Smartphones have replaced wristwatches as timekeepers for many teenagers and tech-savvy adults. But a new smartwatch aims to win over customers with such features as an extremely low-power processor and the convenience of wireless charging.
Dreams of wearing a smartwatch as a handy computer on the wrist, also known as a watch-phone, have captured the public's imagination going back to the Dick Tracy newspaper comic strip. Such watches hold the promise of making smartphone features conveniently available on the wrist without having to pull mobile devices out of a pocket or bag.
The new "Agent" smartwatch has already raised more than US $300 000 on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter—easily surpassing its $100 000 goal since the project launched on 21 May. Despite its quick success, it by no means has the field to itself. It doesn't even have Kickstarter to itself—the popular Pebble watch raised $10 million there. Apple and Microsoft are both rumored to be jumping into the smartwatch market as well.
Two features help set Agent apart. First, there's its novel dual-processor design. The main processor is a new ARM Cortex-M4 that consumes just 33 microamperes (uA) in sleep mode compared to 300 uA for most of last year's processors. And it will get more sleep than most, because a smaller second processor handles background "housekeeping duties and events." The smaller processor itself has a sleep mode, which uses just 0.1 uA.
Second, Agent has built-in wireless charging capability based on the industry-standard Qi system. Wearers would simply have to place their watch on an included Qi charging pad—or any other Qi charging pad—to recharge the device.
Agent also has a Sharp Memory Display that combines the best of both LCD and E-paper technologies for fast animations and readability out of doors. It too will have an extremely low power consumption of about 20 uA. Techcrunch was duly impressed:
The Agent is a refreshing change from other Kickstarter smartwatches in that it actually offers something new in terms of technical aspirations. The watch should get up to 7 days of battery life with its smart functions activated, or up to 30 days of standby in ‘watchface-only” mode. Even if that misses the mark by a bit, it should still beat the stated and actual battery life of existing devices like the Pebble.
But getting the technology right is just the first step. In fact, smartwatch success has proven more of the exception rather than the rule. Past flops have included Microsoft's 2004 attempt to introduce the SPOT watch—an expensive failure of a device that didn't offer consumers any new information they couldn't already get for free on existing mobile devices (IEEE Spectrum wisely called it out as a tech "loser" early on).
To win a place in consumer hearts and on their wrists, smartwatches need to offer a compelling new argument to people already carrying phones and tablets. They also have to form a habit that most young people have never had—a 2008 survey by investment bank Piper Jaffray showed that almost two-thirds of teens never wear a watch. Others have abandoned ordinary watches in droves.
A strong sense of style will be essential for the growing number of people who see watches as fashion accessories or luxury items instead of necessary timekeepers. That means the technical prowess of Agent's engineering team at Secret Labs will have to be matched by the aesthetic design provided by House of Horology, a custom timepiece manufacturer that recently earned a "Best Men's Watches of 2013" accolade from New York Magazine.
Photo: Secret Labs | House of Horology
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.