Gates unveils smart wristwatches

Bill Gates kicked off the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas by unveiling the first products based on a futuristic technology that can turn everyday items into “smart objects” that receive information through the airwaves.

Three leading watch makers will offer wristwatches by the end of the year that make use of the smart technology, which uses a part of the FM radio spectrum to feed the devices with a low-bandwidth but continuous stream of data, the Microsoft chairman and chief software architect said.

The technology can deliver what Gates termed “glanceable” information to the devices, such as a weather report, news about traffic conditions or short text messages from friends. He also showed a magnetic device that can be stuck to a refrigerator or a car dashboard to display sports results or a stock ticker.

“It gives you only the information you’ve selected,” he told a packed hall of show-goers. “We’re not trying to put a PDA on your wrist, we’re not trying to put a supercomputer on your wrist. We’re trying to give you just the information you need.”

Called Smart Personal Object Technology, or SPOT, the technology was developed by Microsoft’s research group and is the culmination of developments in silicon chips, networking and software technologies, Gates said.

In a speech laden with demonstrations, Gates also showed a “personal video recorder” being developed with Intel Corp. called Media2Go. The reference design is for a portable device with a four-inch (10-centimetre) screen and a 30 GB disk drive that plays video and music downloaded from the Internet or from a PC with a television tuner.

Hardware partners including Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Sanyo Corp. are expected to offer products based on the reference design by the end of the year, Gates said.

Michael King, a senior analyst with research company Gartner Inc. was skeptical of the smart object technology. The cost of implementing it and the absence of any real need for it means the technology will likely remain on the fringe for the next few years, according to King, who noted that the Linux operating system might provide a more viable option because it is free.

“We spend a lot of time in this industry figuring out how to do things and showing we can do them, but we have to stop sometimes and ask whether there’s really a need for it,” he said

Gates called the FM network that delivers information to the devices “DirectBand,” and said it could lead to a host of new services that would be beamed to devices running Microsoft’s .Net Compact Framework software.

The chip used in the devices runs at just 28MHz, and the watches shown here had 512K of ROM (read only memory) and a small amount of RAM (random access memory). That makes them only slightly more powerful than the components used in the first IBM Corp. PC, Gates said. The content sent to the devices is written in “a form of BASIC somewhat like the BASIC that ran on the early PC,” he said.

Gates acknowledged that the technology will require a great deal of cooperation among technology providers and service operators, and admitted that security and privacy issues need to be addressed. He said each device will have a “unique key, and the information sent to the watch is encrypted so only your watch will receive your personal information.”