How Science Fiction Influenced Modern Smartwatch Design

Smartwatch designers looked to fictional inventions of the past for inspiration. Here's what they got right, and what they have yet to achieve.

dick tracy comic watch
Dick Tracy

Past generations often imagined the future in ways that now seem anything from prescient to silly or downright bizarre. Yet science fiction is more than entertainment and fantasy, as it inspires subsequent generations of scientists and engineers to think outside the box. Many have credited inventions to fictional technologies that they wanted to see become real.

As the 20th century was a watch-wearing century, it's natural that many predictions took the form of wrist-born wearables. In 2020, then, the age of the smartwatch, how do we stack up against our predecessors' hopes? Here are some examples of fictional watches (or similar devices) that formed the basis upon which our modern smartwatches are formed. Put your nerd glasses on, and let's see how they compare to the real thing...

Dick Tracy

dick tracy watch desk
Dick Tracy

Dick Tracy comics debuted in the 1930s, but it wasn't until 1946 that they evolved to include the intrepid detective's iconic Two-Way Wrist Radio. The character would use it to communicate with fellow police, a distinct crime-fighting advantage -- and something that seemed cutting-edge to readers at the time. (The device became a Two-Way Wrist TV in 1964.)

In 1952, scientists were inspired to create an actual functioning such device, as this historical film titled Calling Dick Tracy shows. When smartwatches began to offer some of the same features, still only relatively recently, Dick Tracy was the first thing many consumers thought of, and it felt like technology was finally catching up.

The Jetsons

jetsons tv watch
Hanna-Barbera

While flying cars with bubble-like windshields from the cartoon The Jetsons don't seem like a priority for tech companies' investments today, the show predicted the likes of Skype or FaceTime back in the 1960s. The characters were also sometimes shown wearing large watches that could be used for video calls, or for just watching TV. Limited animation and video on devices like the Apple Watch are about the closest thing we have as of mid-2020, as watching YouTube or making FaceTime calls with video still consume too much battery.

Star Trek

star trek wrist communicators
Paramount Pictures

Early seasons of the sci-fi adventure classic Star Trek featured a handheld "communicator" device which is credited with inspiring some of the first mobile phone prototypes. Later, in the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture, however, characters (notably, Captain Kirk) were shown using "wrist communicators." These were perhaps not time-telling gadgets that one could strictly call a watch, but they were yet another example of how communicating in this way was a consistent vision of the future.

Knight Rider

knight rider watch
Knight Rider

The protagonist of the 1980s show Knight Rider was a character named Michael Knight, a special agent aided by an AI-equipped Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, among other technological wonders. When not at the wheel, he communicated with the car using a watch based on AM radio watches that actually existed at the time.

Knight's watch, however, could do much more than existing watches, and even some things modern smartwatches can't: In addition to communicating with the car, it could take photographs, scan an area and pass along this intel. Watches today connect to cars via bluetooth, and research into AI and self-driving cars are leading areas of innovation -- leading one to imagine a future where Knight Rider-like technology doesn't seem so exotic.

Inspector Gadget

inspector gadget penny
Inspector Gadget

You may or may not recall the cartoon Inspector Gadget about a detective who was made of gadgets for every seemingly occasion. If he needed a watch, it might have been in his actual wrist. It was his niece Penny, however, who regularly saved the bumbling inspector with the help of a wrist-worn device.

Said device had a monitor through which she could communicate with her dog sidekick Brain, though it occasionally also revealed other functions, such as a laser. Watches that feature cutting lasers have been a common theme in fiction that's yet to materialize in modern tech, but Penny also had a "computer book" which looked a lot like a laptop computer or tablet.

James Bond

james bond printer seiko
MGM

The above examples are focused on fully fictional devices. We would be remiss, however, to overlook the world's favorite secret agent and gadget master, James Bond, and his many curious watches. Bond's watches were actual products modified with all kinds of funky features specifically for the films, from a laser-shooting Omega Seamaster to a ticker tape-producing digital Seiko to another Seiko with a monitor for video calls, and much more.

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