All-in-one gadget on the wrist is out of vogue; a mobile phone in the pocket has already replaced the watch.
Is Dick Tracy's talking, buzzing, waterproof, shock-resistant, crime-solving wristwatch an enduring but unattainable myth of electronics engineering? Or is it a technology on the brink of realization that will eventually prove as mundane as downloadable music, recordable DVDs and car phones?
EE Times posited the Dick Tracy problem to the industry, hypothetically specifying a 3G cell phone wristwatch with an integral antenna, microphone, speaker, color display and color camera for two-way video. Many engineering executives assured us that, from a technical standpoint, the industry is close to realizing such a vision.
But the executives also had a question for us: Why bother to build it? Does anyone in this day and age really want a Dick Tracy wristwatch?
Striking the right balance among size, cost, power consumption, performance and time-to-market for such a product is a tall order, especially when questions persist about its mass marketability, said Mike Yonker, chief technologist for the wireless-terminal business unit at Texas Instruments Inc. "All these five criteria-which are so interdependent-need to be carefully evaluated" for any proposed product, he said.
But the comic strip detective's legendary timepiece presents particularly nettlesome challenges, Yonker said, because it demands the simplest of user interfaces on the merest sliver of real estate-not to mention the need for the engineer to ponder the fuzzier, "human factor" elements of wearable-accessory design.
"After all," noted Philips Semiconductors executive vice president Mario Rivas, "a wristwatch is a piece of jewelry," to which people often assign sentimental value.
Flight of fancy
The very notion of the wristwatch is barely a hundred years old. Flamboyant Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont provided the inspiration for the design when he complained to his friend, the renowned French jeweler Louis Cartier, that he couldn't free his hands to consult his pocket watch while flying.
Cartier developed his Santos-Dumont prototype in 1904. The aviator wore it in fashion-conscious Paris two years later during his first successful public flight-covering about 200 feet-of a strange-looking biplane of his own design called the 14-bis. When Santos-Dumont emerged from the craft and checked his wristwatch to make sure he had secured a new record, the crowd of spectators got a glimpse of Cartier's design. It was one of the most successful product placements in history.
Whereas Cartier was able to turn around his prototype quickly, Dick Tracy's watch has proved more elusive. But its allure as an intellectual exercise persists, especially among engineers with childhood memories of the comic strip.
Philips' Rivas said he had been involved in Tracyesque two-way-radio watch projects, based on pagers, on two occasions, both before he joined Philips. Nothing "pumps up engineers" like a Dick Tracy watch project, he said. It's a "cross-disciplinary" exercise that "helps you see your weak spots," forcing you to "stretch the technological limits across the board." But Rivas also acknowledged that neither of the radio watch projects yielded a successful return on investment.
Indeed, no Tracy-type watch project has ever been confused with a killer app. Among the notions that have come and gone have been a wristwatch calculator, a wristwatch featuring an alphanumeric pager and a wrist PDA that could receive information beamed from a PC. So-called smart watches with subscription-based personalized data service, promoted by Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Direct and broadcast over FM radio waves, have hardly been runaway successes.
Wearing a watch on one's wrist is an idea that sprung from Alberto Santos-Dumont, a flamboyant Brazilian aviator, who didn't have a free hand to take out his pocket watch while flying.
At CeBIT in Hannover, Germany, last year, Samsung showed two versions of a watch with a 2G cell phone (one with GPRS and another with CDMA). The units lacked a video camera. Although the watches generated lots of press at the time, "none of them appear to have actually made it into the Korean market," said Allen Nogee, principal analyst at In-Stat/MDR.
At the 3GSM Congress in Cannes, France, earlier this year, India's Reliance Mobile demonstrated a wristwatch phone, called the Telson TWC 1150, with a plug-in camera from South Korea's Telson Electronics. Although the product can be worn on the wrist, it gives new meaning to the term chunky jewelry. Still, at 98 grams, it's said to be the world's lightest cdma2000 1x phone.
Miniaturization is the key, said Alessandro Cremonesi, vice president of the Advanced System Technology (AST) group at STMicroelectronics. "You can't just squeeze a couple of off-the-shelf 3G chips and a camera into a 3 x 3-cm or 2 x 2-cm device," he said. "You need to design a brand-new custom chip, which will be very expensive."
Besides shrinking the current system-on-chip technology to 65 nanometers, other fundamental architectural and physical changes are called for, Cremonesi said. "We need to depend on chip-on-chip, system-on-package and passives-on-silicon technologies."
But the RF side of the equation-the front-end module-is less problematic, said William Mueller, strategic-marketing manager at Agilent Technologies' wireless-semiconductor division. The ceramic duplexer that once was among the largest components in a cell phone has shrunk to 6 x 12 x 2 mm, thanks to the film bulk acoustic resonator (FBAR) technology developed by Agilent, Mueller said. The FBAR technology is used to create the essential frequency-shaping elements-including filters, duplexers and resonators for oscillators-while improving their size and performance.
"We already have the right filtering and low-voltage power amplifier technology, which is very usable in a Dick Tracy watch," said Philip Gadd, worldwide marketing manager of the wireless-semiconductor division at Agilent. Samsung, in fact, came to Agilent for the tiny duplexer when developing its CDMA-based wristwatch phone. Although that phone watch didn't sell in the United States, the project built a relationship between the companies, and Agilent's second-generation duplexer was designed into Samsung's clamshell-type CDMA phone, Gadd added.
Many said that battery life and battery size are the biggest hurdles to designing a phone watch.
Nigel Oakley, vice president of marketing at RadioScape, cited a "150 times difference in power consumption when you compare today's phone with a wristwatch." A typical watch, which can run without interruption for three years, needs only 1 milliamp; a cell phone integrated with DSP and RF capabilities needs at least 150 mA. "The 'watch' sets the expectations," Philips' Rivas said. Early adopters may not mind charging their watch once a day, he said, but "if I forget to bring along a charger on my quick business trip to London, I could end up with a wristwatch that neither tells the time nor functions as a phone."
The Telson TWC 1150 packs in a loudspeaker, voice recording and recognition, infrared earpiece and polyphonic rings.
If money were no object, many engineers said, they'd bet on lithium-ion polymer-type batteries, since the new technology promises a very low profile and a flexible form factor. In theory, TI's Yonker said, "one could mold a battery pack in the available space."
The next headache is the antenna. "Miniaturized antennas would be OK for low-power devices, but for a wide-area network communication device, such as a mobile phone, you need a highly efficient antenna," observed Marco Bianchessi, R&D director at ST's AST Group. Some suggested placing the antenna on the wristband, but Philips' Rivas countered that this was tried in 1990 and didn't work. Some wearers who didn't like the plastic band in which the antenna was embedded replaced it with a leather band, thereby unwittingly destroying the antenna, he said.
Then there's the matter of the user interface. "I/O is a trickier issue," said Feisal Mosleh, marketing manager of Agilent's sensor solution division.
Clearly, the watch face form factor is too small to use fingers as an input device for most operations. "You can't get a useful utilitarian capability in a 0.75 x 0.75-inch area, and no one is going to tap at their watch with a pen or hairpin-not for long that is," quipped analyst Jon Peddie, president of Jon Peddie Research.
Calling easy one-handed operation or even hands-free operation "mandatory" for a Tracy watch, TI's Yonker ruled out pen input. "Most PDA or other phone/organizer hybrid devices failed because they required two hands to operate," he observed.
Voice-activated commands may be the way to go, he suggested, but "unfortunately, there is no such thing as 100 percent accurate voice recognition yet." And even reliable voice input may prove impractical. "Do you bring your wrist closer to your cheek to talk? What about acoustical issues? Do you bring your watch up to your ear to listen?
"Either way, you'd look goofy," Yonker noted.
Engineers also noted that there would be no point to demanding that users strain their eyes gazing at a watch-size color display. Once information is downloaded onto the watch, they said, it could be beamed to an easier-to-use TV, PC or PDA display for viewing. Similarly, any music downloaded to the watch could be wirelessly transferred to a separate, portable MP3 player or living room entertainment system.
By making Bluetooth an integral element of the Dick Tracy watch, engineers could distribute complex audio and video functions among a variety of devices already owned and wirelessly connected by consumers. "A Dick Tracy watch as a Bluetooth device is already close to achievable today," TI's Yonker said.
The rub is that not all Bluetooth devices work together. Although application-level interoperability may exist between a handset and a headset, it would be hard for a Bluetooth-based watch to keep track of, say, five Bluetooth-based consumer devices, each with a different application-level protocol.
"Bluetooth today does not pass that [instantaneous, automatic configuration] test yet," said Yonker. "We may need to wait a couple of years for its maturity."
In one of the most inventive of the proposed Tracy twists to the distributed-wireless-network concept, ST's Cremonesi and Bianchessi positioned the Tracy watch as a network core whose data rate increases as it is wirelessly connected to a mobile handset via Bluetooth. The watch would be a short-range, low-bit-rate, low-power-budget device, equipped with such wireless technologies as RFID, Zigbee and Bluetooth, that could talk to a wide-area network when linked to a handset. Thus the audio and video quality of content downloaded to the watch would increase as the watch was linked to separate digital cameras, displays or loudspeakers.
This vision, which is based on "an evolutionary path," would ensure that the Dick Tracy watch would stay within its power budget while serving its original purpose as a short-range communication device, Cremonesi said.
Agilent's Gadd envisioned connecting the watch to a Micropower radio network with a number of cell sites. Although such a network would "require a whole new infrastructure," which some people describe as a basis for 4G or 5G mobile communications, it would retain the Tracy watch's status as a low-power, short-range device and, thus, jibes with the scenario laid out by the ST brainstormers.
A networked watch is a cool idea-but the Tracy timepiece, loaded with memory, baseband and multimedia codec circuitry, might run too hot for comfort. "You could burn your wrist off," said Jeff Sasagawa, director of market development and system solutions at MIPS Technologies.
Agilent's Gadd suggested a way to get around the problem: As in today's mobile telephones, the hotter components could be placed on the face side of the unit to minimize user contact with hot surfaces.
Is there a market?
So perhaps a Dick Tracy watch could indeed be built. But should it be built?
To find a market, MIPS' Sasagawa said, a consumer appliance "must improve convenience and performance, while offering a subtle [fashion] statement." To meet those criteria, the Tracy watch would have to feature applications that exploit its status as a wearable accessory. Sasagawa said such a watch might be useful for GPS-based monitoring/location services, medical and sports applications (to check heart rates and the like), and enterprise or vertical applications.
Finding customers is the big challenge, said analyst Peddie. "One of the problems with the engineering-marketing approach of 'We can do this, so let's do it'-or 'We did it because we could'-is that it wastes precious resources on science projects and ill-conceived ideas.
"Those ideas get turned into products, and more resources are wasted attempting to market them," Peddie said. "Then people buy them and play with them for a while, but the novelty wears off, and the utility isn't there to sustain the need or interest. So they become either closetware or eBayware."
The question of whether a phone watch is needed may be irrelevant in an age when, as ST's Cremonesi noted, many young people are already forgoing wristwatches. For them, he said, "a mobile phone in the pocket has already replaced the watch."
A "mobile phone in the pocket." Hmm. Perhaps it won't be too long before a latter-day Santos-Dumont remarks to his EE friend that it would sure be convenient to strap his cellular phone around his wrist.