Why can't great smartwatches look like normal watches? Smartwatches, for the most part, can be divided into two categories: vague approximations of the future like the Pebble, Gear, and Gear Fit, or conventionally styled watches from companies like Citizen and Cookoo that offer far less functionality. While it's true the Pebble Steel is making inroads in the aesthetic department, its blocky construction and oversized buttons aren't likely to appeal to the masses.
Gábor Balogh is a freelance designer from Hungary who, like many of us, wants an attractive, watch-like watch that just happens to be smart. The difference between Balogh and the rest of us is he went ahead and designed an interface he believes could enable regular watch designs to include a full bevy of smart features.
After posting his concept for a smartwatch on Behance, Balogh took some time to talk through his interface ideas with The Verge. The actual watch pictured in the mockups is almost incidental, as the concept simply takes the Swedish watchmaker Triwa's Havana timepiece (with the company's permission) and replaces its face with a circular display. This proposal is about interface paradigms, not product design. "In this concept the UI does not have a predefined style," says Balogh, "but it would match the housing. Only the navigational patterns have to be taken into consideration."
Although the interface itself will be down to watch and phone companies to decide, Balogh offers up some simple but polished ideas that go very well with Triwa's design. Pairing your smartphone to its watch will make the appropriate app icons appear on the display, with notifications, maps, and music information streamed from the device itself. When you don't want it to be a smartwatch, it mostly looks and behaves like a regular watch.
"I like products with discreet technology."
"I like products with discreet technology," explains Balogh, "when they serve me, my real needs, and make my life easier rather than simply changing my days." He calls out the Nest thermostat and Apple's Airport Express as prime examples of technology being applied discretely without obscuring functionality. "They're just ticking away in the background, making your life easier."
In an attempt to avoid obfuscation, Balogh's concept doesn't utilize a touchscreen or voice control. Instead, the interface uses the buttons and bezel found on most watches. The bezel is key to this interface. It can rotate to, for example, scroll through a long message or switch functions in an app, or be clicked to make a selection. The rotation element doesn't necessarily need to be physical — Balogh says he could imagine a more classical watch going with a physical dial, or a sporty design opting for an iPod-esque click wheel.
Using the bezel for controlling apps and other smartphone-related tasks frees up the three side-mounted buttons to control "native" functions like time, date, and alarms, as well as switching between modes. This clear separation of native and app functions should make the interface easily accessible to users familiar with how a regular watch works, while the lack of a touchscreen will stop the display from picking up smudges and grime from your fingers, and also stop your fingers from obscuring the display. "The size of the watch is a very limiting factor, so we don't have to make it very smart. I see the watch as a piece of jewelry, and wanted to add an interface that would be familiar on a classic watch."
Of course, Balogh is a designer, not an engineer, and there are technological issues that will need to be overcome before we can hope to wear something like his concept on our wrists. Circular screens, although not impossible, are a rarity, and squeezing a battery and the necessary circuitry into the tiny space that usually contains mechanical watchworks would be difficult. That said, the guts of a Pebble are actually fairly small, and larger watches may be able to contain them.
As a busy freelance designer, it's unlikely Balogh will be able to muster the time or funds to assemble a team and make his concept a reality. But as technology advances it's easy to see a future where tech giants like Samsung rein in their "futuristic" designs and attempt to take on the Breitlings and Tag Heuers of the world with something like Balogh's idea.