibilities for are endless, and as the competition tightens, it will be exciting to see who makes history next.

Tom Pozsgay, WP Diamonds Watch Specialist, adds on the future of smart watches, “Since the beginning, humans have measured time. They used sun dials, clocks, pocket watches, wrist watches and now smart watches.  Sixty seconds is still sixty seconds, a minute is still a minute and an hour is still an hour.  How you want to view time will determine the type of device you will use.  The question you should ask is, do I want to view time with high tech vision– not only telling time, but with a device that serves as a phone, GPS, and a health monitor, amongst other things? Or would I prefer having a timing device that is handcrafted by artisans spending endless hours tirelessly making a movement for the sole purpose of telling time.  It is incredibly beautiful that as humans, we have the ability to create different ways of looking at seconds, minutes and hours.”