IBM Proposes Weirdest Smartwatch Ever

IBM wants to attach a tablet to your wrist.

No, seriously: Big Blue has submitted a patent titled, “Variable Display Size for an Electronic Display Device,” which is a clunky way of saying, “Smartwatch that Folds Out to a Tablet.” Even if you’re not a fan of patent filings’ techno-legalese, this one is worth perusing for the graphics alone. (Hat tip to Gizmodo for the original link.)

Never mind that the tech industry’s early experiments with folding screens have been an unmitigated disaster (Hi, Samsung!)—IBM’s researchers think that a future smartwatch could unfold into not two, not four, but eight panels. Imagine transforming your Apple Watch into an iPad Mini with a lot of creases, in other words.

You can see the potential issues. Unless they’re super-thin, those eight panels will create a bulky tower of metal and glass on the wrist. In addition to that, where would a manufacturer fit the battery? And what kind of crazy operating system would seamlessly shift between two or three distinct screen sizes/modes?

In other words, this IBM dream isn’t something that’ll appear on store shelves anytime soon—but it’s fun to contemplate how such a thing might eventually become possible, provided a consumer-electronics company figures out how to make ultra-light, ultra-small, ultra-battery-efficient panels. 

In the meantime, the wearables market is growing at a healthy pace, with analyst firm IDG reporting that global shipments of wearable devices will hit 222.9 million units this year. “Watches are forecast to grow from 91.8 million units in 2019 to 131.6 million in 2023 with a five-year CAGR of 9.4 percent,” the firm wrote in a June research note. “Apple is expected to lead the way, capturing 25.9 percent share of all watches in 2023.”

Ear-worn devices (such as the Apple Airpods) are also poised to expand, but wristbands (such as those produced by Fitbit) could end up cannibalized by smartwatches over the next few years.

For developers, the wearables market is an interesting challenge. On one hand, there’s clearly consumer hunger for these devices, and that usually creates an opportunity for apps and software platforms. However, wearable screens tend to be small (if the device has a screen at all), which limits what developers can actually do.

If you’re a developer and interested in exploring what the biggest companies in the space have to offer, check out the Fitbit SDK, the Apple Watch (i.e., watchOS) Developer Portal, and Google’s documentation for Wear OS. Any app you develop for a smartwatch will need to take advantage of very limited real estate; no matter how cool (or weird) the IBM patent might seem, we’re probably at least a decade away from a smartwatch that expands into a smartphone- or tablet-sized screen.

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