Welcome to the future! a Samsung rep proclaimed during the company's new product presentation in Berlin yesterday. Yes, something out of sci-fi! he beamed. The rep was wearing the new Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch, proudly showing it off for the journalists in the room and the tech geeks watching along at home. The future has arrived... again, I suppose.
Samsung's not alone. The next smartwatch revolution has begun in earnest, with a number of companies either releasing or hinting at releasing the stubborn little things. Sony and Qualcomm have both announced new wearable devices recently, and Apple is said to be developing its own (though no one expects them to release it any time soon). But with these new wearable computers comes a sense that if products like Galaxy Gear are the best that these companies have to offer, the smartwatch is going to remain a future that never was.
You might remember that much like the flying car and the jetpack, the multi-function wristwatch of the future has been "just around the corner" for decades now. We seem fascinated by the idea of attaching things to our wrists in order to ostensibly make them more convenient to use. But despite countless visions and real-life attempts, the smartwatch has never gained real traction.
What follows is just a small sampling of yesterday's smartwatches of the future. With so many failed smartwatch designs and predictions, anything approaching a complete history would be sheer madness. Not unlike the quest to develop a usable smartwatch itself.
The rise of the printed circuit in consumer electronics after WWII gave Americans a lot of hope for the possibility of strapping endless gadgets to our wrists. Dr. Cledo Brunetti worked at the National Bureau of Standards during the war, and gets a lot of credit for this push to miniaturization which would open the door to tomorrow's smartwatches.
It's Brunetti's design for a miniaturized radio wristwatch that graced the cover of Radio-Craft magazine in April of 1948 (seen above). Brunetti even has an IEEE award named after him, given out for contributions to "nanotechnology and miniaturization in the electronics arts."
When it became necessary, during World War II, to design extraordinarily small radio sets which, however, had to be extremely efficient at the same time, it was Dr. Brunetti who solved the host of problems which made those tiny radios possible.
Maybe the biggest flaw of Brunetti's radio wristwatch? It couldn't tell time. A minor oversight that would be quickly remedied when visions of the smartwatch picked up steam in the late 1950s and early 60s.
Like many of the technologies we take for granted today, much of the early development of electronic watches finds its roots in the Cold War. Advancements in miniaturizing circuits and smaller batteries in the 1950s and '60s eventually turned the wristwatch from a relatively crude mechanical device to an electronic wonder. And this shift was the primary driver that gave futurists wild ideas for miniaturizing just about any gadget and slapping it on your wrist, from TVs to telephones to calculators and beyond.
The April 17, 1960 edition of Arthur Radebaugh's Sunday comic strip "Closer Than We Think" included a vision of the TV wristwatch, complete with telecasts from the moon! Radebaugh's strip (much like Athelstan Spilhaus's "Our New Age" comic) was started shortly after the Soviets launched Sputnik, and was equal parts wide eyed techno-optimism and Cold War battleground.
And perhaps few things better represent American Cold War futurism and competing visions for tomorrow than this image—consumer electronics (something the Americans were ahead in) that you could strap to your wrist which showed a broadcast live from the moon (something the Soviets were ahead in).
"Personal" television is not far off, thanks to printed circuits, miniature transistors and other developments.
A small set that can hook up to your telephone has already been devised by Bell Laboratories. But the Army is going that one better. According to Maj. Gen. Robert J. Wood, deputy chief of research and development, TV sets the size of postage stamps will soon be worn on the wrist, each with a personal dialing number. One man might be able to communicate with another — anywhere in the world. And it won't be long either before such devices are adapted to civilian use.
Bell Labs continued the full court press of promises in the November 1962 issue of Boys' Life magazine. Young Baby Boomer boys of the early '60s were assured that the Bell Telephone company was working on the wrist-bound telephone of tomorrow, even if it was in the "more distant future" than the videophone and the carphone.
Dozens of devices did make the leap from military to civilian use in the latter half of the 20th century (just look at the internet itself). But the smartwatch didn't get anywhere near the battlefield, much less the living room.
A quick search through Google Patents and you'll see plenty of people were working diligently behind the pop science scenes to make smartwatch visions a reality. But with all due respect to applied science, it's popular culture that drives demand.
As many people here in the 21st century seem to forget, "The Jetsons" was at its heart a parody show, sopping up all those 1950s and '60s techno-utopian ideas of the future and poking fun at them. Clearly inspired by designers like Radebaugh, the Jetsons figured that if smartwatches were on their way, kids would use them to goof off in the classroom. The screenshot above comes from the final episode of the original Jetsons series and shows one such kid watching an episode of "The Flintstones" just before his robot teacher catches him.
Amusingly, the one kid I knew in middle school (during the mid-90s) who had a smartwatch wasn't using it to goof off—he was using it to cheat in math class.
I would be remiss to not mention the stylish communicator that every tech writer and her sister has mentioned in the past six months: Dick Tracy's wristwatch.
Since the 1940s, toy manufacturers have been making a version of Dick Tracy's watch. Most have been little more than a radio receiver with a wristband, while others have been two-way walkie talkies. But it gave kids of the postwar era a sense that big things (big futuristic technological things!) were coming. Those Baby Boomers sure did hear a lot of promises that were never delivered on, didn't they?
In the 1967 pilot episode for a never released live-action Dick Tracy TV show, we see what the cartoon communicator would look like in real life — a couple of knobs, a microphone, a camera and... is that a speedometer on the bottom?
The smartwatch of tomorrow matured in the 1970s, as communications satellites were becoming a reality. Now the smartwatch could be easily imagined as something no longer dependent on the geographical confines of a radio or TV signal. Lost at sea? Just push a button on your smartwatch to call for help.
The 1979 British kids' book Future Cities: Homes and Living into the 21st Century imagined that the smartwatch of the future would be a telephone, a radio beacon transmitter for emergencies, and even a way to vote in elections.
Not only did they imagine the smartwatch of tomorrow, they even came up with a nickname for it: the "risto." As anyone who's tried to make up a nickname for himself can tell you, it's something that needs to happen organically. It seems like extremely bad luck nicknaming a product before it's even had the chance to fail in the marketplace. Also... 'risto? Seriously?
From the book:
City dwellers of tomorrow could have a small gadget of enormous benefit- a wristwatch radio-telephone. With a wristwatch radio, you could talk to anyone, wherever you happened to be.
The secret of the system lies in the super-powerful satellite shown on the page opposite. Present-day satellites are fairly simple, just repeaters, with expensive ground stations. A future satellite designed for wrist-radios (which might be nicknamed 'ristos') would be the expensive part of the system. A risto would sell for about the same price as a pocket calculator and weigh no more than a few grammes.
Again, the miniaturization of gadgets made this a pretty safe technological bet in the late 1970s. But it was the bet on price that was perhaps most prescient. A pocket calculator wasn't exactly cheap in 1979, but they were fast becoming inexpensive. It's too bad the same can't be said for this current crop of smartwatches; the Gear weighs in at a hefty $300.
After Seiko released its wristwatch TV in the United States in 1983, people were certain that the multi-purpose wristwatch was the wave of the future. Again.
But Jane Clifford, writing in a syndicated column, described the watch as an "expensive plaything," making comparisons to Dick Tracy (of course) and warning that it could become a distraction: "Immediately in mind are visions of sports fans in rush-hour traffic, trying to glimpse the last crucial inning of the afternoon's baseball game."
The largest trouble with Seiko's TV watch was that it wasn't exactly a self-contained little unit, as you can see below from the December 13, 1982 issue of Pacific Stars and Stripes.
Wearable computing — whether it's smartwatches or faceputers — is supposed to be the future. But so far everything about it looks like yet another false start.
If the tech writer community is any barometer for how smartwatches will be received by the broader public, the collective yawn emitted yesterday isn't a good sign for companies like Samsung. Astonishingly, Samsung even had the gumption yesterday to hint that its new smartwatch might even be future-proof: "Packed with technologies of the next decade."
But when the most generous thing you can get someone to say is that there's "nothing especially offensive about the Galaxy Gear in particular..." your product has a problem. Whether it's ristos enabling direct democracy or a TV Timex receiving telecasts from the moon, the future is built on bold visions—offensive or otherwise. And unfortunately for us, it looks like that big bold smartwatch future is going to remain "just around the corner" for years to come.