Why Smartwatches Should Be Keys (and Wallets)

The Key Feature for the iWatch Should Be Making It A Key

Len Epp
Len Epp
Aug 25, 2014 · 4 min read

Like everyone else who likes tech news and gadgets, I’ve been following the news about smartwatches and the impending release of Apple’s iWatch (or whatever it’s really going to be called) for a while now. There’s been a lot of speculation and advice from the tech press about what this type of wearable should be able to do, and even doubt as to whether they will ever truly be useful, at least in a genuinely transformative way, like the iPhone was.

Much of the discussion about what smartwatches should do has focused on things like fitness tracking apps and phone extensions (like notifications). In general, these ideas strike me as suffering from a kind of “feature skeuomorphism”, in which the smartwatch is conceived simply as a new way to deliver the features already built into our phones.

I can think of a lot of ways a wrist-bound extension of the smartphone could be useful for people in certain industries, especially for those who work with their hands in hazardous or demanding environments where taking off your gloves and getting something out of your pocket is not an option (and where noise, or even the need for silence, makes voice commands impractical) Also, there are a lot of health monitoring features that could be really useful, especially for people on medication and with conditions that require constant surveillance.

For the rest of us, however, smartphone extensions on our wrists just aren’t necessary.

There is, however, one type of object I can think of that is already carried around all the time, by everyone, everywhere, that would make a great hand-wearable. It’s the familiar physical key, which give us access to all the physical things we have locked.

Replacing my keys is the one thing that could really get me to wear a smartwatch. Just like I carry around my keys with me wherever I go, I would wear a smartwatch all the time if it were my key for everything. And if it worked, I would pay a lot of money for it.

I want my smartwatch to be my “Any Key”.

So, just how would this work? I can think of three really powerful examples.

First, locks are going wireless and we are going to need wireless keys for them. Just like our thermostats are going digital, so will our locks. The coolest thing about a smartwatch-key is that it can be conceived of as a unique security object, just like my analog house key. And this wireless key feature, of course, could apply to anything I combine with a digital lock, from my desk drawer to my safe (if I had one), to all sorts of other objects I might be happy to lock, if only I didn’t have to carry around a separate key for each object (another virtue of the smartwatch “Any Key”).

Second, the smartwatch “Any Key” should work with all my devices, not just physical containers like houses and lockers. I should be able to walk up to my computer or pick up my phone and, if my watch is in close enough proximity to those things, they should just open. This approach is already being used to make guns safer and it should be good enough for your devices, too. I can even see this working with apps, so that I wouldn’t need to type in passwords anymore, if I had my trusty watch on and if the device with the apps had wireless functionality (which almost everything will).

Note that smartwatches will also probably be able to use biometric information so that they only work with a specific wearer, which would make theft useless. And in any case, if you did lose it or it were stolen, you could use remote disabling technology to “brick” it at any time, instantly. Try doing that with your lost keychain.

Again, the important point here (pun avoided) is that given my assumption that the watch can be built to interact with things wirelessly like a unique physical object, that means it as robust as the security you are using to keep everything in your home safe in the first place. Hackers can steal millions of email and passwords with just some keystrokes, but physically stealing millions of smartwatches would be as impossible as stealing millions of individuals’ house keys.

Third, the smartwatch could substitute for all the little security cards and passes we accumulate in our lives. No more would you need to carry around one card to get past the turnstile in your office building, and yet another for the turnstile in the subway, with a lot of obvious et ceteras.

And best of all, it would be almost impossible to lose. Maybe it’s just because I’m a natural worry-wart, but I think the freedom of going keyless would be profoundly transformative with respect to my day-to-day psychology.

One final genuinely useful thing would be for my watch to be my wallet, too. Instead of (or in addition to) sending me cards with chips in them, my bank could just send me chips, which I could manually insert into my “Any Key” (obviously this could be done without any physical chips, but I’m trying to make a point about achievable levels of security). You can already tap your card to make payments, and even make small purchases without having to enter your PIN number. How cool would it be if your transactions were just invisibly and effortlessly taken care of by the thing on your wrist, maybe requiring at most fingerprint confirmation like we can already use to open our iPhones?

For worry-warts like me, strapping my keys and my wallet to my wrist would also have a profound effect on another part of our lives: finally, we would actually be able to enjoy going to the beach.

[29/08/2014: One example of how a watch could be a unique device, like a key, is the exploitation of a “physically unclonable function” or PUF: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-28891938.]

    Len Epp

    Written by

    Len Epp

    Startup cofounder. I like to write about tech, publishing, the interwebs, politics, and such.

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