A child calls a buddy on his Dick Tracy Two-Way Wrist Radio in this 1960s commercial.
I have no plans to buy a smartwatch at the moment, but when I do, I already know the first command to give it.
I’m going to make my jaw as square as possible, activate the phone for my first call (probably to my wife), and say: “Calling all cars! Calling all cars!”
With Android Wear already here and Apple Watch on the way, we must salute detective Dick Tracy and his his two-way wrist radio.
Comic strip creator Chester Gould first strapped a wrist radio on Dick Tracy in 1946. He upgraded it to a wrist television in the 1960s. Tracy never complained about dropped calls or bandwidth problems.
The Apple Watch is far from the first smartwatch in history. With its debut in the wearables field, Apple is hoping to do what it does best: Swoop in and revolutionize a niche technology with a lot of promise but few mass-market successes.
In the case of the smartwatch, Apple's tackling an idea that has existed in the popular consciousness since the 1940s. Check out the gallery above to see some of the concepts that paved the way for Tim Cook and his team.
Famous comic book detective Dick Tracy got his first wrist radiophone in 1946. During the same time period, there were several real attempts to create a similar device. In 1954, Sylvania constructed a prototype with transistors. In 1963, a Los Angeles company called Davenport & Waldon actually advertised one for $7. Sadly, with the exception of Dick Tracy’s famous smartwatch, none of the others worked as described. If they worked at all, that is.
This isn’t exactly a smartwatch by the modern definition, but a digital display featuring glowing numbers instead of hands seemed pretty darn smart in 1972, the same decade Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak teamed up to create Apple.
This Hamilton-produced Pulsar watch was the world’s first to feature such a display. It was 18-karat gold and carried a price tag of $2,100 (that's the equivalent of $11,949.50 in today's money, according to the U.S. Inflation Calculator). Hamilton provided a futuristic clock for Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the former head of the company's Pulsar division said that effort inspired his team to create the world’s first digital watch. The LED display was initially red, although a green version came later.
The Pulsar might have been the reality of digital watches around the time that Apple started, but what was predicted by the age’s futurists? The 1979 Usborne book Future Cities: Homes & Living Into the 21st Century describes the arrival of "wrist-phones" or “ristos.” These devices, the authors predicted, would work with cellphones and GPS equipment.
"City dwellers of tomorrow could have a small gadget of enormous benefit — a wristwatch radio-telephone,” the book notes. "With a wristwatch radio, you could talk to anyone, wherever you happened to be.... If you were late for an appointment, it would be easy to let the other people know.... It ought to be impossible to get lost in tomorrow's world, in a city or out of it.... The wrist-phone can provide guidance back to the nearest town.” Pretty accurate, no?
Imagine if Cupertino had tried to create an Apple Watch back at the time of the original Macintosh. In fact, that’s not all that far from the truth. Apple didn’t exactly make it themselves, but the Seiko RC-1000 Wrist Terminal could interface with a number of popular computers at the time, including the Apple II, II+ and IIe.
It arrived in 1984, and featured scheduling, memos, world times and a four-function calculator app — all with just 8KB of ROM and 2KB of RAM. Even better, its multicolored successor, the RC-4500, was known as the “Wrist Mac.”
From the mid-'80s until the mid-'90s, Seiko was the company most associated with smartwatches. This 1995 Seiko MessageWatch could show caller IDs (by way of FM sideband frequencies), as well as updating sport scores, stock prices and weather forecasts. You could even send messages with it.
Sadly, Seiko discontinued the service on December 31, 1999, thinking that the combined threat of mobile phones and the Y2K bug (remember that?) was going to destroy whatever consumer interest there was left in the device.
Tech pioneer Steve Mann was hailed as the “father of wearable computing” when he built an open-source smartwatch capable of running Linux in 1998. Two years later, IBM teamed up with Citizen to build the so-called WatchPad based on the latest version of Linux. It never made it to market, but it was packed with amazingly modern-sounding features including voice-enabled Bluetooth connectivity, a fingerprint sensor and an accelerometer sensor.
Samsung's 1999 smartwatch, the SPH-WP10, came about because of the company’s premature belief that the mobile phone market was already at saturation point. Working as a cross between a phone and a watch, the SPH-WP10 had a battery life of 90 minutes’ talk time, or 60 hours on standby. It cost close to $700. Few people remember it today, but it preceded the Galaxy Gear by more than a decade.
This 2003 smartwatch started development in 1999 when engineer Donald Brewer tried to get a version of Palm OS to work on a watch. At almost 45,000 cubic millimeters, the first prototype was described as a "boat anchor."
Brewer kept going, however, and millions of dollars were poured into a project that eventually produced a series of impressive smartwatches, capable of running a range of different apps. The line never shed its bulky aesthetic, though, while other common complaints included poor water-resistance, low battery life and a screen that was too dim to read and too small to manipulate text upon. It lasted until 2005.
Compatible with both iOS and Android, 2013’s Pebble smartwatch raised a massive $10.3 million through Kickstarter. Features include a black-and-white e-paper display, vibrating motor to alert you of phone notifications, ambient light sensor and accelerometer. The revised Pebble Steel added $100 to the price point, but looked a whole lot less geeky.
An Android Wear-based device released by Motorola earlier this month, the Moto 360 is one of the most stylish smartwatches we’ve seen. Along with the expected phone-pairing functionality, it also boasts a heart rate sensor, pedometer, ambient light sensor and wireless charging. It wasn’t universally adored by any means, but in terms of combining aesthetics with functionality, this is the smartwatch for Apple to beat.
The iWatch is coming. No one really know what it will do yet, but Steven Milunovich, UBS’ top Apple analyst, claims that if Apple has its way, you’ll use the iWatch mostly to send voice messages back and forth with your friends, like Dick Tracy’s 2-Way Wrist Radio.
Because voice messaging is so huge among smartphone users in China, Milunovich says sending voice messages will be one of iWatch’s biggest features along with fitness. And even though it sounds a little silly that voice messages would be the main draws for iWatch, he just met with Tim Cook who couldn’t stop talking about it.
ADR Studios is the Italian design company behind the iPhone SJ, a sultry concept design for the iPhone 5 featuring an edge-to-edge capacitive touchscreen, 10 megapixel camera, A6 processor, and a polycarbonate body that’s about as light as you can imagine.
It’s a design that’s not realistically going to happen, but we’ve been a little obsessed with it for the last month or so. We feel similarly about ADR’s new iWatch2 concept: Apple’s never going to make a device that was so exclusively and unapologetically a wristwatch, but if they did, man, I wish it would look like this.