GIZMOS: High-tech watch keeps information at your fingertips

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The idea of a portable device to indicate the time of day is nothing new in the world of technology. Watches of various forms have been around for years. However, it’s only been in the last 30 years or so that modern technology has changed the face-literally-of telling time.

Since the days of the original Pulsar LED digital watches (think red calculator digits) in the early 1970s, watch manufacturers have tried to appeal to technology’s early adopters by adding functionality and information to a relatively small piece of portable real estate.

As a high-tech enthusiast, I remember being thrilled to receive a Casio Data Bank watch several years ago. Not only did this thing tell the time in multiple time zones, it also had an on-board phonebook, albeit with keys that required a microscope to see and a toothpick to use.

Recently, the latest word in high-tech watches hasn’t been what the watch can store or do, but what information it can provide. The folks over at Microsoft Research unveiled a technology framework called Smart Personal Objects Technology, or SPOT, at Comdex in 2002. Essentially, SPOT allows everyday devices to communicate with the Internet over a wireless connection similar to a pager. Soon after, it was decided that watches should be the first objects to implement this new technology.

Much of last year was spent rolling out products together with various watch manufacturers including Fossil, Suunto, Swatch and Tissot. The devices range from $129 all the way up to $725, depending on your taste in watches. However, essentially, all the watches have the same functionality.

Armed with my background research, I set out to a local shopping mall and picked up a Fossil Wrist Net FX3005. This model was a revision to Fossil’s earlier version, and has added some niceties such as leather highlights and a lower-profile design.

Overall, the watch is comfortable to wear with its rubber/leather combination strap, but the face was a bit thicker than I was used to, which made for some occasional strange feelings under my shirt sleeves. Despite that initial annoyance, the watch wasn’t so large that it atttracted strange looks.

The driver of this watch’s size is one of functionality. Instead of traditional hands, the smart watch has a small, backlit LCD display, in many ways similar to an older black-and-white model Palm Pilot. The buttons on board the watch allow its user to scroll through a variety of information, which leads to the most fascinating aspect of this technology.

Through its MSN service, Microsoft has provided content for the watches. For no additional cost, basic information (a local weather forecast and national news) is available and continuously sent to the watch. Because the information is sent over regular FM broadcast radio waves, there is rarely any problem receiving a signal, as long as you remain in a major metropolitan area. For frequent travelers, fear not-location-based information can stay up-to-date as you move between cities.

If you’re willing to cough up a few more dollars (starting at $40 a year) a wealth of additional information is available. Customizable news, weather, sports scores and stock quotes are accessible through the MSN Direct Web site ( And just for fun, they’ve included some diversions, too-horoscopes, lottery numbers and a variety of fascinating alternative watch faces. And with no software to install-all the watch settings are on-board or accessible through the Web-you don’t have to be a computer geek to use one of these high-tech toys.

Overall, the watch is a pleasant experience. However, as is the case with most styles of high-tech watches, they are not often suited for formal occasions. While many of the designs will work fine if you are in a business casual environment, don’t plan to wear one out for dinner and dancing. It also took some “training” to remember to charge the watch every few days, although it was as simple as laying it on a stand-no wires to connect.

If you enjoy playing with the latest technology, you will likely enjoy owning one of the Smart Watch models. However, as with many new devices, don’t be surprised if your interest (and usage) drops a bit after a while as you get used to the idea of having so much information literally at your fingertips.

Gizmos, a column that reviews emerging technology, appears regularly in IBJ Technology Focus sections. Michael Downey is CEO of Synapse Interaction Design, a technology consulting firm, and a lifelong technology enthusiast and self-proclaimed geek. Views expressed here are the writer’s.

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