The hunt for the latest Dick Tracy watch is on. The next big thing is supposed to be a new kind of watch — the Apple iWatch gadget, something from new Samsung, a new use for Willow Glass from Corning for new millennium hip transparent wrist instrument, a wrist mounted apparatus that does? The patentsphere watched the emergence of the smartphone wars and the speculation about how many possible patents apply to the technology. At one point Google General Counsel speculated that there were at least 250,000 patents covering smartphones. The smartwatch adds wearable technology feature to the mix.
The search for information on inventions is fraught with frustration regardless of the technology. Looking for the illusive Dick Tracy watch is more fun than the usual quest but requires the same mechanics of any other electronics patent hunt. Figuring out the right words to describe this type of invention requires some serious thought. First an inventory of everything the watch does than looking at the possible technical ways the technology has converged — how does the camera work, how does the antenna fit with the time telling aspects of the device. A game of intellectual property hide and seek.
The Prior Art
The smartwatch or what ever it will be called creates another opportunity for technological convergence, mind numbing prior art searches and gut wrenching patent wars. But a lot of patents on this technology have been around for a long time. Dick Tracy's original two way radio watch came about when Dick Tracy's creator, cartoonist Chester Gould met Al Gross, an inventor and engineer who has many wireless devices to his credit much before his time. After a 1946 meeting between the two, Dick Tracy started wearing his iconic two way radio watch.
Build This One
A portable information device such as a multifunction electronic wristwatch or a timepiece that is a radio. US Patent 3,032,651 is one of the earliest Wrist Carried Radio Set. This "wrist carried radio" was invented by two Swiss inventors. Swiss inventors being the purveyors of trade secret protected time pieces, rarely sought patent protection. The important goals identified by the inventors to create, "a portable radio set which cannot be recognized, this being of particular important for military and police purposes." This patent granted in May of 1962 has long since expired making its novel technical features and compact design free for the taking.
The 3,032,651 patent cites a January 20, 1946 article from the Richmond Times Dispatch titled, "Dick Tracy Wrist Radio" as prior art. The patent also cites a 1954 article from the Washington Star entitled, "The Army's New Wrist Radio." It has very elegant drawings that look much more 21st century contemporary, while maintaining its swiss watch asthetic.
It Needs A Name
The best description of this class of devices is simply, "An attention grabbing gizmo." That's how one of the reporters at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) described the arrival of LG's Dick Tracy watch wannabe. But searching for the patents and prior art related to attention grabbing gizmos won't work.
Finding the definitive prior art for the new millennium version of the Dick Tracy watch is complicated and daunting. What is a Dick Tracy-like wrist mounted apparatus called? What would you call the timekeeping, two way radio, that looks like a two faced wrist watch but acts like a radio (or a mobile phone)? Is its horology (timekeeping) aspects as important as its wireless features? Will the devices have the right classifications to be findable. What is it called? Here is a very small sample:
- Wrist instruments including timekeeping devices (Note: wrist instrument...sounds expensive)
- Improved wristwatch radiotelephone — (We didn't find the original wristwatch radiotelephone to go with this improved invention.)
- Personal digital apparatus..a wristwatch-type device with sensors (Note: could be a sports monitor, or a health monitor — are they that different?)
- Battery powered communication device (Note: could be anything — a walky-talky, a PDA, a mobile phone? )
- Personal digital assistant watch (Note: good but no communications implied by this description but a lot of PDAs are able to exchange information and include a clock. Could depend on the timeframe and the vocabulary in the patent.)
- A programmable portable information device (PDAs, cellphones, electronic roledex-like device? We can assume programmable means it is some kind of an electronic device otherwise a dictionary would qualify.)
- A portable timekeeping device (Note: Could be a cellphone or a battery powered clock that you tote around with you when you travel, or what about the clock in your car? What about a stop watch?)
Timex and Motorola have a series of overlapping patents which resulted in the Beepwear watch. The Beepwear pager watch was pre-mobile phone. The Beepwear Pro was promoted as, "It's a pager, …it's a watch, ….it's an organizer,....right on your wrist!". Timex's US Patent 4,847,818 filed in 1988 by Timex is one of the earlier inventions. (This patent is expired and its innovations free for the taking.) It has a remarkably simple title: Wristwatch Radiotelephone. Claim 1 reads:
1. An improved wristwatch radiotelephone comprising a case having a timekeeping circuit, a radio transceiver and display disposed therein, a strap having a pair of strap ends attached to opposite ends of said case and adapted to be attached together for holding said case on a wearer's wrist, a microphone connected to said transceiver, a speaker connected to said transceiver, and a flexible antenna including conductor means embedded in said strap and connected to said transceiver, wherein the improvement comprises a speaker housing for said speaker and a microphone housing for said microphone, said housings being disposed on said strap and spaced from one another by a sufficient distance to permit simultaneous use thereof when said strap ends are not connected.A device with different behavior when it's on the wrist versus when you take the device off?
Another testament to technological convergence is the Timex patents with Microsoft, 5,922,058. Ericsson defines their invention as a personal information management system. (That's nice and broad) US Patent 6,334,046 describes a personal information management system that includes a personal information manager having a first transceiver and a first storage device for personal information and a communication system. Dick Tracy may appear in silhouette in their figures but there is no yellow Fedora but:
IBM has a patent for a PDA watch with features that take advantage of the flexibility of the human wrist to enhance data entry. It describes the field of invention as "relating in general to information processing apparatuses, and in particular to personal data assistants."HP's 7,055,111 is for "Opportunistic Data Transfer From a Personal Digital Apparatus." In case you are wondering, Opportunistic Data Transfer appears to relate to the capability to download data to your personal digital assistant at a predetermined time. The Personal Digital Apparatus covers a lot of territory. The personal digital apparatus appears to be hooked to the arm according to the figures and preferred embodiment but they wander into the medical data arena - is that the same as the devices that keep track of your work out and upload the data to your personal computer (whatever that is these days?) This one has lots of Bluetooth compliant device language. The LG "Dick Tracy watch" was shown at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show. Samsung has its own version that lets you check voice mail and check Outlook mail. In December 2010 Nick Bilton's New York Times Bits blog post An iPod Watch Project Explodes Online. Minimal, an industrial design firm based in Chicago, has a plan to incorporate the new iPod Nano into an elegantly designed watch housing. (There are many beautiful items that they designed on Minimal's website.) The project was supported by users at Kickstarter.com who donated $25 to the project in exchange they will receive the watch kit when it becomes available. They raised over $500,000.
The latest Dick Tracy watch wannabe appeared at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show. The Patentista explained changes in technology with this example, the presenter starts the meeting by asking the assembled crowd, "Whos wearing a watch?" Once the watch wearing crowd identified itself, he sells to the other guys. I asked him why. The answer was, the watchless crowd uses their phone for everything, they only where watches as a fashion statement not as an essential piece of technology. The watchless crowd has no preset notion on how things work, what things belong on what device and embrace the new — a product marketeer's dream. The 2012 Consumer Electronic's Show may have created a conundrum for tthe watchless crowd. I'm Watch - the first Smart Watch (their characterization not ours). They may have to buy a watch.
Instead of using your phone for everything you can use your Android I'm Watch for just about everything. Their device puts your phone on your wrist — the radio part of the wrist apparatus. It may have solved one of the real problems with phones — leaving them places. With the Smart Watch you phone is on your wrist so you can't leave it in strange places and you won't have that other problem that no one likes to admit to, dropping the phone in the commode. (A serious driver in the sales of insurance on mobile phones.) Made in Italy, this device may have matched the capabilities of Dick Tracy's radio watch.
The 2013 entry is the Pebble digital device. According to Engadget,
the Pebble is not a smartphone for your wrist...it's far less sophisticated... the lightweight device reads out basic text, lets you skip through music tracks and, of course, displays the time.Sony and Toshiba also have entries in the emerging smartwatch market place. Things will be heating up on the IP front as well. But this may be a case of deja vu all over again.
So the hunt for the "an attention grabbing gizmo." is on. Whether a patent war ensues remains to be seen.