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MetaWatch
MetaWatch

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MetaWatch prototype review

It feels like we’ve collectively decided to write the wristwatch’s epitaph at some point in the last decade. I hear it all the time: “Who still wears a watch these days?” I admit, it’s a fair question. The watch had a good hundred-plus-year run, right? Maybe it’s time to put it out to pasture. Phones tell time, after all — in as many time zones and styles as you want, provided you’ve got the right app — and they can be found in virtually every pocket. Why carry two devices that do the same thing?

Of course, that attitude isn’t shared by everyone. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that watches are becoming fashionable again among the young and tech-savvy — the first people you’d expect to write them off. But style points aside, there’s another small, vocal contingent of folks who believe that the humble wristwatch simply needs to adapt — it has to be redefined to accommodate our changing technological needs.

It’s that school of thought that leads us to Fossil’s MetaWatch. Fossil — better known for irreverently-styled timepieces, wallets, and handbags than cutting-edge technology — has quietly operated something of a watch skunkworks for nearly a decade, producing a string of gadgety models sold under both the Fossil and Abacus names (along with the occasional Sony Ericsson). None have been wildly successful, but Fossil’s taking a different approach with the MetaWatch: it’s only being marketed to developers… for now, at least. So while I’m reviewing the watch, bear in mind that the average consumer won’t be buying this — it’s more a preview of a platform that might materialize if the stars align. That said, let’s take a look at what they’ve put together.

History

A brief history of the smart watch

There's simply no reason to wear a Casio Data Bank capable of storing 30 names and numbers anymore
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"Smart" watches are certainly nothing new; manufacturers have been toying with timepieces that do more than time-telling since the early '80s. Seiko and Casio were big innovators early on — in fact, the first watch that I ever owned was a Casio TS-1200, which had a horribly inaccurate thermometer built in (I wore the heck out of it right up until I broke the band). I later went on to own a Timex Data Link, which downloaded contacts from your PC using a sensor that read flashing white lines on your monitor (though it only worked with CRTs — you needed a special adapter if you had one of those newfangled LCDs). Next came a Beepwear, also by Timex, which packed a Motorola alphanumeric pager into an oversized (and extraordinarily ugly) body. As I recall, it used a zinc air hearing aid battery that needed to be replaced seemingly every few minutes. Practical? Not in the slightest — and as a high schooler, the last thing I needed (or could afford) was a pager. But it was awesome.

More recently, I've owned several watches from Fossil and Finnish company Suunto that support MSN Direct, a service operated by Microsoft that broadcasts news, weather, stock prices, and the like using local FM radio signals around the country. It's neat, but MSN Direct's fatal flaw is that it was conceived right before the smartphone revolution took hold. There's simply no reason to continue supporting an ultra-low-bandwidth, one-way data network that only works in a few dozen major US markets when 2G and 3G cell networks have become cost effective, cover over 95 percent of the population, and are infinitely more flexible. Smartphones use those data networks to deliver more information — and deliver it in a more timely fashion — than MSN Direct ever could. For instance, the service is limited to sending out quotes for roughly 900 commonly-requested stocks, and it just sends those quotes out over the airwaves periodically; you can't request information on demand.

What do all these watches have in common? They were designed in a vacuum, a place where smartphones haven't taken over the world. Of course, that place no longer exists, and even the most die-hard watch fanatics will plainly admit that wristwatches aren't winning any battles for capability, power, or pure information delivery against an iPhone. There's simply no reason to wear a Casio Data Bank capable of storing 30 names and numbers anymore.

So if you can't beat ‘em, join ‘em — complement the phone's functionality, don't duplicate it. Fossil (and others) have made Bluetooth watches in the past, and the MetaWatch is a pretty early, raw preview of what the next-generation connected Bluetooth watch might look like.

Enter the MetaWatch

Enter the MetaWatch

What is the MetaWatch, exactly? On an abstract level, it's a remote terminal for your phone that's connected via Bluetooth - a second display, basically. An included Android app called OpenWatch maintains communication with the watch, and in turn, third-party applications can plug into it. And as I'd mentioned before, what sets the MetaWatch apart from its Bluetooth-equipped predecessors is that it's a development platform in its own right. That means you're not just buying a nerdy Caller ID and text message notifier for your wrist - Android developers can actually push text and graphics to the watch and respond to presses of any of its six buttons with minimum coding effort. It's easy to imagine how that could integrate nicely with any number of apps: task managers, RSS readers, Twitter, the list goes on.

The MetaWatch's apps are "hosted" by your phone, pushing changes to the display over Bluetooth as necessary. At this early stage, only Android is supported for a couple logical reasons: ubiquity of devices, and the availability of "true" multitasking that allows OpenWatch to receive and handle commands from other MetaWatch-compatible apps on an ongoing basis. From the watch's perspective, though, it could be any platform on the other end of the Bluetooth line — there's no particular predisposition toward Android.

Why two models? I think Fossil's still a long way off from deciding how this is going to play out with consumers, and in the meantime, they want to give developers flexibility

At launch, the MetaWatch is available in two different configurations for the same $200: an all-digital model with a 96 x 96 monochrome LCD, and an analog-digital hybrid that features two 16 x 80 OLEDs inset beneath mechanical hour and minute hands. I was sent a prototype of the all-digital version — just the watch itself and an early design of the clip charger (more on that in a bit) without any retail packaging. Why two models? I think Fossil's still a long way off from deciding how this is going to play out with consumers, and in the meantime, they want to give developers flexibility. For what it's worth, I think the all-digital model is the more interesting of the two — the LCD can stay on all the time, whereas OLED becomes a huge battery drain. You've also got more screen real estate for showing texts, emails, and graphics.

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The watch isn't beautiful, but it certainly isn't unattractive, either — it's a plain black square with a buckled black leather strap to match. The design doesn't scream "prototype," it merely whispers it... you can definitely get away with wearing it in public without attracting undue attention. Three visible buttons on the right are accompanied by three inset buttons on the left, presumably intended for functions that you wouldn't want to accidentally actuate (entering the "set" mode for a clock or alarm, for instance). Around back, four screws hold a metal plate attached with charging contacts visible. At the bottom, a note: "Designed in Texas, Made in China."

As you can probably guess, the front of the this watch is by far its most distinctive feature. The display isn't exactly your typical LCD — pixels toggle between creamy white and a mirrored state. It's a cool look, but there's a big downside: visibility is at the mercy whatever object the display is reflecting. For example, if you're standing beneath a white ceiling (which is pretty common), the mirrored pixels reflect that ceiling and offer virtually no contrast with the white pixels. You can reverse the colors by toggling an option in OpenWatch, but there isn't much practical difference in readability; they look great in the picture above only because they're reflecting the black of the camera. I imagine these LCDs wouldn't ever make it to a consumer model. Above and to the right of the LCD is a light sensor that's accessible by developers, but it's unused out of the box. You can definitely imagine some applications for this: the phone always has access to the current level of ambient light, even when it's in your pocket, so you could make automatic adjustments to your profile (à la Locale).

Unlike many modern LCD watches that use soft green electroluminescent backlighting, the MetaWatch uses a single white LED embedded along the top edge; from the idle screen, you can actuate it with a press of the lower left button. It's certainly not uniform and not particularly bright, but it's good enough to get the job done in a pinch.

Getting the watch married to your phone is relatively straightforward, though it's not the most intuitive experience from beginning to end — and to Fossil's credit, they've made it clear that the firmware and Android app are pretty raw and early at this point. Step one is to install OpenWatch on the handset and dive into the settings screen. There's a pile of developer-centric options in here that the average user shouldn't touch (things like "Packet Wait" and "Skip SDP lookup" that mean nothing unless you're hacking the watch), but more importantly, there's a long list of default notification types that the app can send to the watch out of the box without any developer intervention: incoming calls, text messages, Gmail, third-party email app K-9 Mail, calendar, the alarm clock, music track changes, and instant messaging app Mundu are all supported.

Finally, you complete the Bluetooth pairing from within the app. At present, the watch is always discoverable, but both the version of OpenWatch I'm using and the watch firmware itself are pretty early and raw — I'd expect this to eventually change so you only temporarily make the watch discoverable during pairing.

Even though Fossil's basically launching this as a clean-slate development platform, Android users will actually find that there's quite a bit of useful functionality out of the box — enough so that you could justify buying it and simply using it without coding anything of your own or seeking apps from other developers. The so-called "idle screen" — the screen that OpenWatch pushes down to the watch when no third-party apps are using the display — shows time, date, current weather conditions, and unread counts for Gmail, SMS, and missed calls. I'd definitely consider it a good mix of glanceable information. I would've liked to have been able to configure OpenWatch to use Gmail's Priority Inbox count instead of total unread emails (which is a number well north of 5,000 for me, sadly), but I imagine it'll work fine for most.

Out of the box, that's really it — a densely-packed, useful idle screen and realtime notifications that you can actually feel

Like Fossil's and Sony Ericsson's older Bluetooth watches, the MetaWatch can vibrate when it receives a notification from the phone, which is infinitely useful. I don't know if it's the style of pants I wear or what, but for whatever reason, I can very rarely feel my phone vibrate in my pocket — and the ringer is all but useless if I'm outdoors or in a noisy environment. When the watch vibrates, though, it's an entirely different story — it's virtually impossible to miss. Not once while wearing the watch did I fail to notice that a call or a text message had rolled in.

Depending on the type of notification, relevant text information is displayed on the screen. For instance, you see a phone number when you get a call and a brief preview of text messages and emails as they arrive. I find that the volume of my email inbox is high enough so that I had to disable Gmail notifications — but even when those are turned off, you still get the correct unread account on the idle screen. All told, I found the text and call notifications to be the single most valuable function of the watch for me.

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Out of the box, that's really it — a densely-packed, useful idle screen and realtime notifications that you can actually feel. For some, that alone is going to be worth the $200, and it'll be fascinating to see how developers extend it. One big flaw right now is that the idle screen actually relies on the data being pushed to it from OpenWatch in order to display the time — if you go outside of Bluetooth range, the screen will silently "freeze" without any warning or notification. Fossil says this will change for launch — the MetaWatch is capable of keeping its own time without the aid of a phone — and hopefully this'll open the door for a vibrating out-of-range alert for when you accidentally leave your phone behind.

As I mentioned before, the watch charges using a clip that connects to gold contacts on the back, not unlike many other rechargeable watches like Garmin's Forerunner series. The prototype clip I used was finicky to say the least — I'd often spend two or three minutes trying to make sure it was correctly positioned — but Fossil says that shipping units will include a refined, easier-to-use design.

The current firmware doesn't have any indication of battery life on the display (that'll change), but if you let it sit on the clip for more than a couple hours, I found that you could get a solid day out of it before it would unceremoniously turn itself off. The goal for production units is a full week of use without visiting the clip, which is a big difference. What gives? It turns out that the current version of OpenWatch is refreshing the display an order of magnitude more often than the final software will — and when the watch can chill out with a static display and a dormant Bluetooth connection, it's just barely sipping power.

Video Review

Video Review


Obviously, the MetaWatch is a watch nerd’s dream — that was never in doubt – but the million-dollar question (or billion-dollar question, really) is whether we’re looking at a glimpse of the wristwatch’s consumer resurgence as a capable, helpful smartphone companion. In short, I think the answer is “possibly,” but a lot needs to happen in order for us to get there — and not all of it is in Fossil’s control.

The most immediate roadblock is broad handset compatibility. iOS support is obviously a huge deal, but Fossil tells us that iOS 5 is the first version that gives them a “realistic shot” at porting OpenWatch — and even then, Apple doesn’t expose full access to the Bluetooth Serial Port Profile (SPP) that MetaWatch uses to communicate. Furthermore, SPP isn’t fully or properly implemented in many Android phones that Fossil has tried; the Nexus series is a safe bet, but non-stock devices are a crap shoot. As long as these devices only reliably work on an odd phone here and there, they don’t stand a chance for wide retail success.

More importantly, manufacturers need to acknowledge that watches are jewelry first, timepieces second — form over function. Fossil showed a handful of alternative concept designs for the MetaWatch back at Google I/O in May, and that’s a good start… but ultimately, I think the watch’s “smart” features need to become secondary features altogether. As always, a watch is going to catch a shopper’s eye first because it looks good — it’s only after the sales clerk pulls it out of the case that they’ll start asking about price and capabilities. In other words, we need to get to the point where most watches in the Fossil store can do this stuff as a matter of course, and clearly, we’re a long way out from that.

And finally, I don’t think Fossil (or any manufacturer) can go this alone. There’s never been a better time for Fossil, Timex, Casio, Seiko, and others to gang up, form an industry association, and standardize the SDK, interfaces, and functionality that MetaWatch is offering. By all appearances, Fossil could be open to some sort of arrangement like that — the “.org” in metawatch.org speaks volumes, and they’re being extraordinarily open and forthcoming about the architecture. There’s no question that Fossil deserves a lot of credit for standing by a niche high-tech watch market over the last decade and for building out MetaWatch by themselves, but ultimately, this category simply doesn’t have enough consumer gravity for any single manufacturer to shift the paradigm alone.

In the meantime, would I recommend the $200 MetaWatch to everyone? Absolutely not — but I don’t think Fossil would, either. For now, it’s a quirky look at the utopian future that us watch nerds are hoping for, and a fun opportunity for hackers and developers that you won’t really find anywhere else.

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