- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Why should Dick Tracy have all the fun?

Having reinvented the personal computer, the portable music player and the phone, Apple reportedly is working on a wristwatch. And not just any wristwatch. According to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, the personal technology giant is developing a watch that runs on iOS (the same operating system powering iPhones and iPads), is made of a new kind of bendable glass that can curve around the wearer’s wrist and may even be solar-powered.

But enough about tech wizardry.

The original iPod wasn’t a hit simply because of its then-innovative click-wheel interface; it was a hit because the device provided a better, revolutionary way to purchase, store and listen to music. So if Apple does release a watch, only one question truly matters: What will it actually be able to do?

Here are a few possibilities:

Act as a health and exercise monitor/coach: Nike already makes the FuelBand, an accelerometer-equipped bracelet that tracks the wearer’s steps taken and calories burned and syncs to smartphones. Similarly, Jawbone’s Up bracelet tracks physical activity, food intake and sleep patterns. An iWatch could take this type of self-monitoring to the next level — perhaps syncing with a fitness coach program to direct your workouts and offer video instruction on a small screen; perhaps by transmitting medical data (blood pressure, heart rate, signs of tremor) to a doctor or monitoring software. The iWatch even could potentially save lives, detecting erratic movement patterns that indicate you’ve had too much to drink and then wirelessly telling your car not to turn on.

Provide directions and quick information: Maps already are a killer smartphone app, and a GPS-equipped iWatch (or a watch synced to your GPS-equipped smartphone or tablet) could make them even more useful. Particularly with a Siri-style voice interface. Imagine speaking into your watch, Dick Tracy-style: “What’s the weather going to be tomorrow morning?” “Is my flight on time?” “Add bananas to my grocery list.” Imagine your watch understanding, and/or answering back.

Pay for stuff: Put an NFC chip in the iWatch, and today’s cash-and-credit-card transactions — too much fumbling; too many things crammed into one’s wallet — could become tomorrow’s frictionless, swipe-and-pay purchases, similar to waving a SmartCard to enter a Washington Metro station. Moreover, an iWatch could end up replacing your wallet altogether: Ask former Apple designer Bruce Tognazzini, who recently wrote on his “Ask Tog” blog, “How about if it also stored electronic copies of your driver’s license, your passport, etc., along with an access pathway to your medical records for emergency personnel?” Buh-bye, MedicAlert bracelets.

Connect to your other devices: The iWatch could light up or vibrate with incoming phone call and text message alerts. It could act as a television or home entertainment center remote control. Siri, turn to “Modern Family.” It could act as a repository for all of your various email and account passwords, and unlock those applications so long as you’re in a particular range. It could act as the most stylish, light switch-flipping Clapper ever produced.

Fix Apple Maps: Apple’s recent switch from using Google Maps to its own, proprietary map app has been met with something less than universal enthusiasm. But fear not, Mr. Tognazzini writes: The iWatch could help the company create the most accurate maps ever. How so?

“Using pressure data from millions of watches, Apple could build a precision altitude map of the world,” he writes. “This map would indicate true altitudes everywhere that iWatch wearers travel.”

In addition, Mr. Tognazzini speculates that iWatch altitude maps and user locations would enable weather forecasters to crowdsource barometric data that could, in turn, help them better predict weather patterns and storm movement. A watch that makes our local television weather people — excuse us, meteorologists —- less prone to lousy forecasts? Sign us up for two.

Do unpredictable things: When Apple introduced the first iPhone, did anyone expect enterprising programmers to create a Roman Catholic confessional app? Or for college students to save money — and lug-a-book back strain — by taking pictures of textbook pages they need to study? New technology always leads to unintended applications; Mr. Tognazzini speculates that an Apple watch could produce a whole new way of silently communicating via watch vibrations, a Morse code-like method he calls “Kid Code.”

“It might start out as an app designed with the best of intentions, to let people communicate via a brand-new gestural language-in, Morse code vibration out, aimed, perhaps, at a few aging amateur radio operators,” he wrote. “It it suddenly and unexpectedly taken over by school kids, sweeping the nation. No more being busted by teacher while intently tapping out text on phones. Instead, kids will be just innocently rubbing their watch faces. No more glancing at text screens, just feeling silent vibrations.”

Help corporations and the government spy on you even more: Civil libertarians and privacy advocates already are aghast over the personal tracking made possible by smartphones and social networking. A data-transmitting iWatch isn’t going to put that genie back in the bottle — but at least when the drones are humming overhead, they’ll have something nice-looking to lock on to.

Tell time: Well, duh.

• Patrick Hruby can be reached at phruby@washingtontimes.com.

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