DESIGN FOR LIFE: Time's right for Tech grad to update wristwatch

Say you want to check the time —- or, for that matter, the stock market, the weather or the caller ID —- on your cellphone. It takes longer to get out the phone and find the application than it does to perform the task. The Tech graduate student is working on transferring these tasks —- "microinteractions," which take under four seconds to complete —- to your wrist.

Much like the Bluetooth earpiece is now, "The wristwatch is the next big peripheral for mobile phones," says Thad Starner, director of Tech's Contextual Computing Group and Ashbrook's adviser. "In fact, we are trying to design interfaces that allow you to do many of the microinteractions that one does on desktop computers."

Ashbrook's prototype aims to improve on existing products, which, he says, have not been very successful. An early iteration of the wristwatch-style computer was a fashion flop: ugly and bulky with a square face like a computer monitor. Another required fishing a tiny stylus from its slot in order to tap the screen. Buttons are not much better in his opinion.

His watch will have a round face and offer many more options. Plus, he says, it will be easier to use. "I'm investigating a finger-usable touchscreen or gesture-based interfaces, so a quick flick of the wrist or snap of the fingers might help to control the watch as well."

Finding just the right gestures is the next challenge. If the movement is too common, the user risks turning it on inadvertently. A software program he's designed will enable researchers to analyze potential gestures.

If you're hoping to wear one of Ashbrook's watches, though, you'll have to wait. At the moment, Ashbrook's prototype is only at the dissertation stage.

"The distance from idea to product is about the same as horseless carriage to automobile," he says.

If, however, a big company decided to run with it, he believes it would take two years to bring it to market.

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