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.

Smartwatches, on the other hand, can be the perfect enabler of these scenarios, so long as they have all the necessary components:

Authentication. While smartwatches can be stolen just like smartphones, persistent biometric authentication (like that from Bionym) means that once the band is removed, permissions are lost. Bionym uses heart patterns, but other biometric measures (fingerprints, retina scans, brain waves) can be used. The key is the persistence of the authentication, which a smartwatch can enable on a user's wrist while it's clasped.

Geofencing. Detailed location-based scenarios require the creation of geofences, which divide the physical world into virtual subdivisions. An indoor variant of this technology involves the use of beacons (like Apple's iBeacon) to interact with a wearable device or smartphone. Both elements are critical to the retail and healthcare scenarios.

Applications. A vigorous application ecosystem is critical to most devices, and smartwatches are no exception. These applications should be glance-able (requiring extreme curation of information), contextual (only presented when needed, based on location, activity, time or other factors), and diverse (designed by a wide array of brands and companies).

Partnerships. Smartwatches require a second, different type of ecosystem as well -- a rich array of partnerships with retailers, healthcare providers, automobile makers and the managers of a wide variety of infrastructure (like tollbooths, paid garages, payment companies and the like). The perfect smartwatch will empower invisible mobile scenarios with all of these partners.

Beyond the features that enable scenarios, the perfect smartwatch will need to have a several other characteristics. Forrester's surveys show that 28% of American online consumers are interested in wearable devices to be worn on their wrists -- a large addressable market for a brand-new product category. But those who wear them have a variety of consumer needs, so the perfect smartwatch will also have:

Fashion. The wristwatch has been around since 1571, and watches have been commonly worn since the 19th century. Yet too many wearables today are ugly. Partnerships between smartwatch vendors and fashion brands -- such as Intel and Barney's New York announced at CES -- will be critical to creating engaging fashions.

Configurability. Not every user wants or needs the same information on a smartwatch. For the sports fanatic, glance-able, real-time sports scores might be the most critical content, while a stockbroker might require market information. Being able to configure the smartwatch -- as Metawatch allows -- honors that diversity of needs while also empowering workforce scenarios.

Health monitoring. It's a crowded market, with lots of products available, but why not add this feature to the smartphone's functionality? Many consumers will decline to wear both a single-purpose health monitoring device and a smartwatch on the same wrist.

Of course, other wearables will go after the same scenarios and consumer markets. Maybe the key to building the perfect smartwatch is to do so before someone builds the perfect pair of smartglasses.

J.P. Gownder is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research serving infrastructure and operations professionals.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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