The Apple Watch has never had a camera. Apple may never add one. But one company is giving the Watch the power of sight via a watchband accessory called the Wristcam.
As watchbands go, the Wristcam is a bit of a beast; it looks thick and rigid on the wrist. But there’s a lot of technology inside. The band packs two cameras—an 8-megapixel world-facing camera and a 2-megapixel front-facing selfie camera. Both use Sony sensors (like the iPhone), and both capture high-definition photos and 1080p video.
A large button on the band activates one or the other of the cameras (you double-press to switch between the cameras, single-press for photos, and long-press for video). The Wristcam connects to the Apple Watch via Bluetooth, so that images or video immediately show up within the Wristcam app on the screen of the Watch.
The device has 8 GB of memory, enough to hold about an hour of video and thousands of photos. The band design, which also contains a decent-size curved battery, weighs only about 23 grams—or the weight of about five Hershey’s Kisses, as Wristcam cofounder and CEO Ari Roisman puts it. The battery lasts for about eight hours of steady camera use, Roisman says.
Wristcam (the company) worked with Apple to have its product certified to carry the “Made for Apple Watch” label. But Bluetooth connectivity is the extent of its integration with the Watch. For example, it requires its own separate battery charger.
Why would you want cameras on your wrist, especially if you’ve got even better ones on an iPhone in your pocket? The Wristcam lets you quickly take pictures while you’re already engaged in another activity, Roisman tells me. “The phone isn’t always within reach, and it’s nice to have a camera handy when going out with your friends, or going on a run or a hike with just an Apple Watch.”
The image quality of the photos isn’t the greatest, but it’s pretty good (see sample below). Sure, if you zoom in on one on your phone screen you’ll soon start seeing some pixilation. But pristine quality isn’t exactly the point. It’s the immediacy of the shots that may justify the “good enough” picture quality.
For privacy, the camera band has bright LED lights next to each camera to indicate when they’re capturing video.
Wristcam also does a form of live video chat, but it isn’t exactly FaceTime for the wrist. “It’s video walkie-talkie,” Roisman tells me. “It’s like those old Nextel push-to-talk phones, but it’s with live video, and you can watch the videos live or later.” You can send live video and receive it, but not at the same time.
For now the video chat happens only between Wristcam users. But the company says it will soon enable video chat between Apple Watch and iPhone, and, later, between Watches and Android phones.
Roisman is also the CEO and cofounder of Glide, developer of the Glide live video messaging app for smartphones and tablets. Like Glide, Wristcam uses a proprietary streaming media protocol and custom encoders and decoders so that video is sent and received with very little latency time.
Deja vu all over again
If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because these same developers floated an earlier version of the camera device under the CMRA name back in 2016. The company took pre-orders at its website, but no CMRA devices ever shipped.
Roisman says that the company ran into serious problems with CMRA’s design when it went into mass manufacturing and significant numbers of units didn’t meet production standards. This meant that the product had to be redesigned. So Roisman and company parted ways with the outside design firm it used to create the CMRA design, and brought the redesign of the product in-house. Before that process was completed, the developers updated the Bluetooth tech in their device, now called Wristcam. They also created a new modular design that allows the camera module to be decoupled from the band so that users can chose different colored bands.
It’s possible that Apple built prototype Watches with cameras on board.
Wristcam isn’t the first time a camera has been attached to a smartwatch. The very first Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch in 2013 had a world-facing camera built into its band. That camera moved to the front of the watch face in the Galaxy Gear 2 the following year. Samsung gave up on the smartwatch camera idea the following year and never looked back.
Apple itself applied for a patent back in 2016 for a watchband design that included a camera. Even earlier, well-known Apple reporter Mark Gurman predicted back in 2015 that Apple would add a FaceTime camera to the second Apple Watch. That rumor turned out to be false, but it’s possible that Apple built prototype Watches with cameras on board.
The Wristcam goes on sale today at the company’s website for $299, and new orders will ship in March 2021, the company says. The optional bands come in five colors—Noir, Blanc, Gray, Rose, and Sage. They sell for $49 apiece.
After the bulky design, that cost is the other major drawback. Three hundred dollars for a wearable camera device puts you into GoPro territory.
But I’m not dismissing the Wristcam. It’s not an easy product to build, and it’s only Roisman and company’s second attempt. With any luck the developers will get the opportunity to make a second Wristcam—hopefully one that’s a bit slimmer on the wrist and easier on the wallet.