At the South by Southwest Interactive festival, the annual geek gathering in Austin, Texas, a new Google gadget was the talk of the town – literally. Google's "talking shoes" crammed a tiny computer, sensors, speakers and a Bluetooth wireless controller into a pair of Adidas that shout at their wearer when they aren't moving around enough.
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Google's latest venture into wearable technology was more an attention-seeking gimmick than a serious new venture. But with the search giant ploughing significant resources into Google Glass, it's another indication that Google is serious about moving from the digital to the physical – plans that seem to include a smart watch, too.
The biggest brand today in the wearable technology market is not a technology company at all. Nike's Fuelband is the best-known wrist-based gadget, in a market still dominated by start-ups such as Fitbit, Kickstarter projects such as the Pebble and no-brand Chinese suppliers on the Alibaba marketplace.
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The launch of smart watches by tech giants Apple, Samsung and Google would jumpstart the wearables market – and it seems that each of them intends to do so. Apple is widely rumoured to be working on an 'iWatch' and a Samsung executive said this week that it has "been preparing the watch product for so long".
Now, Silicon Valley's rumour mill suggests that Google, too, has such a device in the works.
While Glass is being created in its X Lab, home to experimental "moonshot" projects such as the self-driving car, Google's smart watch is being developed by its Android unit, according to a person briefed on the project, to act as an extension to the smartphones using that operating system. The project is separate from Samsung's efforts, the source said, although there is no indication of when it might launch.
A Google patent application for a wearable computer filed in 2011 and approved last year lends credence to the rumours. The filing describes a "smart watch" with a dual-screened "flip-up display", "tactile user interface" and onboard camera.
A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on any plans for the smart watch market. Not every patent becomes a product. But Google's filing neatly makes the case for smart watches more generally:
"A variety of portable user devices provide wireless network connectivity. Various features of a device often require a user to access the device at inconvenient times to perform a desired function. As a result, a user may simply not employ the device to its full capabilities."
Now that most smartphones offer wireless connectivity, voice control and other hands-free technologies, extending them to watches and other devices becomes easier.
Both Google Now, which uses web search history, location data and other inputs to make helpful suggestions without users having to type into a search box, and Siri, Apple's virtual personal assistant, could easily fit into a smart watch's smaller screen.
However, battery life is likely to be the wearable devices' greatest challenge – for the smartphones they connect to as well as the watches themselves.
As smartphones become so ubiquitous as to be close to commoditisation, Samsung, Google and Apple are all looking to the wrist, as well as the pocket, for their next innovations in personal communications.