Of all the gadget categories that have ever failed to take off, smart watches rank among the most resoundingly unsuccessful. Microsoft’s SPOT watches were remarkably crummy, and went absolutely nowhere in the market. Fossil’s Palm OS-based Wrist PDA fared no better. Dick Tracy would not be pleased.
But a startup called WIMM is trying again with the concept of creating a computing device you can strap to your wrist. And while it’s way too early to declare it a success, the demo I got from the company last week was enough to leave me intrigued.
WIMM won’t sell watches to the public itself. Instead, it’s designed a module that it intends to license to watch companies, gadget makers, fashion purveyors, and other third parties. The modules have the following interesting characteristics:
- They run Google’s Android OS and can run apps designed for their tiny screens.
- They have specs similar to those of a smartphone, with a 667-MHz CPU, up to 32GB of storage, GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, an accelerometer, a magnetometer, and more.
- They sport a non-backlit 1.4″ monochrome LCD display that looks a lot like any garden-variety digital watch-until you touch it, whereupon it instantly turns into a color touchscreen that looks a bit like the one on Apple’s current iPod Nano. It’s a nifty effect, and it helps with one of the biggest challenges of smart watches: designing them in a way that doesn’t drain the battery too quickly. (Even then, WIMM says that you’ll want to charge a device based on its technology every night, using a paddle-like mini-dock it’s designed.)
- They’ll be built by Chinese manufacturing kingpin Foxconn, so large quantities will be available if the market demands them.
As with every smart watch of the past, the modules make for a rather chunky timepiece. (Then again, a lot of people like giant-sized watches these days.) Watches aren’t the only obvious application, though: the modules can also be used as the basis for a variety of health and fitness-related devices, such as cycling computers and wearable computers for runners.
What sort of apps might work on WIMM’s modules? Well, just about anything that might run on a phone, especially if it involves consuming information in tiny bites and doesn’t require much in the way of elaborate input. For instance, the company says it’s working with Peel to bring its TV programming guide/remote control to the platform. The modules don’t have built-in 3G; their Wi-Fi connections can be used for dynamic Internet access in some cases, but WIMM thinks that most apps will rely on data that’s stored locally and synced on a more intermittent basis, and has designed the modules so that they can interact with phones, PCs, and the Web. (With up to 32GB of storage, there will be room for plenty of content.)
Heres the company’s own video on its invention:
WIMM thinks that devices based on the modules will cost from $200 to $500–prices which would presumably come down if WIMM-based devices take off. It isn’t ready to talk about partners yet, and while it hopes that consumer products will be on sale by the holidays, it says that might be a tight deadline. For now, it’s going to be selling a $200 developer kit to interested app creators that includes a WIMM-branded watch.
When I was first briefed on Microsoft’s SPOT watches back around 2004, my instinctive reaction was “This isn’t anywhere near ready for prime time.” With WIMM, it’s more like “This has potential.” There’s plenty of evidence–such as people putting iPod Nanos on watch-style straps–that the notion of wrist-ready computers has a fair amount of appeal to gadget hounds. WIMM has figured out some of the hardware-related challenges; now the company has to convince software developers to create compelling apps. (One challenge: they’ve got to be so simple that they’re faster than yanking a smartphone out of your pocket and using it instead.) And it probably won’t be first-generation products that have a chance at being breakthrough hits–enough people will need to buy these things to give the platform a shot at further iterations.
So would you consider buying a WIMM watch?