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This new Apple Watch feature could be a game-changer

Dick Tracy has been a staple of the American comic strip for nearly 90 years. But why does the comic continue to stand the test of time? Is it the character or his iconic watch?

In the mid-1940s, illustrators added a 2-way radio to the detective’s wrist. In the 1960s, the cool timepiece got upgraded with a tiny TV screen. It’s been 50 years, and modern smartwatches have come pretty close to replicating the experience – but we may finally be getting closer to a key feature that’s mostly been absent.

A patent filed two years ago was granted this week and, if fully realized, it could bring a sophisticated camera system to a future smartwatch. The only question is whether the hi-tech addition will truly become reality or remain pop culture fiction.

A plan to bring FaceTime to your wrist

With everything that’s crammed into a smartwatch these days, from GPS to heart monitors, it sounds pretty easy to add a camera into the mix. What’s one more thing? Samsung thought so a few years ago, adding a camera to their original Gear and Gear 2 smartwatches. But it was made to snap a fast photo or short video, not to point at your face. Most deemed it a pointless novelty not worthy of the extra price, and it was excluded in later generations.

Fast forward to 2016. Apple came up their own idea about adding FaceTime to their line of wearables and filed a patent that September. And just this week, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted the patent for Apple’s “image-capturing watch.”

Basically, it involves adding a wide-angle lens in a sensor that’s built in to the Apple Watch’s band. Based on the patent, the company has come up with some interesting ways to deal with unique problems that could arise from using FaceTime on your wrist.

Bonus: Apple pulls buggy watchOS update after bricking devices

The challenges of adding a camera to the Apple Watch

The first hurdle is the battery. They have to be small enough to share space inside a very small housing, thus cutting down their daily longevity. Add a camera to the equation, and you risk your Apple Watch checking out by lunchtime. But battery life has improved over the past couple of years, so problem solved? Unclear.

Camera technology has also made advancements, in both quality and features. But quality isn’t the big issue in this instance. According to the patent, they’re looking at a camera system that would automatically crop in on the wearer and keep tracking your face as you continue to move around. It’s also about dealing with the potential awkward, upward angle, since people want to see your face – not how far your nostrils go.

Apple’s solution is to generate angle-adjusted avatars so the person on the other end of the FaceTime call sees a representation of your face straight on, not straight up. The motion tracking technology is the same Apple uses for their Animoji and Memoji.

Will they or won’t they?

Just because the patent has been filed and granted is not an indication that Apple will ever produce a watch with these proposed features. The question also remains whether focus will shift from smartphones to wearables, and how the company deals with that possibility. Many smartwatches already include GPS and their own SIM cards, allowing users to leave their phones home in various situations. This could possibly be one more advancement to further that mindset.

With a smartwatch so advanced, would Dick Tracy leave his iPhone at home? It’s like wondering if Apple, or any other manufacturer, will soon add a true camera for video calls – we may never know.

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