Smartwatch 'smart straps' died for a reason. I still want them to come back.

Someone making a payment using the wristband form a Polar smartwatch
(Image credit: Polar)
Sunday Runday

Lloyd, the Android Central mascot, break-dancing

(Image credit: Android Central)

In this weekly column, Android Central Wearables Editor Michael Hicks talks about the world of wearables, apps, and fitness tech related to running and health, in his quest to get faster and more fit.

This week, Polar released a 22mm "Payment Wristband" with an NFC chip embedded into the strap, enabling tap-to-pay if your watch doesn't support it. We haven't seen tech-filled watch bands since the early days of Pebble and Galaxy Gear, but Polar's modular tech has me curious if this abandoned idea deserves a renaissance.

Smart straps died for several reasons. Put tech in a strap, and it naturally loses its flexibility, is more prone to failure, requires a power source, and is generally less comfortable. It also prevents users from swapping in their own straps since it means losing functionality.

Instead, with massive watches like the Apple Watch Ultra 2 on the rise, designers use lightweight bands as crutches to offset the extra weight. A thick, tech-filled band would be counterproductive. 

With that context, it's hard to imagine why anyone would want "smart straps" to return. Still, handled correctly, smartwatch bands have untapped potential, and some companies have begun to explore that potential.

A brief, ill-fated history of 'smart' watch bands

A side view of the Samsung Galaxy Gear (2013)

The original Galaxy Gear, with its visible camera bump. (Image credit: Android Central)

The original Samsung Galaxy Gear packed a 720p camera with autofocus, two mics, and a speaker into its band. Samsung's engineers saw that extra band space as an opportunity to keep the main watch more compact, instead of cramming everything into one space. 

Our original reviewer called the 73g Gear "bulky and uncomfortable" and the strap's camera sensor a "wart." Samsung's engineers agreed. The Gear 2 moved the camera and mic/speaker tech onto the watch, and future iterations like the Gear S2 had a much greater focus on style and comfort. From then on, you could swap any band onto a Gear or Galaxy watch without losing essential tech. 

Companies have tried to put smart watch bands on watches before, but they never took off.

In that same early era, Pebble launched Pebble Time, its 2nd-gen watch, on Kickstarter with a unique "Smartstraps" gimmick. It featured a "smart accessory port" so third-party strap makers could pack tech and sensors into their straps that would sync directly with the watch. 

Pebble offered $1 million in funding for Smartstrap devs, promising users add-ons like GPS, heart rate, or extended battery life. There was even an NFC payment strap from Pagaré. However, once Fitbit acquired the failing Pebble brand the following year, the concept died before it could truly begin. 

These "optional" health and fitness add-ons became default features in fitness watches over time. Watch designers have become so efficient at squeezing useful components into a 13mm case that pushing tech into a thick band would unnecessarily complicate matters.

The Pebble Time smartwatch

The Pebble Time (2015) (Image credit: Android Central)

Sony took a different approach, selling standalone smart straps that you attach to non-smart luxury watches. Its 2015 Wena Wrist Pro tracked your steps, calories, and sleep. It even had a bizarre sliver of an OLED screen that displayed tiny contextual data along your wrist. However, its excessive price and limited features made it a novelty that never caught on.

It also sold a standalone fitness tracker with built-in GPS and HR data called the Wena Wrist Active. I mention it because Sony designed it with a unique connector that lets you mount any watch onto its front, adding classic style while keeping the health data.

Besides the 2013 Hands On Talk Watch, which had a mic and speaker embedded in the strap (thanks Wikipedia), I don't know of any other smartwatches with smart bands. The concept seemed to die off quickly, as most brands emulated Apple or Galaxy Watches in design.

The perks and challenges of modular watch upgrades

A Figure from the patent "Pressure sensor integration into wearable device" showing how a watch would tell you to adjust your fit for a proper Fit Score.

(Image credit: U.S. patent office; Fitbit)

Polar's €59 Payment Wristband has one straightforward application: It is designed to make consumers pay for NFC themselves rather than add the tech to its Polar Vantage V3 or other watches. It's a niche tool, unlikely to achieve high sales, but still quite useful.

Are there other smartwatch "extras" that could fit inside a 20mm or 22mm watch band? It's complicated. 

Ultramarathoners would love the original Pebble concept of a battery-enhancing, swap-on strap. Here's the problem: You'd need an energy-receiving port in the strap connector — probably not Quick Release-compatible — and engineers would need to keep the band light and flexible despite how thick batteries typically are. Plus, encasing batteries in TPU material leaves them vulnerable to damage and failure.

Adjusting the Spigen Modern Fit watch band for the Galaxy Watch 5

(Image credit: Derrek Lee / Android Central)

I don't have a design or engineering background, but an add-on strap with Ultra Wideband seems more feasible. UWB lets iPhone 15 owners pinpoint their lost Apple Watch or use their watch as a digital car key; the next Pixel Watch could add UWB as well. But an UWB strap, like an NFC strap, could theoretically work as a standalone add-on for any watch.

Straying freely into wish-fulfillment territory, I suspect most Garmin watch fans would love a strap that added LTE compatibility. Since the Forerunner 945 LTE, they've waited in vain for more cellular options that would make Garmin watches more useful in emergencies

Like a battery strap, though, an LTE strap would be difficult to implement. Despite how small a 5G chip is, a standalone receiver with the necessary power source would be the opposite of portable. You'd need a physical connection through the strap to the main CPU, and I just don't know if that would work. 

For any other potential watch add-on, the engineering challenge alone makes it more likely that smartwatch brands would simply...put the tech in the watch. For example, you might assume a band could track an athlete's sweat loss, but this Apple patent shows how a watch would track that data directly from the main body.

The future of smart straps

Screenshot of Meta Connect 2022 showing Meta's neural interface wristband concept, specifically how it registers brainwaves based on minute finger and hand gestures.

(Image credit: Meta)

Currently, the only practical application I know of for a dynamic watch strap is found on portable blood pressure watches. Several models have inflatable straps that expand during BP readings for more accurate results, in theory. I couldn't tell you if the Galaxy Watch 6's BP readings are more or less accurate with a normal watch band.

The next frontier is all about neural interface bands. Think of the Double Tap feature made popular with the Apple Watch, only with much better accuracy because these bands can read the signals from your brain, knowing that you intend to make a pinching motion even if your fingers barely move. 

The Mudra Band, released this year, replaces your typical watch strap and becomes a neural controller for any Apple computer, TV, Vision Pro, or other devices. Tech nerds could get a lot out of this, though it costs nearly as much as the Series 9 itself. 

Meanwhile, Meta is making its own neural EMG band, promising mid-air typing to chat with an AI. CEO Mark Zuckerberg claims the "neural interface continuously gets better over time at understanding each person" and says it'll be product-ready in a couple of years. I'd have to assume it'll be pricey, as well. 

Perhaps that's the future of smartwatch strap tech that we should expect: expensive, niche, a bit gimmicky, and with cool implications. More straightforward smart straps with feature additions or battery enhancements sound pretty neat in theory, but a bit too impractical and costly to the consumer for companies to invest in the idea. 

Michael L Hicks
Senior Editor, VR/AR and fitness

Michael is Android Central's resident expert on fitness tech and wearables, with an enthusiast's love of VR tech on the side. After years freelancing for Techradar, Wareable, Windows Central, Digital Trends, and other sites on a variety of tech topics, AC has given him the chance to really dive into the topics he's passionate about. He's also a semi-reformed Apple-to-Android user who loves D&D, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings.

For wearables, Michael has tested dozens of smartwatches from Garmin, Fitbit, Samsung, Apple, COROS, Polar, Amazfit, and other brands, and will always focus on recommending the best product over the best brand. He's also completed marathons like NYC, SF, Marine Corps, Big Sur, and California International — though he's still trying to break that 4-hour barrier.