How to build the perfect smartwatch

Most of the features of the perfect smartwatch exist today, but not all in the same product

With 2014 shaping up to be the year of wearable computing, vendors are releasing new smartwatches at a rapid clip. In a way, we've been a long time getting here. It was in 1946 that the world saw the first smartwatch, Dick Tracy's 2-Way Wrist Radio. The comic-strip detective used his smartwatch as a mobile phone -- voice only -- until 1964, when it was upgraded to a 2-Way Wrist TV.

But before we got to real-world smartwatches, we had smartphones, and since we can already communicate like Dick Tracy using them -- through voice, text or video applications like Apple's FaceTime -- smartwatches need to do more. In other words, to succeed, a smartwatch really needs to offer different functionality than could be achieved by simply pulling your smartphone out of your pocket.

Most of the features of the perfect smartwatch exist today, but not all in the same product. Of course, it's not the sheer number of features in the device that's important; it's the scenarios you can construct around a well-designed smartwatch that matter.

Let's start with an example from retail. Retail marketers, always on the hunt for the perfect in-store experiences, and are increasingly turning to mobile technologies to create customized interactions. By opting in to a relationship with a store, a patron could be recognized by name by a sales associate, see the images on digital displays change as she walked by them (tailored to her), receive in-store targeted promotions as she picks up particular products, and even leave the store without handing over any overt form of payment. All of these things are possible with today's technologies.

Healthcare offers a second scenario. A surgeon could receive notifications about the health status of various patients -- but only when she is physically inside the hospital. At her private practice office, she would receive different notifications. While in the operating room, she wouldn't receive any notifications, but would see information pertinent to the surgery at hand -- receiving inputs from various medical monitors in the room.

These scenarios are inherently mobile, but smartphones aren't actually the best vehicle for these experiences. Smartphones can be easily stolen, for one thing, making the retail scenario challenging. And retailers don't want the eyes of patrons who walk into their stores glued to a smartphone; they want those eyes looking around the store. And a busy surgeon would prefer not to pull a phone out of her pocket every few minutes; she would benefit from a glanceable smartwatch while walking her rounds.

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