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With an iWatch looming, Microsoft's Bill Buxton details the 37-year history of smartwatches

With an iWatch looming, Microsoft's Bill Buxton details the 37-year history of smartwatches


Casio made a $100 watch with gesture control — in 1984

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Bill Buxton
Bill Buxton

The era of the smartwatch appears to be steadily approaching. With Pebble shipping its model earlier this year and persistent rumors over Apple's own plans to introduce an iWatch, the world is buzzing about the possibilities for a connected watch. Microsoft principal researcher Bill Buxton held a talk at the company's TechFest this week covering a range of topics, but a key highlight was his overview of the history of smart wearables. Calling it a "hot topic," Buxton revealed he has been an avid collector for around 35 years.


"You're probably going to reinvent the wheel. You can afford that?"

In a presentation representing some 37 years of smartwatches, Buxton brought out his very own Orient Touchtron watch from 1976. "It's an LED watch and you touch it and it turns the LED lights on," he explained. It's the world's first watch with capacitive touch sensing, and Buxton believes, to the best of his knowledge, that it "introduced the notion of double click in order to drill down deeper." Single touch tells you the time and double click tells you the date. "This is before these things were happening on mice," explained Buxton. "If you work in this space and you don't know the history, why are you doing this? You're probably going to reinvent the wheel. You can afford that?"

Next up, Buxton moved on to one of the first calculator watches. Originating out of Japan in 1979, Citizen produced a watch without a standardized keypad to interface with it. "Around the bezel you have these little buttons that are indented so you can get a ballpoint ben to type and enter the numbers," Buxton reveals. "It's like having diamonds around the bezel except they're functional diamonds. It's fascinating to watch how the evolution comes about the control and about how we start to experiment with these things."

Touchscreen watches as far back as the 80s

Buxton's favorite watch of all is the Casio AT-550 touchscreen calculator watch from 1984. It's mainly an analog face, but it has a fascinating interaction point: gesture control. You simply stroke down to enter a number one, draw a plus sign, and draw a seven to get the number 7. The device cost just $99.95 and was mass produced back in 1984 with a touch screen and character recognition. "Compared to the touch devices you have today, how many of them can you enter data eyes-free?" argued Buxton.

"1984, that is 18 Moore's Laws ago, that means the chip in this today would have 250,000 times the compute power," explained Buxton. "Every one of these things teaches us." He jokingly argued we should, as an industry, be asking what we've been doing for the past 20 odd years "instead of patting ourselves on the back at how genius we are about making all these new hot gadgets like smartwatches." It's the long nose of innovation to reach device potential, something that Buxton argues takes years or even decades.

Will Microsoft have to re-enter a market it exited?

"I'm not trying to say what's going on today isn't interesting, but it becomes actually more interesting if you drop the hype and view it in context in the history of things and see it as a continuum then you start to see how we're doing and not get dazzled." Of course, Microsoft discontinued its own smartwatch platform, known as SPOT, back in 2008. With Apple and Google both likely candidates to launch wearable computing devices in 2013, it's entirely possible that we'll see Microsoft re-entering another market that it tried to kickstart all those years ago.