I’ve been casting about online for some kind of portable training device, something that can keep track of my time on the road while I train for a particular race later this year. There are quite a few options for watches, each with options of their own.

One of the more fascinating watch brands out there is Suunto. There are a couple of other makes that have similar capabilities, but Suunto looks to have expanded on an interesting idea of connecting wirelessly to peripherals like a chest-worn heart-rate monitor, a bike cadence monitor, and even a GPS. The watch acts as a central processor for the peripherals, receiving, recording, and presenting a subset of the information, and then relaying it (via USB tether) to a computer for more intense processing and output.

While all of that is interesting, I think there is a surprising lack of movement in a particular direction that would make watch computing much more interesting.

Ok, so here’s the idea I’ve been tossing around in my head. Imagine that there’s some wireless protocol that allows a device to broadcast the control that it offers, and can receive control instructions. Let’s call it, say, bluetooth. Suppose that your TV, your DVD player, you MP3 player, your phone… Suppose that all of these devices are broadcasting short-range signals that allow them to be controlled by some controlling device.

And try this: Suppose that there are some other sensors in the environment. Just as an example, suppose that there is a digital thermometer outside your kitchen window, and it too broadcasts data. Instead of broadcasting control data, it simply broadcasts informational data about temperature, humidity, wind speed, etc.

Ok, so maybe you’re not happy with just the current weather info outside your window. Your computer can broadcast weather information - possibly any information it wants - from the internet. You could configure your PC to grab any information you like and broadcast it… But to where?

Your watch.

So here were some fun parts I’ve been thinking about. Your watch receives the signals, and provides UI for any of the controls that the device makes available. Because of the nature of the protocol, the watch maker can provide whatever interface controls it wants. You’ll be able to consume those controls not just with your watch, but with whatever device can understand the protocol. So there could even be a variety of watches that provide different interfaces to the same sensor information.

When consuming data, the watch could also vary in the amount of computing power that it provides. For example, a low-power, low-cost device could simply display the temperature data it receives. A higher-power device could store historical data and plot it over time, correlating it with regional historical data retrieved from the computer. Keep in mind that even a low-powered device could be in command of higher-power processors via a wireless command and control link.

Storage is an interesting thought, too. Obviously, you don’t want to have to rely on a persistent connection to the internet. So when you’re within range of your PC, it transmits a packet of information that the watch can store and use when it is not in range. When you move out of range, it makes use of what data it has in storage.

Moreover, and perhaps more cool, is that as you move through the landscape of free and open sensors, you can choose to consume them as you see fit. So if you’re on the beach, and the transmitters on the boardwalk are broadcasting tide info, you’ll know when to go surfing or build your sandcastles. Other watches might also provide a broadcast signal to other watches that could use this proximity information for presence or even a loose grid network.

There are a few issues. One is the size of the interface. I think that a touchscreen is probably pretty efficient, but not with the finite control to select specific points in the UI. If you look at the Tissot T-Touch, they’ve got an interface where you can touch the screen around the edge of the bezel in about 6 places to indicate the function you want. I think that’s a little draconian in comparison to our modern multi-touch controls on MP3 players and phones, but consider a control interface that typically isolates “click” control to a finite number of discrete areas and also allows you to “swipe” across the face of the watch to flip through interface pages or confirm menu options. Applying an interface like the Zune’s “twist” interface could provide a reasonably intuitive way to select options and browse through any available data.

Another issue is battery power. I’m reluctant to have to plug the watch in to recharge every night. Plugging in some necessarily tiny and usually sealed connector seems like a pain, especially considering that my current watch is solar-powered and doesn’t ever need a battery change. Some kind of inductive charging/docking station would be neat. Set the watch in the station to both charge and dock it to the PC for data exchange. Pretty slick, I think.

Ultimately, I’d like ubiquity of my data. I want to use my watch - my same, every day watch - to keep track of training data, then check out the TV schedule while sitting on my couch, then set my house alarm when I go to bed, then review my flight itinerary while on vacation, then see the caller ID info from my ringing cell phone and maybe even answer it… Etc.

I think there’s a mental roadblock with how processing power should be distributed. People seem to think that their phones are capable of all of this. Phones are great. I rarely leave the house without my phone. Nonetheless, my phone is just a small part of the overall picture, and I’d still like to have some device that is a window - even if it’s a small one - into my processing power and data strapped to my body, always available.

Even if the eventual window has to be my cell phone, which I think is a very myopic view, it should still have the same abilities that I’ve described for this watch. Also, it shouldn’t be limited to just the phone. You should be able to do this with any device, and all devices that are capable should also be able to commandeer processing power from any device that offers it. If you’ve got 4 PCs in your home enabled for it, your watch should be able to pool their processing power to perform any task asked.

I think it’s a good idea, and the technology should exist to produce it.

Photo by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jmrosenfeld/ / CC BY 2.0