Though there have been attempts at wraparound smartwatches, the gadget category itself hasn’t really seen much design innovation for quite a while. Earlier this year, there was talk of a flat-edged Apple Watch, but those turned out to be mere rumors. While it’s unlikely we’ll see drastic change any time soon, it appears tech companies have been toying with the idea of watching videos and taking photos from the wrist.
The latest example comes courtesy of a Samsung patent (via LetsGoDigital and Peta Pixel). Originally filed in June with the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO), the patent depicts a Galaxy Watch with a rollable screen and camera smack dab in the middle. The watch concept looks like an average round-faced watch, but pressing the crown allows you to extend the screen further into a sort of pill-shaped oval that’s 40 percent larger.
In addition to novel ways of displaying information, Samsung also seems to think a larger screen might entice people to watch videos from the wrist. One drawing depicts a potential user watching what appears to be Marvel’s Thor on the watch. As for the camera, the schematics show a design where it’s located in the middle of the watch and is intended for taking photos or video.
It’s not out of left field that Samsung might try to extend its foldable screen tech to wearables. Samsung has experimented with cameras in wrist-based wearables before. Meta is also purportedly working on a smartwatch that will house not one but two cameras. And while there is no camera in the Apple Watch, there is the Wristcam, a $299 third-party strap with a built-in camera that can also be used for short-form video chatting. All of this is neat from a technological perspective, but as a wearables reviewer, I can tell you one thing: cameras and videos on smartwatches don’t make much sense.
For many, one of the smartwatch’s greatest “flaws” is that it’s a companion device. While you can do a lot with it on its own, it’s still limited without your smartphone. For example, replying to texts is tedious no matter how large the screen or how accurate your voice assistant is. Anything more than a quick “yes” or “on my way” requires you to whip out your phone. Poor battery life also means taking long calls just isn’t an option. Standalone capability is improving, however. More advanced models have LTE and contactless payments, which means you can safely leave your phone behind for quick jaunts around the neighborhood. But when it comes to taking photos and videos, smartwatches can’t replace your phone in any capacity just yet.
That’s probably the idea behind this nascent push to add cameras to our wrists. We’re all video chatting now, and wrist communicators have been buried deep into our collective psyche thanks to spy flicks like James Bond and sci-fi classics like Star Trek. When you take a call from the wrist, however, you can do so naturally. You don’t have to hold up your arm in a specific way to be heard — you can just continue what you were doing. You do for cameras and video chats. When I tested the Wristcam’s video chat for the Apple Watch, one of the things I hadn’t anticipated was how tired my arm felt after holding it up to capture my face at a flattering angle. Likewise, it’s easy to take out your phone, snap a photo, and get on with your day. Contorting your wrist to get a picture is less fun and more awkward to do in public. The effort doesn’t make sense when my phone is right there.
Watching videos from the wrist is less than ideal for the same reasons. While testing the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active2, I attempted to view a Bon Appetit YouTube video — partly because Samsung said I could, partly because I wanted to know what watching a video on such a small screen would be like. It worked, but that’s the best I can say about that experience. The screen was too small, the video was laggy, streaming video zapped battery life, and the app crashed more than once. It’s uncomfortable to hold your arm for an ideal viewing position for an extended period. Even if you could increase the screen size, I cannot fathom watching all 149 minutes of Avengers: Infinity War from the wrist when I could reach into my pocket for my phone.
And these are just the technical obstacles. Privacy is an entire bag of worms that no wearable company has effectively “solved” yet. These are incredibly personal devices, and they collect treasure troves of data. Privacy concerns are a major obstacle to wearable adoption, and you just have to recall the Google Glass Explorer Edition to understand how adding cameras to mix could go terribly wrong.
Perhaps one day, tech companies will figure out a way for smartwatch cameras to work without all the extra steps and tradeoffs. But in the meantime, cameras on smartwatches aren’t something most consumers are yearning for.