Apple Watch Explorer Edition could be the first great rugged smartwatch

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Apple Watch Explorer Edition could be Apple's answer to the ultra-popular G-Shock series.
A rugged Apple Watch could compete with the ultra-popular G-Shock series.
Photo: Moritz Kindler/Unsplash CC

A ruggedized version of Apple Watch could take the device’s lifesaving smarts to new extremes.

The so-called Apple Watch Explorer Edition, rumored to be in the works with a possible release as early as this year, could be Cupertino’s answer to Casio’s ultra-popular G-Shock watches. The benefits of implanting Apple Watch’s advanced sensors into such a beefy body seem like a no-brainer.

Apple Watch’s blood oxygen sensors, heart rate monitors and fall detection can make a difference in the daily life of average folks. But they could prove far more valuable to wearers snowboarding down frigid slopes, climbing up sand dunes or mountains, scrabbling over mud and rocks or diving the ocean’s depths.

Such extreme environments, in which adventurous humans test their limits, are just dying for an injection of Apple Watch smarts.

Redefining the watch

Just as Apple Watch redefined the smartwatch in 2015, Casio’s G-Shock line reinvented the wristwatch in the 1980s. G-Shock transformed the watch from a breakable, delicate timepiece into a heavy-duty piece of kit that could survive virtually anything thrown at it.

The idea for G-Shock supposedly came to Casio engineer Kikuo Ibe after he dropped and broke a precious pocket watch gifted to him by his father. His goal with the project, which started in 1981, was to design a watch able to “resist centrifugal and impact forces, as well as high water pressure.”

Ibe set out to build an “unbreakable watch based upon a triple 10 philosophy,” according to the G-Shock website. “It should be water resistant to 10bar, have a minimum 10 year battery life and most importantly, survive a minimum 10 metre drop. This new timepiece would go on to shatter the reputation of a watch as a fragile piece of jewellery.”

The team crafted more than 200 prototypes before they found a suitably shock-resistant form factor. G-Shock’s unique aesthetics — with a muscular, chunky design that looks like a regular sports watch on steroids — were inspired by a bouncing rubber ball. The watch uses materials like urethane for added protection, along with soft gel cushioning to protect the timekeeping module. Since the G-Shock’s launch in 1983, the year before Apple shipped the first Macintosh, Casio reportedly sold around 70 million of its ruggedized watches.

G-Shock gets smart

Last year, the company delivered its first G-Shock smartwatch, the ridiculously named GBD-H1000-1A7. Built from the ground up by Casio, it packs a heart rate monitor, GPS and an accelerometer for tracking steps, just like Apple Watch. It also adds an assortment of other sensors, including a thermometer and a pressure sensor. And solar-assisted charging lets the watch top up its battery using either natural or artificial light.

It sounded extremely promising, but received mixed reviews.

TechRadar pointed out numerous shortcomings: “The interface is unintuitive, with a cumbersome system that only allows users to scroll one way through readouts. Despite the size of its case, the G-Shock’s screen is a little too small for the amount of data it displays, while the lack of customization options is a shame.”

PocketLint’s review was of G-Shock’s first smartwatch was nicer. It praised the solidity of the G-Shock form factor (which benefits from almost four decades of iteration). However, the publication noted that the device’s smart features weren’t the world’s most advanced. The review dinged the watch for its rudimentary activity tracking, slow GPS function and incredibly basic notifications, which allow minimal interaction.

Building the first great ruggedized smartwatch

Those limitations give Apple an opportunity to step in and deliver the ruggedized smartwatch that extreme athletes and adventurers need.

The challenge Apple faces is the exact opposite of what Casio took on. The Japanese electronics manufacturer set out to build a smartwatch UI from the ground up with relatively minimal experience. The rumored Explorer Edition would deliver Apple Watch’s core smartwatch functionality in a truly rugged chassis.

There would no doubt be some design challenges with getting this right. Protection and ease of use don’t exactly go hand in hand. But if Apple can nail this, a rubberized, impact-resistant Apple Watch could tap a potentially huge market.

A handful of ruggedized smartwatches exist, such as the Garmin Instinct. However, nobody has yet built a sophisticated smartwatch that offers the kind of features that Apple Watch does, with a design that protects the device from the most challenging places humans dare to go.

The current Apple Watch proves impressively durable. However, people definitely can’t wear it as an alternative to the G-Shock in the toughest environments. Provided Apple can deliver, it could open up a whole new audience for its wearable.

The pioneering Xerox PARC computer scientist Alan Kay once called the Macintosh the first personal computer worthy of serious criticism. Done right, the Apple Watch Explorer Edition could be the first rugged smartwatch worth buying.