Skip to Content

Chronicle of the Smart Watch Foretold: A 37-Year History

A human-computer interaction luminary rifles through his massive electronics collection to prove today’s hottest gadget isn’t so new after all.
March 14, 2013

With the $150 Pebble e-paper watch starting to ship, and Apple rumored to be making an iWatch, these wrist-mounted computers are being hyped by some as revelations in how people can interact with their devices.

Bill Buxton’s reaction? How little ye know.

The principal researcher at Microsoft Research, a man who is known as a pioneer in the field of human-computer interaction as well as a long-time gadget enthusiast, is having a bit of a gleeful moment these days as he shows off his museum-worthy personal collection of electronics devices. His watches are coming back in style. Displaying a few specimens on stage at Microsoft’s TechFest recently, he mused good-naturedly, “What the hell have we been doing the last 20-odd years?”

Indeed. Here are some highlights from his rather amazing trove.

Orient, 1976: This watch employed capacitive touch sensing to trigger LED lights. One would double click to drill down in the menu—this is before the invention of the computer mouse, Buxton notes.

Casio, 1984: “With this calculator watch, the touch screen is used as the surface on which you write, with your finger, the numbers and operators of your calculation. This was 17 Moore’s Laws ago!,” Buxton writes. 

Microsoft SPOT Watch, No Year/Circa 2000s:  “This watch has no touch screen or fancy buttons. It sucks information out of the sidebands of the FM radio spectrum. It is a one-way messenger watch; for example, weather, stock quotes, and news can be fed to you RSS style,” Buxton writes. 

LG Electronics, 2009: Buxton says this model had a full-sized SIM chip, wi-fi, bluetooth, an address book, calendar, and video conferencing tools. “This is a total smartphone,” he says. “It is the total Dick Tracy package.”

Buxton’s point is that disruptively new computing interfaces hardly ever appear out of nowhere, a fact the current wave of smart watch sellers would do well to recognize if they don’t already. “I’m not trying to say what’s going on today isn’t interesting. But it becomes more interesting if you drop the hype,” he says. 

As for me, I think the time may be right for the  smart watch craze to really catch on. The measurable advance, however, will be mostly in the realm of human-human interaction, rather than human-computer. Will people stop checking e-mail over dinner? Unlikely. Might they at least be less obvious about it? Sure.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

DeepMind’s cofounder: Generative AI is just a phase. What’s next is interactive AI.

“This is a profound moment in the history of technology,” says Mustafa Suleyman.

What to know about this autumn’s covid vaccines

New variants will pose a challenge, but early signs suggest the shots will still boost antibody responses.

Human-plus-AI solutions mitigate security threats

With the right human oversight, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence can help keep business and customer data secure

Next slide, please: A brief history of the corporate presentation

From million-dollar slide shows to Steve Jobs’s introduction of the iPhone, a bit of show business never hurt plain old business.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.