Smart Watches? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Smart Watches!

It didn’t start out being about knowing what time it is. Nor did it have anything to do with making a techno-fashion statement. It all stemmed from a random comment I heard on the radio about so-called “smart watches”. “I’d have no use,” the voice declared, “for a smart watch of any kind...unless maybe it displayed the caller ID from my smart phone so I could look at my wrist instead of pulling my phone out of my pocket to decide whether or not to take the call.” That thought sent a tweet to my cerebral cortex, which then forwarded on an email to one of my frontal lobes which then flashed an Instagram picture. “I’d like that, too,” I thought. “But,” my normally incoherent pattern of thought went on, “I’d really like it if I could use the watch to control my home theater – or, better yet, control the entire Control4/Lutron automation system in my house.” Of course, once you’re on this kind of a roll, it’s hard to stop anywhere near reality. “And I want it to have voice recognition for commands – like Siri, but without the sulking “unable to take requests” rebuffs – so I can just talk to my watch and make things happen!”

Oh, Lady Technology, you can be such a tease.

As chance would have it, within a few days I received a pre-CES email from an Italian company annoyingly calling itself, “i’m”. The attached press release made the bold claim that the company’s i’m Watch was “the world’s first smartwatch ever to be invented…” and that the new i’m Watch would use i’m Droid 2 – a customized version of the Android OS – making it “the device with the world’s most advanced smartwatch operating system.” As with smartphones, a variety of free and paid apps are available for use with the i’m Watch. Prompted by curiosity (and the promise of a free i’m Watch for any registered member of the press who attended the CES press conference), I got the demo, stood through one of the worst, most claustrophobic, sweatiest press conferences I’ve ever attended, and – eventually – got my hands on my sample i’m Watch.

I’m not here to do a full-fledged review of the i’m Watch. There are certainly things to like about it: it does display your phone’s caller ID – as well as tweets and messages; it’s designed to let you to use the watch as a hands-free mic/speaker for phone calls (more about that in a minute); it looks extremely cool; some of the apps can actually make the watch function as a useful extension of your smartphone (although, really, in most cases it’s almost always easier to just whip out the phone); and – brace yourself - it’ll even tell you the time of day. As with any product, there are some things not to like so much: with a watch body that’s around 1 5/8-inches by 2 inches, it’s a big honking piece of technology to wear on your wrist; its regular Bluetooth connectivity will drain battery power in your phone; it’s an absolute b*tch to set up and get working initially; and, most importantly, although the speaker built into the watch works pretty well, the microphone is so awful that it’s hard to describe its performance without resorting to mentions of unpleasant bodily functions. Oh, yes, there’s also the small matter of the $389 price tag.

Needless to say, without a usable microphone, there’s no way to talk with Siri (I tried numerous times until Siri finally gave me directions to the nearest speech therapist) or any other voice-controlled app – which means there goes my dream of Dick Tracy-like dominion over my dominion. Since, as far as I can tell, there are no i’m Watch apps available to use as a remote control for anything, I’m out of luck on even just controlling my AV system. On the other hand (so to speak), I do have a way of looking at my caller ID without digging into my pocket for my phone – and, I can tell what time it is, too!

For me, all the over-adver-hyped promises of cool technologies are like methamphetamine-stuffed Twinkies. I devour them so quickly, and the drug-laced sugar high is so good that even after realizing the nutritional value of what I just ate wasn’t much more than that of the plastic wrap it came in, I’ve got to have another one. Even though I should know better. So, unwilling to at least let my initial dream of an affordable caller ID-enabled wristwatch follow Hostess into oblivion, I took a slight detour on the last day at CES to take a look at the result of a Kickstarter project called, the COOKOO watch. (What is up with the lowercase and uppercase letters, people?)

Bluetooth-enabled, the COOKOO is billed as “the watch for the connected generation”. Despite the fact that I’m not sure which generation specifically is the “connected” one, I had high hopes for the COOKOO, and not only because the packaging it comes in can be reused as a small birdhouse. For starters, it’s the self-declared “world’s first designer watch that combines an analog movement with a connected digital display to keep people connected to their iOS devices” (with additional device compatibility to come); and, thanks to two self-replaceable standard button-cell watch batteries inside (one for the analog movement and the other for the digital section), the COOKOO does not need to be recharged – another “first for a connected watch”. It’s a classy-looking timepiece that’ll beep or vibrate to notify you of incoming/missed calls, Facebook messages/posts, and calendar reminders. It’ll also let you know when the smartphone it’s linked to is out of range and when the smart device’s battery is running low. A user-customizable COMMAND button can be used for locating your phone, taking pictures from your phone remotely, one-button Facebook check-in, or location tagging on the map. Adding to its desirability is a much more reasonable price of $129.99.

Ah, yes, the delicious creamy center in this techno-Twinkie sure tastes good… The customizable features, for example, are especially cool. But, for all there is to like about the COOKOO (which is almost everything), it only buzzes or beeps to let me know that I have a call coming in. There’s no caller ID functionality – the very feature that got me started down this slippery smartwatch search to begin with.

There was another smart watch at CES, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Also a Kickstarter project, the Bluetooth-enabled, iOS/Android-compatible, waterproof Pebble watch fills a particularly sweet spot between the i’m Watch and the COOKOO in terms of price ($150) and features. Pebble’s black and white e-paper display will show email, calendar alerts, iMessages, weather alerts, Twitter and Facebook messages, as well as display the time in a variety of watch faces. Most importantly, it will notify you of the incoming caller ID. (Yeah, baby!) Multiple apps will also be available, or there’s this tantalizing bit of info:

Pebble can receive simple alerts and notifications from if this then that (ifttt.com) or our web-facing RESTful endpoint. More adventurous developers can use the Pebble SDK, with its Arduino-like abstractions and simple C structure, to gain full control of the watch. Multiple apps can run on Pebble, along side watchfaces and regular notifications.

So there’s hope that one such “adventurous” developer will someday create an app that will at least partially control my home theater. Unfortunately, with no built-in microphone (working or non-working), I’m pretty sure it’s definitely a no-go on my voice recognition aspirations using the Pebble. (Damn those visions of sugar-techno-plums dancing in my head!)

Despite my maniacal focus on the caller ID functionality of the various smart watches on the market, there’s another important aspect to consider when you want to wear more than a watch but less than a phone on your wrist. It has to do with the passage of time. Not how well the watch measures the passage of time, but how well it keeps up with the times. For example, about 13 years ago, I bought a Citizen Navihawk Blue Angels analog/digital watch. After well over a decade of great service, the digital section of the watch lost its binary mind sometime in the middle of last year. Since I’d paid several hundred dollars for the watch originally, I thought I’d get it repaired. $190 later, I received a what looks like a brand new 1999-era Citizen watch. In addition to fixing the digital section, the shop replaced the crown and the waterproof seal.

Now, it’s obvious this watch is never going to show the caller ID from any cellphone. (Cellphones hadn’t been out of their bags for very long when this Citizen watch came out of its box.) The fact is, however, that I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m still able to wear – and fully use - my reconditioned Navihawk watch for another 10 or so years. (Sheesh, even my Casio Triple Sensor watch that lets me know important things, such as temperature, compass headings, and altitude, has worked like a charm for ten years.) On the other hand, considering the rapid pace of technological change, I’m not sure I can imagine even a five-years-from-now world in which I’ll still be able to strap on the i’m Watch, the COOKOO, or the Pebble and enjoy the majority of the enhanced “smart” features of the watches, except for telling the time, of course. And that’s if the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries in the i’m Watch and Pebble can still be recharged or replaced.

We’ve all felt the sting of technological progress as it’s changed our AV systems – usually for the better, thankfully. More excruciating, though, is how hopelessly out of date most of us feel (and often are) if we don’t upgrade our smartphones every two years. Who knows what OS upgrades or new communication protocols loom in the future? Are y’all ready to jump on the watch-replacement treadmill, too?

Sometimes I really hate technology. The trouble is I can’t stop loving it, either.

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