Redefining What a Smartwatch Can Do


“Nine months ago I never thought I would say this, but it will never leave my wrist,” John Galvin said, referring to his 51-millimeter Garmin Quatix 6X Solar.

Mr. Galvin, 38, had been a lifelong analog watch enthusiast, wearing a Casio G-Shock with a traditional dial since childhood. Then his girlfriend surprised him with the Garmin timepiece last Christmas. “I haven’t even gotten past the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the Quatix can do, but it’s made me a believer in the smartwatch world,” Mr. Galvin said.

As the captain of a 70-foot Viking sport-fishing yacht, Mr. Galvin spends his days on the Atlantic, splitting his time between Nantucket and Cape Cod in the summer and Miami’s South Beach neighborhood in the winter. Working as a private captain for the last 14 years, Mr. Galvin prides himself on running the most technologically advanced vessels possible. “Now I have all of my electronics on my wrist at the literal push of a button,” he said.

The smartwatch category has been around for less than a decade but, as its sales have expanded, makers including Apple, Garmin and Suunto have been redefining what a smartwatch can do — from operating a boat to changing your car’s lighting.

The three models in Garmin’s Quatix series are preloaded with apps for workouts and contactless payments. They range in price from $699 to $1,149, and offer several advances in deeper, more tailored connectivity.

“It’s called the James Bond feature,” said David Dunn, senior director of marine sales at Garmin.

“You can drive your boat with your watch,” he added. “No other marine manufacturer can do what we do and connect directly into marine electronics.”

The Autopilot Control app, preloaded on the watch, can be connected to a compatible chart plotter and then used to maintain a specific GPS route as well as to view real-time data like speed, depth, engine r.p.m. and water temperature.

Other preloaded options, Mr. Dunn said, include what the company calls SailAssist, racing aids like a countdown timer and virtual start line, and control of an onboard entertainment system.

Extending the use of smartwatches via connectivity isn’t limited to seafaring equipment. Earlier this year, the second generation of the Mercedes-Benz User Experience, an information and entertainment system, was introduced in the automaker’s new S-Class sedan, and within it, a proprietary algorithm called Energizing Coach.

A user is told to download the Mercedes Me Connect app from the Apple or Android app stores onto a compatible Garmin smartwatch, including the branded Mercedes-Benz Venu model.

When the app is linked to the S-Class’s system, the smartwatch will send the user’s pulse rate, stress level and sleep quality data to the car. An algorithm then uses the information to suggest changes like the color of the interior’s graphic display, intensity of the lighting, temperature and audio levels, as well as recommending a massage setting for the seats.

“One of the biggest areas of interest automakers have is using the watch as a digital key,” said Kip Dondlinger, Garmin’s automotive design and planning leader, “allowing a person to unlock or start their car and see other information about their car using the watch.”

And late this year Garmin, which is based in Kansas, is scheduled to deliver a branded watch designed to unlock car doors, along with other functions, to Geely, the Chinese automotive company that owns Volvo, Lotus and Polestar.

Garmin isn’t the only watch brand or technology company invested in digital vehicle keys. Apple has been working on digital key adoption with the Car Connectivity Consortium, a cross-industry organization dedicated to advancing smartphone-to-car solutions. BMW Group became the first to use it, in 2021 models. The digital key now operates only on Apple iPhones (using iOS 13.6 and newer) and is available on select BMW models manufactured since March 2020.

Apple also has been striving to streamline travel and life at home.

In September, the company announced that Arizona and Georgia would be the first states to allow users to upload their driver’s licenses or state identifications to the Apple Wallet on their iPhones or Apple Watches, with six other states to follow soon. And the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has said the feature will be accepted at the security checkpoints at select airports.

Later this fall, Apple said, it also will introduce a digital home key, allowing Apple Watches to be used in place of physical keys, and for contactless check-ins at Hyatt hotels worldwide.

Smartwatches also are being used to connect people, rather than just things.

As a long distance runner, Brian Wortley said he considered trail running a solo sport. “I don’t know many other people who want to run 30 miles at a time,” he said.

But “the biggest thing about getting into trail running is looking at what other people are doing and how they are being creative and connecting certain routes,” said Mr. Wortley, 32. “That’s where the community comes in.”

After hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2012, Mr. Wortley said he developed a passion for endurance sports and the gear that accompanies them. “I researched Suunto and never really looked back,” he said.

Suunto, which began in Finland 85 years ago as a field compass company, now makes sports watches, dive products and compasses.

Mr. Wortley bought the Suunto Ambit 1 in 2012, moved to an Ambit 2 and then recently bought the Suunto 9 Baro. As a resident of York, Me., Mr. Wortley said he has come to rely on his watch as a lifeline because the majority of his runs are in wooded areas. A feature called the breadcrumb trail, introduced by Suunto in 2018, allows him to retrace his steps if he loses service; the storm alarm measures atmospheric pressure and issues an alert if inclement weather is approaching.

In other ways, the lifeline comparison is more intangible. “I’ve run routes, but didn’t cross paths with someone in endurance sports until we connected digitally,” Mr. Wortley said.

The company’s Suunto 7 timepieces are outfitted with heat maps, “which show the brightest heat where the most people have been doing the sport,” said Markus Kemetter, a product manager at Suunto. “The difference between us and anyone else is that we have it for 20 different sports, from open water swimming to cross-country skiing, globally.”

Mr. Kemetter noted that Suunto has roughly one million users contributing to the heat maps, which first appeared on watches in February 2020.

“When you’re fast hiking on super rooty and rocky terrain, and running anywhere from 10 to 15 hours, there’s not always room for mistakes,” said Mr. Wortley, noting, “all my data is on my watch, and data is really important to me.”