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Posted by: Kenji Hall on January 09, 2009
The watch phone has been a techie dream since the Dick Tracy comics popularized the idea in the mid-1940s. Developing one, though, has been a lot trickier. LG Electronics’s Woo Hyun Paik should know. As President and CTO, he led the effort to create a working prototype for this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which began on Jan. 7, after the Korean company announced a year ago that it was studying the concept.
The cellphone watch is essentially a 14-mm thick touchscreen phone on a stylish black leather wristband. So far LG has made “several 10s” of the GD910, according to Paik. But Paik was reluctant to say how many of LG’s 6,000 engineers in its cellphone skunkworks division were involved in the project. Nor would he hint at the cost to develop the gizmo or its price when it’s expected to go on sale in Europe sometime later this year. “What’s important here is developing a product that consumers want,” Paik said, in an interview. “There has been a desire for this kind of phone for a long time, starting from Dick Tracy and 007 movies.”
LG isn’t the first to try. A decade ago, Japanese manufacturer Hitachi’s U.S. unit released a digital mock-up picture of a cellphone watch that was no thicker than a credit card, had a flip-up screen and could access the Internet wirelessly, do videoconferencing and locate you anywhere in the world with a built-in Global Positioning System. Last year, SMS Technology, an Australian company, began selling a cellphone watch for $300.
LG’s target audience is tech-savvy fashionistas who want a second phone and women who don’t like carrying a phone in a bag or pocket. It’s a step toward the wearable electronics that analysts have predicted would emerge for years. “Cellphones are an area that has infinite possibilities in the future,” Paik said, in an interview.
On Paik’s wrist, the gizmo looked like any ordinary digital watch.
But LG has crammed in a lot of state-of-the-art technology. The phone watch works on third-generation wireless networks, has a tiny camera for two-way video calls and a built-in music player. There’s also a short-range Bluetooth transmitter so the user can make calls with a wireless headset. And because the screen is too small for a proper keypad, LG installed voice-recognition software, allowing users to dictate text messages instead of typing them out.
LG worked hard to get all of that technology inside, miniaturizing the wireless antenna and speakers while leaving space for a processing chip found inside most other cellphones. It also came up with energy-saving software to extend the life of the battery, which lasts for several hours of calls or a couple of days in standby mode.
The hardest part for LG’s engineers was making sure the gizmo worked properly. Over the course of several months, the team of engineers tested the watch phone and made minute design tweaks. “Once you have a phone like this it goes through thousands of tests to make sure it works properly,” said Paik. “It is much more complicated than you might think. We want to make sure that this is perfectly working unit. It takes time.”
But does it work? Paik pressed one of three buttons on the side of the watch face, and pulled up his wife’s cellphone number. Then he tapped the 1.5-inch display. Within seconds, her muffled voice could be heard over the din of music and voices inside the Las Vegas Convention Center. “Yoboseyo.” Paik, his arm resting on the table, cocked his head to hear. “So you have arrived at the hotel? Can you hear me OK?” he asked his wife. “OK. I’ll see you later. I love you. Bye.”
BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.