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What is a smartwatch?

In this step you will be looking at a specific type of embedded system: a smartwatch.
In this step you will be looking at a specific type of embedded system: a smartwatch. We will explain what makes these watches so smart, and explore the different types of smartwatch that are available. The exploration in this step will help you cement your understanding of what an embedded system is and what it does.
A mans wrist, showing a smartwatch running a calendar app

Smart tech

Smart devices and services are objects with computer systems embedded in them; they are usually connected to the internet and provide the user with enhanced functionality when compared to their non-smart counterparts. This extra ability to collect, process, and react to stimuli from the real world is what makes them smart.
The other part of what makes something smart is connectivity, both with the users and with other devices. Smart devices have heavily user-focused features and designs and take advantage of the other smart devices users have. So now you can use your watch to turn your lights on — what a time we live in!

Smartwatches

A smartwatch is a watch that offers extra functionality and connectivity on top of the features offered by standard watches. They do this by including a computer system that carries out the normal functionality we expect, but can also handle some extra bells and whistles.
The title “smartwatch” doesn’t describe just one device, but a large range of devices with huge variety in their design and functionality. They all share some of the same functionality, which is why they share a title.
The common features are:
  • Setting and keeping track of the time
  • Displaying the time to the user
  • Setting an alarm
  • Producing an output when the alarm goes off
  • GPS tracking of some sort

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They also have some common design features:
  • Worn on the wrist
  • Use a strap to fasten to the user
  • Have a screen or watch face
  • Have a way for the user to provide deliberate input, such as:
    • Buttons
    • A dial
    • A touchscreen

Types of smartwatch

In the next step we will focus on one particular type of smartwatch. For now, let’s take a look at two broad categories of smartwatch and examine their feature sets and design choices to see how they reflect a use case. How are the features shaped around the type of user these watches are trying to attract?

The fitness tracker

One of the more common feature sets found in smartwatches is that of a fitness or lifestyle tracker.
Common pieces of functionality found in these types of watch are:
  • Heart rate monitor
  • Pedometer
  • Sedentary reminders
  • Data collection
  • Advice on how to improve
They also share some specific design features:
  • Waterproof
  • Wristbands made of nylon or similar
  • Slimline
  • Long battery life
The brand that is most synonymous with this type of smartwatch is fitbit. Their watches are purposefully small and fully waterproof. One look at their advertising tells you all about the types of users they have in mind.
The Medical Alert Watch
Not all smartwatches have internet usage as their cleverness quotient, some measure their cleverness in other ways, such as a medical alert, or fall detection watch.  Apple Watch comes with this capability, though other made-for-purpose watches claim high efficacy.  See Apple vs Kanega Fall Detection Comparison.

The phone companion

There are also a lot of smartwatches that pair with your mobile phone and have feature sets that interact with the phone’s features.
They will include:
  • Bluetooth
  • Displaying and replying to messages
  • Interaction with apps on your phone (e.g. skipping music tracks or checking emails)
  • Voice control
  • Notifications
These watches tend to share more design features with their phone counterparts than with each other. This being said, they do have some common design features:
  • Larger displays
  • Bulkier housing
  • Large range of colours
  • Large range of straps
  • More prominent buttons and controls
The most prominent smartwatch of this type would have to be the Apple Watch. It was one of the first internet-connected watches, and is certainly the watch with the most mainstream popularity. The Apple Watch shares a visual style with the company’s line of iPhones, which had already become fashion items before the release of the watch.

What does this tell us about embedded systems?

Each of the types above has a specific type of user at its heart. Every design choice and component in them has been shaped by the needs of that user, or what the designers see as the needs of that user. These aren’t general-purpose devices; no one smartwatch will work for every user. To stand out and create successful devices, manufacturers will pick an audience and design the watch in a way that will appeal to them.
This isn’t just true of smartwatches; all embedded systems are user-driven. You won’t find open-ended features (things like disk drives or USB ports) that allow the users to change the functionality of the watches.

Time to design

Consider one of the following users. What features would you include in a watch that was designed for them?
  • A teacher
  • An outdoor enthusiast
  • A writer
Leave a comment with your ideas and designs aimed at one of these users.
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Design and Prototype Embedded Computer Systems

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