When I was about 5 my father gave me my first watch. It was very cool, had a colorful watch band and had a football player on its watch face. And it was a manual watch that I had to wind up every week which I found utterly fascinating: Just a few turns of the small wheel and it “magically” worked for a long time (when you’re 4 or 5 a week is long!).
I don’t know where that watch ended up or how long I used it. I went through some more or less cheap ass digital watches during my time in school. Ugly, plasticy devices that had one thing going for them: They were digital. Precise. You got the exact time with a short glance and not just a rough estimation. Which felt “better” in a weird way, like the future as it was shown in the 70ies SciFi movies, with clear and precise, sometimes curved lines. It felt right in a way. A little bit of the promise of a more developed future. Star Trek on my wrist. In some small and maybe not even meaningful way it felt powerful. As if that quartz driven precision would somehow make the constant flow of time more manageable.
When I went to study computer science I always had some form of cheap watch on my arm to tell the time since I refused to get a cell phone for the longest time (for a bunch of mostly stupid and pretentious reasons). But when some software development gig that me and a friend worked on finished with a bonus payment I got a “real” watch.
I wore that thing for a few years and loved it. Not just because it reminded me of Gir from Invader Zim (even though that was a big part of it). The fallback to an analog watch felt like a nice contrast to the digital spaces I spend more and more time in. The two watch faces were so small that you could hardly read a precise time on them and it had two of them. It was a strangely out-of-time anchor to the past while I dove head on into what I perceived to be “the future“.
A cellphone came, then a feature phone and finally smartphones and at some point I stopped replacing the batteries in my watch. I carried my phone around with me anyways so why add another device to the mix that had only that one feature? It felt pointless especially with me being sort of the prototypical nerd back then explicitly not “caring” about “looks and style” and all that stuff while sticking very closely to the codices and fashions of that subculture I identified with back then. If you gather from this that I was probably just another insecure dude in the beginning of his twenties a little too full of his own bullshit you would probably be correct.
But about 6 months ago things changed and I got another watch. A “smart” one even (we’ll come back to that word later). Here’s some kind of “review” or a summary of the things I learned from wearing one for those few months. But don’t be afraid, this isn’t a techbloggy text. Nobody cares about pixel counts and the megahertzs of whatever core processors. Given the state of the art the answer to most inquiries about features and performance is usually “enough” or “more than enough”. It’s also not about the different software platforms and if Google’s is better than Apple’s (which very few people have even used for more than a few minutes if at all) because given the relative newness of the form factor and class of device it will look very different in a few years anyways. And for most interesting questions about the devices the technical configurations just don’t matter regardless of what the producer’s advertising is trying to tell you.
I’ll write about how a smartwatch can change your relationship to your phone, your interactions with people and how smartwatches cast a light on where tech might be in a few years. Not from a business, startup, crowdfunding perspective but as a few loosely connected thoughts on humans and their personal devices as sociotechnical systems.
I should also add a short disclaimer. I understand that me posting about jewelry and rather expensive devices could be read as classist. I live a very privileged life with – at least at the moment – enough income to fund frivolities such as a way more expensive than necessary smart watch, a smart phone etc. but I do believe that my experience with these device can help understanding and modeling different uses of technology, their social context and their meaning. These devices will grow cheaper including more and more people (at least in certain parts of the world). But I am aware of the slightly messed up position I write this from.
Let’s dive in (finally!).
So. What is a smartwatch, really?
Wearables are a very hot topic right now. Many wearables are … well let’s not say stupid, let’s call them very narrowly focused. Step counters are very popular these days for example turning your daily movement into a few numbers to store and compare and optimize. Some of these things try to measure heart rates similar low hanging fruits as well.
On the other end of the spectrum we have our smart phones and tablet computers or maybe even laptops which we carry around each day. Many might not consider their phone a wearable because it resides in your pocket or satchel but in the end it is more than just some object you schlep around all day but – for many if not most of us – an integral piece of our mental exoskeleton. Just ask people whose phone needs a repair longer than a few hours.
Smartwatches are somewhere between those two extremes. Many modern examples of this class of devices include a few of the sensors typically associated with dumb wearables: A heartrate monitor or a pedometer (fancytalk for step counter) for example. But smart watches can do more can install apps and provide features that make them feel very capable … unless you forget your phone.
Because in the end a smartwatch is just a different view into your smartphone. A smaller screen attached to a somewhat more convenient location of your body. Sure, there are great apps for smartwatches. I got one that makes my hand movements give me Jedi force powers turning certain movements into configurable actions. Another app is just a very simple recorder for audio memos. There are calculators, dice rolling apps and many more but their usefulness is usually very limited. No, let’s again say focused. And that is a good thing.
Without a phone connected my watch falls back to one of its dumbest and surprisingly most useful feature: It shows me the time and my agenda.
You can imagine the sort of look that my wife gave me when I proclaimed this fundamental understanding of my new plaything. “So the killer feature of that smart device is showing the time? ” she asked jokingly. But it’s a little more complex. My smartwatch allows me to check certain things (time, agenda, certain notifications from apps I authorized) without picking up my phone which can – and all too often does – pull your attention in like a black hole. You just wanted to check the time but there’s this notification and someone retweeted you and what’s going on on Facebook … what was I supposed to do here?
I’m not a critic of our networked culture in general, not one of the neo-luddites trying to frame being “offline” in some way as the better or more fulfilling mode of life. But the simplicity that the small form factor and screen size of smartwatches enforces, the reduction to very simple interactions can help to stay focused when you want to.
Most apps on my watch are mere extensions of the apps running on my phone. And that’s actually precisely what I want and not the drawback it’s sometimes made out to be. I get a message pushed to my wrist and can react on it with a few prepared response templates or by using voice recognition (with all the funny problems that come with it). But again: I can stay focused on whatever I am doing now (such as riding my bike in traffic) while still being able to tell the person I am meeting that I’ll be there in 5 minutes. The app I use to record my running shows me certain stats on my wrist, I can switch to the next podcast or music track in my queue while still keeping my attention on the road.
I don’t know when I printed my last map screenshot or route description. When smartphones and navigation became widely available there was not longer the need to reduce a place you were going to to a set of a handful of predefined railways to created for yourself in order to not get lost. You drop out of the train or plane and the unknown city opens up to you like the inviting and fascinating place it probably is. You can just start walking since you know that even if you don’t speak the language perfectly you’ll find your way. My smartwatch does that while allowing me to keep my phone in my pocket allowing me to look less like a tourist or target. When the little black thing on my arm vibrates I check it to see where to turn, apart from that I just keep walking.
Sure, there will be apps coming that use these watches in more creative and useful ways. That thrive not in spite of but because of the tiny form factor. But that’s mostly a bonus and if it doesn’t happen I’d be fine as well. Because the watch as a simplified, ultra-reduced, ultra-focused remote to my mobile digital brain is feature enough. Where digital watches used to give me an intangible feeling of control of time the smart-ish watch does actually help me feel augmented by my devices in a way that doesn’t try to capture as much of my attention as smartphones tend to do. The watch is not a smaller smartphone but your phone’s little helper. The small and agile Robin to the somewhat clunky Batman in your pocket.
Any new technology has to carve out its niche and fight for acceptance. And some don’t and die for a plethora of reasons (Minidisk, I always liked you). There are many reasons why people, mostly “experts” of some sort, don’t believe that smartwatches will gain any traction.
“You have to recharge them every night, my watch runs for weeks, months, years!” Yeah. And on Tuesday it’s darker than at night. Oh, we weren’t doing the whole wrong comparison thing? Damn. Just as people learned to charge their phones every night they’ll get used to throwing their watch on a charger at night. My watch gets charged wirelessly with a Qi standard charger that sets you back about 10 bucks. It’s a non-issue.
“But it doesn’t do a lot without a phone! It needs its own camera, internet connection, coffee maker and washing machine!” Nope. Simplicity and reduction is what makes that class of devices interesting and useful. I don’t need a half-assed smartphone on my arm when I have a good one in my pocket. I need something that helps my use my actual device better. Another device means all kinds of annoyances. Just think about synchronization of data.
I am in the lucky position not to have to deal with tech writers and pundits in all of the facets of my live. What I learned from interacting with non-techy people and the watch is actually not that surprising if you think about it: A smart watch is a lot less irritating and invasive than a smart phone.
There are friends where I know I can just look at my phone while we hang out and they’ll not consider it an insult or affront. They might enjoy the break from talking, might want to check a few things themselves or just relax for a second without having to entertain me or the others in the room. But not everybody feels that way (and why should they, it’s not like submerging yourself in the digital is the only right way to live). In those situations the look at the watch is an established and accepted practice mostly unless you check your watch every minute.
Some tech people tend to ignore the social. They might try to press it into services and data but often seem to overlook any sort of information a social act transports apart from the obvious. In pre-digital worlds checking your watch every few minutes was sometimes considered rude or would be read as a signal to leave your hosts etc. But where the glance at the watch is merely the acknowledgement of the existence of time and a world outside of the current situation, getting out your smartphone puts the outside world into focus making the people you share a physical space with just a blur in the corner of your vision.
Of course it’s your right to check your phone whenever you want just as people can be insulted or at least irritated by it. The way a smart watch can serve as a proxy of your access to your digital identity and network from your physical location and context it can help you communicate that you value the moment without feeling disconnected. Especially since neither being very digitally connected nor valuing physical meetings more highly is “better”, having this sort of a reduced stub of the digital that closely on you can serve as a good compromise for these situations.
A smartwatch is accepted because it is a watch. And we as a culture know watches. Sure, some very techy, clunky, funky looking devices break that “veil of the analogue” by screaming “I AM TECHNOLOGY, FEAR ME” through their design. But the more simple versions that avoid the plasticy look of Casio watches on LSD are often even overlooked and not even perceived as technology (and therefore as an irritation or even dangerous) by people who are sceptical of technology. That’s the problem devices such as Google’s Glass project have who also have very interesting and potentially beneficial use cases but look so undeniably alien that everyone expects a laser gun to appear. And that’s where smart watches embed themselves into existing social norms and practices. by looking like the past and not screaming FUTURE all too loud.
Body Area Network and the Future
What does this mean for the Future(tm)? The idea of the Body Area Network and the Personal Area Network do already exist: We are more and more turning into digital cyborgs creating our own personal “cloud” and network of data and services along the axes of and around our physical bodies.
Right now Smartphones seem to be some sort of Hub we carry around. The little monolith containing our data, internet access and main mobile interface to our digital self. Other devices connect to the hub, exchange data and use the services it provides (such as Internet connectivity or a camera). But looking at things like Google’s project Ara a different idea emerges.
Ara is a module smartphone platform that allows you to add, remove and change the hardware modules of your phone at runtime. While it’s mostly framed as a way for people to buy their devices in parts upgrading it when the personal financial situation allows it the modular approach also has different trajectories influencing how our BANs and PANs might look in a few years.
Changing a phone can be annoying and/or time consuming. The backup software might have failed or forgotten something valuable. Maybe an app isn’t available on the new system or the newer version is incompatible to the data structure the old version left in your backup. We suffer through it because many of us rely on our personal information hubs making us potentially more capable (or at least giving us the feeling of being that).
Understanding smart watches as reduced, minimal, simplified interfaces to our data, looking at wearables as very specific data gathering or displaying devices it seems to make sense to centralize your data on one device that your other devices just connect to. These days we work around that issue with tools such as Dropbox and other similar cloud sync services trying to keep all our devices up-to-data and sometimes failing horribly. But what if every new device just integrates into your BAN/PAN, connects to your data store and either contributes to it or gives you a different view on it? In that world wearables could become even “dumber” while still appearing to the user very “smart” (and we know that to the user, the interface is the product).
The smartphones that we use are built with healthy people in mind with nimble fingers and good eyesight. Smart watches illustrate quite effectively that the idea of the one device for every situation has overstayed its welcome somewhat. That different social or even personal circumstances require or or benefit from different styles and types of interfaces. Making it easier for people to find the right interfaces for their needs, for the situations they find themselves in will be the challenge of the next few years. Watches might not always look like something we’d call a watch today. Maybe they’ll evolve into gloves, or just rings. Maybe the piercing some wear in their upper lip will contain an antenna to amplify the connectivity of the BAN/PAN.
Where Ara tries making phones more modular, wearables – when done right – show that we can benefit a lot from modularizing the mobile access to our digital self. Which will create new subtle but powerful signals: Leaving certain types of interfaces at home or disabled on the table to communicate an ephemeral quality of a situation, only using interfaces focused on shared experience of the self and the other when being with another person creating a new kind of intimacy.
But right now it’s just a watch. With some extras. Useful extras though. You wouldn’t believe how often the app projecting me the video from my smartphone camera to my wrist has been useful to find something that has fallen behind the furniture. But none of them really, honestly legitimizing the price of the devices.
But the price will fall and new wearables will pop up. If you have the opportunity, try them out for a while. Not by fiddling around on a tiny display playing around with flashy but ultimately useless apps but by integrating them into your day for a few weeks. Don’t believe any review written with less than a few weeks of actual use.