Samsung unveiled its highly anticipated digital wristwatch today, beating Apple to what could become this fall's must-have gizmo.

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 colours, 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.

Fashion or function?

Samsung jumped ahead of its rivals and has a chance to test the market for wearable technology with the release, says Ross Miller, editor of The Verge.

"This device is a little pricey for a lot of people right now, but I think next year we’ll see a serious market for wearable technology," Miller told CBC's Lang O'Leary Exchange

He doesn't expect the smartwatch to replace the cellphone, but to become a fashion accessory.

"Early on you’re going to see a lot devices that err on the side of function, but fashion is going to be a big deal in terms of making a bigger market, he said.

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.

1-day battery charge

The number of apps that work with the Gear is 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 most countries Sept. 25, with prices starting at $299 US. 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.