Thinking Outside The Watch

Today’s smartphones and tablets know a lot about us, but they don’t really know us. If Apple’s going to enter the wearable market, I believe (or at least, I hope) they will find an obvious benefit of wearing a device that goes beyond displaying notifications on your wrist.

In episode 40 of The Prompt, we discussed this topic in regard to Android Wear, Google’s recently announced initiative for wearable devices that, at the moment, seems primarily focused on so-called smartwatches. Also on The Prompt, we discussed the importance of fashion and how fashion design is often ignored as a core aspect of wearable tech two months ago in episode 33.

The current crop of smartwatches feels like a replay of smartphones before the iPhone. Smartphones were bulky, had some convenient features, and tried to cram old metaphors of PC software into a new form factor, resulting in baby software. Most smartwatches I see today are bulky, have some convenient features, and try to cram features and apps from smartphones and tablets into a form factor that’s both new and old (watches have been around for centuries), but the “smartwatch” tech gadget has become a trend only recently. As a result, smartwatches on the market today appeal mostly to tech geeks who are interested in some of those few interesting features (namely notifications, map directions, and the intersection of smartphones and watches), but they’re not really smart because they generally fetch data from a primary device – the smartphone – and they’re not really good as watches either.

Sometimes I wonder if the tech press is more enamored with the current idea of smartwatches than people actually care.

To a degree, though, I understand why having notifications on your wrist may be an interesting proposition: for the geek who lives in the connected age, everything needs to be faster and easier. Faster Internet and easier access to Twitter. Faster processor and easier ways to manage the inbox. A simplified interface that strips down unnecessary elements and displays a notification on your wrist while also subtly vibrating? To the geek and tech blogger, that’s both cool and useful. And to a certain extent, I also get why some of the apps available for smartwatches may be worth trying: shopping lists on your wrist mean you won’t be afraid of dropping your phone at the grocery store, and who doesn’t love checking for Twitter DMs on a watch?

But I think that discounting wearable devices – whether worn on your wrist or around your neck, on your chest or on your finger – to small displays capable of displaying notifications and mini-apps dramatically undervalues the potential of wearing tech on your body.

When I talk to my parents, my friends, and friends of friends about this, I don’t see people asking for glanceable data and seamless voice control. Here’s a reality check: most people don’t care about getting Twitter notifications for mentions and they’re already glued to their phones using WhatsApp, Facebook, iMessage, LINE, Instagram, and a music player. My parents and yours aren’t asking about “the smartwatch they saw on the news” because normal people don’t want to slap a bulky 2-inch display on their wrist and be constantly connected to the Internet. The kind of interactions people have with modern devices – Facebook and WhatsApp notifications, email, casual Internet browsing and gaming – are already executed sufficiently well by smartphones and computers. There’s no sense in badly replicating the computer experience on a watch. That job is done.

You may argue, however, that, before the iPhone, people’s digital needs had already been satisfied by computers, and yet the iPhone happened and now millions of people are using smartphones with cameras, Internet and email capabilities, and apps. That’s a fair point, with the only difference that, in the early ’00s, the mobile phone was already an established category that evolved into a better product; today, you’d be hard pressed to find kids wearing watches. And even if, for the sake of the argument, we only accounted for people who do wear a watch today – likely for the fashion aspect and not for the object’s utility per se, as checking the time is now usually done on the Lock screen – what are the chances that the classic watch is going to evolve into a better watch thanks to Apple or Google?

Is improving the watch really what progress in wearable tech should be about?

The underlying problem was calling it a “watch” from the beginning. By restricting the scope of the vision to the watch form factor and tradition, most companies have fallen victim of feature creep and bad taste, blocked by limitations imposed by their own assumptions and the existing form factor. They’re trying to add displays to watches that can’t become too big because otherwise they wouldn’t look like watches; they depend from smartphones for data and apps because they couldn’t embed processors and sensors in the watch; they’re not building revolutionary new devices because that stuff takes time, internal iteration, and a lot of new expertise in the field.

To me, the current generation of smartwatches feels like a faster horse scenario: there is the spark of an idea – wearable tech – but, until today, “popular” products in this field appear to be dictated by features the tech press and geeks ask for. I see a sparkle of hope when I hear about embedded sensors such as heart rate monitors, but I feel like there’s no bigger vision. Google made a pretty promo video, but it’s ultimately an uncanny crossover of a classic watch with a smaller interface for Google Now; on the Wear webpage, they claim to have support for sensors built-in, but that seems like a way to play it safe and prevent damage when the market will eventually be reinvented by Apple or somebody else.

The simple foundation of wearable tech should be that you’re wearing a tiny computer on your body. That’s an important and fundamentally powerful idea because smartphones and tablets are separated from us: they are, after all, screens operated by fingers. Smartphones are extensions of us, whereas wearables could stay on us all the time without being intentionally operated. Even the iPhone 5s with the M7 motion co-processor is, in the end, an experiment based on the assumption that an iPhone is always with us when we walk, run, or drive. The phone is something that you use, not something that you wear. A wearable device, on the other hand, could use the fashion aspect as a Trojan horse to know more about our body and, more importantly, how our body reacts to external agents and circumstances.

This entire idea of wearables is based on the belief that we can improve technology and make it do better things for us by giving computers intimate and personal data. That’s not email messages or todo lists, but heart and respiratory rate, body position and activity, glucose levels, hydration, nutrition patterns, sleep times and stats, weight, oxygen saturation, blood pressure, user presence relative to other connected devices, acceleration, and more. If the next step of human progress is to make technology deeply contextual, there’s only so much scanning email messages and calendar appointments can do. Before neural implants and other sci-fi ideas, wearing tech is the obvious candidate as the first bridge between computers (that includes smartphones) and us.

I also believe (and, again, hope) that current speculation on Apple reinventing the wearable space with health and fitness-oriented features is only one side of the (possible) story. Using data captured by sensors to provide an accurate breakdown of health values and fitness goals is a powerful but boring concept, and I say this as someone who spent two years running blood and respiratory tests on a daily basis, every week. I know the usefulness of easier access to blood and oxygen measurements, but using that facet as the only functionality of a new device is a tough sell on consumers. Luckily, not everyone needs to obsess over blood stats multiple times per day – it’s hard to make health-tracking an exciting idea, and, even if deeply transformative, I fail to imagine how people would line up at the Apple Store to buy a wearable device only focused on health and fitness data.

If the rumors are to be believed, I think Healthbook will be useful for most people as an archive of passively-collected daily data rather than an open-every-few-minutes kind of app. Health is not an App Store – precise data doesn’t make much sense if you can’t interpret it, and I can’t see “casually checking on my blood pressure” becoming the new Flappy Bird. Same for fitness: exercising is, for most people, a time-limited activity (a hobby or a task, essentially), therefore if you don’t exercise, the tracking device loses all its relevance in the user lifestyle.

This is the same problem that Apple faced with the Apple TV: selling a hobby is hard if the consumer isn’t interested in such hobby in the first place. It’s difficult to make a hobby another leg of the stool. But as Apple TV started gaining more and more channels, the hobby expanded beyond movies and TV shows, embracing sports, music, news, online video, documentaries, and photos, broadening the range of interests a consumer may buy an Apple TV for. That’s in stark opposition to the iPhone, which started as a tiny computer disguised as a phone and that became an even more versatile computer with the launch of the App Store in 2008.

For all I know, it’s entirely possible that Apple’s first wearable will start as a fitness and health-tracking device – a hobby that will gain features and a vision that will become clearer over time. Personally, I find it unlikely for two reasons: there’s a lot of pressure on Apple to enter the wearable market with a big splash, and it’s not hard to imagine how wearable tech can go beyond fitness and health.

With direct access to our body (presumably, our skin) and the capability of measuring a variety of blood/oxygen data and motion, I’m guessing a smartphone could understand if the user struggled on a walking route that was suggested by the Maps app; it could try to understand physical reactions to a song in a playlist; it could understand a user’s proximity to other devices, displaying notifications only on the device currently being used; it could track internal temperature as well as external, “feels like” temperature; a wearable, always-on (an interesting new take on an old concept) device could be used in games and it could be implemented in gestural interfaces.

Several aspects of existing operating systems and apps could be enhanced or altered by a proper knowledge of the user’s body, surroundings, proximity to other computers, physical patterns and lifestyle habits. The M7 provides a good example: by tracking the iPhone’s motion, the M7 instructs the Maps app to display walking or driving directions.

A wearable device that is worn all the time by us could bring this kind of natural and personal changes to the tech we use every day, making old apps and OSes feel obsolete, arbitrary, and constrained by pre-programmed assumptions.

But how can this idea be marketed and sold as a consumer product? Perhaps the answer is in the combination of fashion and health/fitness tracking, perhaps it’s something completely new that doesn’t exist in the public eye yet. For Apple to have another iPhone-like hit product in the wearable market, it’ll have to combine a vision with a practical implementation and fashion sense that resonates with consumers. Could a screen with watchfaces and notifications be a feature of a much larger vision and tech behind the product? Why does Tim Cook think that wearable tech is profoundly interesting?

The potential for wearables lies in the promise that computers can work better for us if we’re willing to let them know more about us as physical beings, not data points. A smartwatch that only displays notifications and counts steps misses the point entirely.

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