With so much attention paid to how Apple and Google will attack the wearable computing market, it’s easy to forget that there are companies capable of manufacturing more than just rumors. But one unlikely player is showing the world that it’s not just producing vaporware.
Today, during Samsung’s press conference announcing their smartwatch, chipset maker Qualcomm unveiled the Toq, a simple watch that syncs with your smartphone to deliver bite-size notifications to your wrist throughout the day. Qualcomm’s goal isn’t to put Kickstarter-funded Pebble out of business or defeat the iWatch before it even shows up; rather, the company hopes the Toq will inspire if not force its partners to more quickly enter the wearable computing market, building on Qualcomm’s technology (of course).
“We’re not a consumer electronics company–we’re not doing eight SKUs or spending $500 million on marketing,” says Qualcomm SVP Rob Chandhok. “What we’re trying to say is that there is a design point here that really exemplifies continuous interaction [devices]. And we believe in it so much that we’re willing to take the risk to do it.”
Think of Toq as a second screen for your phone. By syncing with your smartphone via Bluetooth, the touch-screen device provides continuous updates, from stock information to text messages to calendar alerts. (More apps will come to the device down the road, curated by Qualcomm.) You can even reply to texts by scrolling through a default list of responses. The Toq features the company’s proprietary Mirasol display, a sort of color version of an e-ink screen, which Chandhok acknowledges does not deliver “as bright poppy colors as OLED [displays]” but deals with sunlight far better and is significantly more battery efficient. “This display only gets better the more light you throw at it,” says Chandhok, who adds that the Toq will last three to five days on a single charge. (The device can also be wirelessly recharged.)
The Toq feels rather thick and clunky on the wrist. In Fast Company‘s brief hands-on time with the Toq, we had some trouble putting on the smartwatch’s band, which folds and clasps together. Navigating the Toq’s user interface wasn’t seamless either. The device features two navigation modes: a touch-sensitive mode, which enables users to jump from app to app by using swipes and edge gestures, and a mode where the touch screen is turned off to conserve battery life. In the latter mode, the Toq is essentially locked on a particular app, only showing, say, the calendar or clock.
Unfortunately, the UI is not intuitive. The touch screen isn’t as responsive as it ought to be, and swiping through items was a bit of a pain. As Chandhok explains, the Toq is designed to be an “at-a-glance display,” meaning it’s supposed to provide instantly accessible nuggets of information. However, when reading through text messages, I found myself constantly swiping through items until I found the one that I was looking for. The interface is modeled after “stacks of cards,” but at times it can feel as if you must swipe through a whole deck. What’s worse, the frame rate is a bit slow and laggy, and when you get stuck in the touch-screen-locked mode, you’ll find yourself frustratingly fingering at the device to no avail.
Of course, with such tight screen real estate, the options for interaction design were inherently limited. But there’s not really much cleverness counterbalancing these limitations. (To activate the backlight, for example, you double tap the side of the band–which is far from obvious.) It’s certainly easier to navigate the touch-screen Toq than the Pebble’s physical buttons, but it’s still nowhere as elegant as interacting with an iPod Nano in wristwatch form.
Still, Qualcomm should be lauded for actually delivering the $300 (TC) smartwatch to market, despite falling short of Apple quality. Cupertino has long been said to be developing its own wearable device–one oft-rumored to have a curved OLED display–but it’s not expected for some time. Google, too, is most probably at work on its own smartwatch after acquiring Wimm Labs recently, but the search giant seems more interested in developing its Google Glass product. Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, announced today and out later this month, is the most immediate competitor.
Chandhok welcomes the competition–it’s a sign that the industry, which is expected to reach $6 billion by 2016 according to IMS Research, realizes wearables are worth developing. “Maybe there will be an Apple or Google watch, I don’t know, and I honestly don’t care,” Chandhok says. He’s more interested in showing how Mirasol displays could be the best technology for smartwatches than making Toq a blockbuster. “I don’t want to get into a pissing match about the industrial design–I’m not going to walk up to Yves Béhar and say, ‘Hey, look at our idea, it’s better,'” Chandhok says.
“At Qualcomm, we push a whole bunch of players to actually take the design and run with it,” he continues. “And we couldn’t think of a better way of getting that point across than by building a working system.”