The smartwatch experiment, for the most part, has been a bit of a dilemma thus far.
Rather than finding a new method for interfacing with the internet in an intelligent way, many "smartwatches" are essentially smartphones that have been crammed into a small display to be worn on a wrist. The result has been a cluster of devices that have more or less been received to middling hype and plagued with less-than-desired battery life.
That experiment might soon come to a close as practicality begins to prevail and fashion companies begin to meet the tech companies behind those smartwatches somewhere in the middle. The early result can be seen in a pair of devices that have emerged in the past week. Both are built around the concept that the device is a watch first, before it's a piece of smart technology — meaning a long battery life and a focus on fashion and design are requirements, not optional.
"Before, Silicon Valley would never meet with Fashion Avenue," said Tom Julian, director of strategic business development at The Doneger Group, a firm that specializes in research for the retail industry. "There are more tech companies taking a role and making partnerships happen in fashion, which is allowing more for this symbiotic relationship. The two are meeting in more places."
While still a concept, one smartwatch represents a unification of the savvy of American fashion designer Michael Bastian and the engineering chops of Silicon Valley. Engineers from HP, a company still looking for its future, and his design team basically redesigned the concept of a "smartwatch" from the ground up. It is actually inspired more from the experience of driving a car than the geeky needs of Silicon Valley engineers, Bastian told BuzzFeed.
"We really started from scratch, it's not based on any other watch model," he said. "It feels almost like a cool speedometer...No one's really ever gone down this road before, or maybe they've been concerned about it but concerned in a Palo Alto way: The tech is there, let's polish it up, make it simple, make it non-offensive, and let it go. That might work in Palo Alto, but we need a watch that needs to work for all kinds of guys, not just tech people."
The result is a device that looks a lot more like a watch than an Android smartphone scaled down and worn on a wrist. Instead of focusing on interactions, Bastian's device centers around notifications. The device, according to mock-ups, is controlled through buttons that have tactile feedback, and generally feels like it has a unique operating system that is not like the iPhone operating system or other Android smartwatches. It will still be configured through a smartphone app, but after that, it will basically behave as a watch with some additional passive features, like displaying notifications and weather updates.
This is a road that is actually well-traveled by one Silicon Valley startup called Pebble, a bright spot in the emergence of wearable technology. Pebble's watches feature a long battery life, sporting a monochrome display that can display custom watch faces, notifications and some lightweight applications. Like Bastian's proposed watch, the Pebble focuses on being a watch that is as much an expression of fashion and identity as it is a device that offers utility, Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky told BuzzFeed.
"It has to be appealing, it has to be something that people want to wear on their wrist," he said. "There's no way you can force technology down peoples' throats. You can have a beige computer on your desk in the '80s, but now design is important, especially on your wrist."
Taking that one step further, Pebble today unveiled a set of new, bright watch colors that are supposed to be an additional step in that direction. Like its previous smartwatches, the new colored devices are designed to be enjoyable to wear and shown off to people like one would a bracelet or an analog wristwatch. The colors are actually reminiscent of Apple's bright iPod Mini and iPod Nano colors — no doubt inspired by the tremendous success Apple had with their simple but eye-catching colors.
Not surprisingly, Pebble has seem some success with its previous watches, which focus on having a well-designed body and band, a long battery life, and utility that goes beyond a normal wristwatch — most notably with notifications about incoming text messages and emails. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Pebble secured $15 million in venture capital financing.
But Pebble, too, is traveling a road that previously had been paved by well-designed wearable devices that track fitness and connect to a smartphone. Unlike smartwatches like those powered by Android and crammed with features and a colored screen, these devices boast a long battery life and track movement — and often don't even feature a screen, working best while basically becoming an afterthought. Instead, they are to be treated as a piece of apparel with an extra layer of utility. The Pebble already boasts a seven-day battery life, even if the screen is constantly on, while Bastian's watch is expected to also have a seven-day battery life.
Fitness trackers began hitting a steady stride early in this decade by finding a combination of design and engineering savvy. For example, the Jawbone UP was a project that included the design prowess of Yves Behar and the engineering capability of Jawbone. The first version came out in 2011, and most recently, it was a device sported by many of the fashion-savvy crowd in New York Fashion Week. Tory Burch, another prominent designer, has also launched a line of jewelry that holds Fitbit fitness trackers. Apple CEO Tim Cook, too, has been known to sport a Nike FuelBand — a fitness tracker launched in 2012 that actually looked more like a simple black band, but has since been discontinued.
"It's more about creating a stylish, functional watch because we're in a style-aesthetic marketplace," Julian said. "Because of collaborations and partnerships and [fashion] designers getting more notoriety from phones to watches to technical gadgets, there is this embrace [of wearable technology]. It's more of a symbiotic relationship."
Of course, an array of colors might not be enough to get existing Pebble owners to buy the new watches, or even attract new buyers. That's where Pebble's app store comes in, Pebble evangelist Myriam Joire said, describing it as "layers of value" beneath the pure value as an accessory and basic watch. For example, there are over 250,000 watch faces made by the community, and Pebble has a watch face builder that anyone can access through the web and port straight to their watch, Migicovsky said.
Still, it's not clear if this new focus on design before function will create a genuine phenomenon that will capture those beyond technically savvy early-adopters. Apple — historically the trendsetter for mainstream technology — has been rumored to be working on a smartwatch, though at times the project seems to be indefinitely delayed.
Fashion, too, may not play the only role, as the Pebble smart watches and fitness trackers like the Jawbone UP are priced well below smartwatches. Bastian's watch does not yet have a price tag, though it could be inferred to be a luxury product based on its marketing and its exclusive sale through Gilt.
But for now, it may be that the large smartphone manufacturers of the world — LG, Samsung, and the like — may have been thinking of the smart wearable the wrong way, and it's opened a big opportunity for startups like Pebble and companies willing to collaborate with designers like Jawbone and, surprisingly, HP.
Matthew Lynley is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News in San Francisco. Lynley reports on Silicon Valley and the tech industry.
Contact Matthew Lynley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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