Samsung unveiled its highly anticipated digital wristwatch Wednesday, beating Apple to what could become this year's must-have holiday gift item.
So-called smartwatches, which can perform tasks such as displaying email and Twitter messages on a device worn around the wrist, have been around for several years but have failed so far to inspire great interest among ordinary consumers. But with smartphone behemoths Samsung Electronics Co. and Apple Inc. joining the fray -- and Google pushing its Google Glass gadget -- experts see a chance of wearable computers breaking into the mainstream.
That is, if consumers can get used to talking to their watch, secret agent-style.
"With Gear you're able to make calls and receive calls, without ever taking your phone out of your pocket,'' Pranav Mistry, a member of Samsung's design team, told reporters at the launch in Berlin ahead of the annual IFA consumer electronics show there.
The Gear uses Google's Android operating system, just like many of the phones and tablets made by Samsung. The South Korean electronics company said the Gear can act as an extension to a smartphone by discreetly alerting users to incoming messages and calls on its display screen, which measures 1.63 inches diagonally. The strap, which comes in six different colors, holds a basic camera that can be used to shoot photos and video. The Gear works with popular social media and fitness apps such as Twitter and RunKeeper.
With smartphones and tablets now ubiquitous, electronics companies are trying to create a new category of products to lure consumer spending. That includes building advanced computing technology into everyday objects such as wristwatches and glasses.
Sony introduced its latest SmartWatch in June and unveiled an update Wednesday. Qualcomm also announced one Wednesday, called Toq. Google is working on Google Glass -- a device designed to work like a smartphone and worn like a pair of glasses. Apple is also expected to unveil an iWatch.
Mistry demonstrated the calling function on the Gear by holding it up to his ear and talking into a microphone hidden in the watch. The watch then relays the call to a smartphone linked to it wirelessly over a built-in Bluetooth connection.
The Gear will be compatible initially with two Samsung products also unveiled Wednesday -- the Galaxy Note III, which is a smartphone with a giant 5.7-inch screen and a digital pen, and the Galaxy Tab 10.1, a tablet computer with a 10.1-inch screen comparable to Apple's full-sized iPad. But Samsung promised to update other Galaxy phones and tablets to work with the Gear in future.
An Associated Press reporter who was given brief access to the Gear found that although it was stylish and easy to use, the fact that the watch doesn't function as a standalone device but has to be paired with a Samsung phone or tablet results in some frustrating limitations. For example, while the phone can be used to make and receive calls, this works only through the built-in speaker and microphone. The Gear cannot be connected to a headset.
The number of apps that work with the Gear is also still limited. More than 70 are currently supported, including FaceBook, Twitter and RunKeeper.
Unlike normal watches that can happily tick away for years on end, Samsung only promises a full day's use out of the Gear before it has to be charged.
The Gear goes on sale in the United States and Japan next month. The rest of the world will get their hands on it sooner, on Sept. 25, with prices starting at $299. That is about twice the price of currently available devices such as the Sony SmartWatch and the Pebble, which was funded through more than $10 million pledged by individuals on fundraising website Kickstarter.
Apple's plans for a smartwatch aren't known, but the company has been seeking a trademark for the iWatch name amid rumors that it will launch it this fall in time for the holiday season. Apple declined comment Wednesday. Qualcomm didn't disclose a specific price or date for the Toq, beyond saying it will come out this year.
The flurry of major manufacturers now launching smartwatches indicates that the industry believes there is a niche to be filled alongside smartphones and tablets, analysts say.
Robert-Jan Broer, head of Germany-based market research firm Chronolytics, said many people who have stopped wearing watches because they are surrounded by time-telling devices might consider buying a smartwatch.
"It adds value for them because they can see in the blink of an eye if they have an email or a FaceBook message,'' he said.
But others are skeptical that these so-called wearable computers will be a success.
"Smartwatches haven't had the best track record,'' said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at research firm IDC. "A lot of pieces have to fall into place''
Llamas said that for smartwatches to sell, they need to offer a range of useful applications that justify carrying around -- and charging -- another digital device.
"It can't just be notifications of how many incoming messages you have,'' he said. "Health applications seem to be the low hanging fruit.''