By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
Microsoft wants to turn a 1990s invention — the wristwatch pager — into a 21st century information tool that it believes will be more useful — and user-friendly — than its unsuccessful predecessors.
Previous attempts to marry watches and wireless messaging started in 1990, when Motorola launched the world's first wristwatch pager, which received only numeric messages over traditional paging networks. That same year, startup AT&E began limited marketing of the Seiko Receptor wristwatch pager, which received numeric messages and limited numeric content, such as sports scores, through FM-station sidecarriers. In 1997, Timex and Motorola teamed up to offer a wristwatch word pager that received traditional word messages, e-mail, and customizable information updates. In 2001, Timex stopped production but continues to sell off inventory at an everyday $50, including a year of service. (See "Watch List" on TWICE.com for a more complete timeline.)
In launching its SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology) initiative, Microsoft says it learned from previous attempts to market wristwatches that received messages and personalized information via wireless networks. SPOT will be a commercial success, Microsoft contends, because of a mix of technological and ergonomic advancements, including affordable, power-efficient processors, affordable solid-state memory and low-cost higher resolution 120-by-96-pixel LCD displays, similar in resolution to many cellphone displays.
"Until about a year ago," said Bill Mitchell, GM of Microsoft's SPOT initiative, "the [SPOT] technologies weren't cheap enough." He said he was "astonished" that earlier efforts, such as Seiko's Receptor, were as marketable as they were despite the technology available a decade ago. Seiko's Receptor, and others like it, were "noble failures," he said.
"Glanceable" displays: SPOT's advancements make it possible to present information, such as weather reports or stock charts, not as slowly scrolling text but as a mix of words and graphics that is "glanceable" and quickly absorbed, Mitchell pointed out. Previous alphanumeric watch pagers "tied you up for a couple of minutes" as consumers pressed a button to scroll through one line of text at a time, he explained. Consumers had to "focus on the watch quite awhile, which was not the typical watch interface experience," he continued.
To further simplify use, a SPOT watch will display top-level information on a particular information channel, then automatically cycle through more detailed information on the topic. People who pour concrete for a living, for example, could view such details as humidity and UV conditions, both of which affect curing times, after the day's temperature forecast appears, he said.
Subscribers could create a personal channel that cycles through a mix of information that could include weather and a stock portfolio updates. They could use a watch button to select other channels to cycle.
Also to increase utility, SPOT will use FM-station sideband frequencies instead of paging networks to boost wireless-data capacity and dataspeeds over one-way Flex-protocol paging networks, Mitchell said. FM sidebands, which Microsoft will lease from radio stations, will make room for bandwidth-hogging icons, give subscribers a greater level of information-service customization and accommodate more potential users during peak-usage periods. Such peak periods include rush hour, when commuters want the latest traffic reports every few minutes, he explained.
There is even enough capacity to push individual subscribers' stock portfolio updates, not just broad market-index updates. SPOT could even distribute local news, including Little League scores, to multitudes of subscribers rather than simply offer national news and sports, he added.
Instant Messaging: The capacity also means that users will be able to download a new watch "face" to reflect their personality and receive short instant messages from friends or colleagues on their watch's buddy list. SPOT's 120-by-96-pixel display will display several lines per screen, with several words per line, then cycle through additional screens until an IM's maximum of about 65 characters is reached.
With Microsoft's proprietary sideband technology, a single radio station can send 125MB of data per day, and more than one station per market can implement SPOT transmissions to further increase capacity, Mitchell said. That capacity can be used in the future to download new applications over the air to the watches, such as play-by-play baseball-game updates, he noted.
By the end of the year, Microsoft expects to knit together a radio-station network in each of the top 100 U.S. metro areas. The company is working with radio-station chains Clear Channel, Entercom, Greater Media and Rogers.
Microsoft's technology uses a proprietary protocol that resists fading and multipath and boosts the data rate to 22kbps, Mitchell said. Throughput is 11kbps when error correction is used to compensate for the effects of motion.
On the client side, Microsoft teamed up with National Semiconductor for a low-cost, low-power two-chip solution that watchmakers can incorporate in their final designs. Based on Microsoft's reference platform, the watches will deliver a week of use if a rechargeable battery is used, but watchmakers can opt for user-replaceable watch batteries that would extend operation, he said. Timex's paging-network Internet Messenger watch, which is being closed out (see story at right), operates between one to three weeks on a user-replaceable watch battery.
Fall target: The first smart watches will be launched in the fall, with watchmakers Citizen, Fossil and Suunto vying to be first. Fossil will launch under the Fossil, Abacus and Philippe Stark brands. Suunto manufacturers wristwatch sports instruments under the Wilson, Atomic, Suunto and Precor names. Microsoft estimates prices starting at around $100-$120. Subscription costs weren't revealed.
Challenges: The watches will make their appearance at a time when customizable information services, e-mail and IM services are already available to consumers over a wide range of wireless phones and one- and two-way pagers. Mitchell, however, sees a niche that these devices don't fill. Whereas cellphones and pagers might be the device that consumers use to read "more immersive" content, SPOT's goal is to offer glanceable information on everyday objects. Microsoft, he said, wants "to make everyday objects smarter," starting with wristwatches but extending next to any device with a clock display, including clock radios and microwave ovens. The next generation of devices will include disposable stick-on devices for cars to display traffic information on glanceable maps.
SPOT's intent is also to "improve the core functionality of an existing device," rather than pile more features into devices such as cellphones to make them do more and more unrelated functions, he said. SPOT technology, in contrast, can improve the main time-telling function of a watch. Smart watches, for example, can automatically synchronize with the U.S. atomic clock, adjust for time-zone changes, and adjust for daylight-saving time, he said. They will also deliver "timely" information. "People highly value information linked to time," he explained.
A company such as Suunto, for example, said it can add related functions to watches that it calls personal sports instruments, or wristwatch computers. For joggers and exercise enthusiasts, for example, Suunto offers watches that monitor heart rate, altitude and air pressure, and now they'll be able to display weather-related information. Someone doing daily exercises will also be able to get health-related updates. Users could also create a workout training schedule on Suunto's Web site, then use SPOT technology to keep track of their progress, the company contends.
"With silicon, memory and radio technologies getting smaller and cheaper and becoming a commodity," said Mitchell, "there is no need to aggregate [unrelated] functions into a single device."
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