Samsung's new Galaxy Gear smartwatch is on the cutting edge of a growing trend of wearable technology.
When it comes to smartwatches, the future ain't what it used to be. Can Samsung change that?
A high-tech watch, such as the two-way radio and TV wristwatches used by Dick Tracy in the comics more than four decades ago, was among those futuristic devices foreshadowed in science fiction. But along the way, the smartphone became all-powerful.
Now Samsung, already a major smartphone power, has introduced its new Galaxy Gear smartwatch with hopes of making the watch a must-wear device again.
The tech giant revealed the watch and its new Note 3 big-screen smartphone Wednesday at the IFA electronics show in Berlin. Black-jacketed bouncers checked credentials of a few hundred journalists and industry affiliates who piled into the Tempodrom, a high-ceiling roundhouse auditorium near central Berlin.
Chamber music played before the new products were revealed on a really big screen stretched about 180 degrees around the center of the room. On stage, Samsung research team leader Pranav Mistry deemed the Galaxy Gear as "something out of science fiction .... (that) reinvents a centuries old product."
Perhaps, but it has some hurdles to surmount, says futurist Paul Saffo, who teaches long-range forecasting at Stanford University.
"At the moment, the only people who wear things on their wrist are people old enough to have an AARP card. Students look at wristwatches today the same way that their grandparents looked at pocket watches in the middle of the last century, as an unbelievably old-fashioned thing," Saffo says. "But that is about to change."
Samsung's Galaxy Gear, due to hit the market later this month for a reported $299, will let wearers access texts, e-mails, news, weather and music from their Samsung portable devices. That's similar to what you can do with the Pebble watch, released earlier this year. And the Galaxy Gear responds to voice commands as does the Martian Watch, released just over two months ago.
Sony has its own SmartWatch 2 out this month, and analysts expect Apple and Google to chime in on the category. Smartwatches fit into a growing wearable device market that research firm Gartner estimates will hit $10 billion by 2015.
Whether Samsung's device becomes a mainstream winner remains to be seen, Saffo says. But eventually, "A whole new generation is about to rediscover that a wrist is a useful place to put a device," he says.
Not all consumers will think it's time to rejoin the watch-wearing crowd, despite the new devices' features, says P.J. McNealy of Digital World Research.
"You already have multiple things you can check the time on," McNealy says. "Your smartphone, your iPad, your PC and the wall. Having another device such as a watch just means it's a more crowded field."
There will be those who like the idea of a smaller screen to use beyond the progressively larger options provided by phones, tablets and laptops, he says. "A 2- or 3-inch smartwatch screen is filling out the product portfolio."
Samsung is smart to tout how the Galaxy Gear can help users get more out of their larger-display devices, says Gartner research director Angela McIntyre.
"These larger devices are bulky to take in and out of bags to frequently check calls and messages," she says. "Smartwatches are accessories to smartphones and phablets."
However, McNealy notes, smartwatches have failed before. In 2004, Fossil and others teamed with Microsoft on new SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology) watches that displayed news, weather and messages. But time ran out on them four years later.
At the time, few consumers were ticked off.
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