A few days ago I wrote up the tour I had of HP labs, and the device HP engineers were building for the US Military called a Super Watch really intrigued me. In short, it’s a wrist-based device with about a 4-inch screen that will provide GPS information, friend-foe information for soldiers. In looking back at technology adoption, generally a new technology initially comes to market successfully by mimicking something else: Initial cars were very similar to carriages without horses, and the first TVs looked like radios with screens, for instance. They eventually evolve to an original form that is designed around the technology. For example, current cars and flat screen TVs look vastly different than their initial product offerings, and are vastly more capable as a result. The iPhone is basically a candy bar phone with an extra-large screen, and the iPad mimics a pad of paper coupled with an iPhone, but neither device has to have that form: Apple decided to use those form-factors because people are familiar with them. This suggests both could, and likely will, evolve into something else. If so, why not a consumer version of HP’s Super Watch?
The HP Super Watch
At the core of this watch is the flexible transflective display that is coming out of HP’s lab. Being flexible, the display can be bent around objects and even, for example, built into clothing. However, having a display on a jacket, shirt, or pair of pants, while possible, doesn’t strike me as being more practical than a tablet. However, putting it on an oversized watch could be really interesting, and clearly the US military agrees, which is why it commissioned this product.
HP didn’t tell me much about what this watch would do, but I suspect it will convey things like battle configurations, GPS location, approaching friendlies or hostiles, medical information, communications (text and voice), and feedback information about the soldier to command. Clearly it would have a touch screen, and I expect, a limited voice interface so that the soldier could interact with it while firing his weapon or changing positions. I would expect some automatic functions as well, like signaling when the soldier was in distress or injured, so that a medical team or other help could be automatically dispatched to his location.
Eventually there might be some limited scanning and analytical functions, which could identify potential threats either by aggregating data centrally and making determinations from it, or by local analytics. Sounds, scents (like those from explosives), thermal images or other details that a device could pick up might provide insight to both the soldier and his command that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Since HP is into sensors, none of this is that farfetched.
Consumer Super Watch
The advantage of something you wear is that it is potentially with you all the time, unlike a phone which you can drop or lose, or a tablet, which you may not choose to carry that much. I know a lot of people who regularly lose or break their cell phones, and even though I carry my Kindle constantly, even I leave it behind from time-to-time and miss it.
Typical features on a consumer watch could match what the iPad and iPhone currently have in terms of communications, Web access, GPS functions, and applications. However, because this device would be attached to your wrist, it could also pick up some of the things the military device did, like provide you with health information (critical to diabetics or those with heart problems), alert others if you are injured, help parents keep track of children or the elderly, both identify approaching dangers (storms etc.) and route you away from them, and monitor your surroundings (like look for rapid changes in barometric pressure or proximity to your favorite food) to provide advice on where you should go.
I can picture people trusting these to help them with exercise, diets, meds, and letting them know when the boss is approaching (though I’ll bet that feature is relatively unreliable fast). Like the military device, data entry would be by touch screen or voice, and I could expect accessories that would tie them into larger car or home screens in the future for more convenient or shared access. Cameras could do dual duty for video conferencing and taking pictures, though I’ll bet working out where they go on the device will be difficult. James Bond would likely have wireless camera accessories that could be worn like a name tag, but I can’t imagine folks wanting to share a player’s eye view of a sport wanting to do the same thing.
Whether or not a Super Watch is the next thing to eclipse the iPhone or iPad is debatable, but the concept will evolve into something else, and once these bendable, transflective, outdoor viewable displays become common, they are likely to appear in a number of devices. It may take a decade or four before we figure out where, but I’ll bet the tablet of tomorrow won’t be a tablet at all, it will be something entirely different. What do you think?