The smartwatch era will supposedly begin in earnest on Wednesday with the introduction of Samsung’s (005930:KS) Galaxy Gear, its version of the much-ballyhooed concept of a wrist computer. A range of bracelet computers are already being sold, of course, but Slate technology columnist Farhad Manjoo recently compared the current offerings to the MP3 players that existed before the iPod. There’s a revolutionary idea in there, but its potential has yet to be realized.
That doesn’t mean people aren’t trying. The buzziest project was Pebble, which inspired the biggest crowdfunding campaign in history (unless you count the strange story of the Ubuntu Edge). A number of other smartwatch projects have attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in Kickstarter campaigns. The Omate TrueSmart claims to be more independent of smartphones than its competitors, plus it’s waterproof. The Agent is aiming for really long battery life. The Vachen wants to be simpler than other smartwatches, with plans for a new version every 45 days. And the ideas keep coming: Kapture, a project that launched Tuesday, is a watch-like device that constantly records audio—whenever you tap it, it will save the previous 60 seconds of sound.
The thread running through most of these projects seems to be that people who spend too much time staring at their smartphones will somehow find a chance to stare at their wrists an upgrade in terms of both constant connectivity and sociable politeness. Most of these watches are designed to work in tandem with smartphones, rather than replace them—a fairly modest goal on which to base an epoch-shifting technological vision. So far the fitness-tracking potential of these devices seems like the most novel aspect of wrist-based computing, and those sorts of bracelets are already widely available.
A Canadian startup called Bionym showed off a much different vision yesterday with a device lacking many of the basic functions that seem to define the coming crop of smartwatches. Instead, its main feature is a sensor that tracks a user’s heartbeat through biometric recognition systems in order to determine identity and communicate the information to other connected devices. A phone that would require a password could be automatically unlocked, for instance, when brought into range of the user’s wrist. (An Android app created by the company already allows this functionality; Apple (AAPL) hasn’t given sufficient access to pull off the same trick for iOS devices.) The bracelet also has a motion detector, so it could be used in tandem with the identity verification in interesting ways. You could, say, allow a car trunk to open simply by getting your wrist close enough to the vehicle.
Bionym is asking $79 for the device and expects to ship the first batch of 25,000 watches early next year. There are many reasons this device could fail, and no particular reason to think it won’t: It’s not clear that it would work as well as advertised, developers would need to write secondary apps for other smart devices, and the idea of a computer that listens to your heartbeat may creep people out. And its core function would probably work better if integrated into a device that also had more of the messaging features that are the focus of the better-known smartwatch projects.
Still, if smartwatches are really going to be something completely new, it would help their case to do something that seems really different.