Wearables: thinking aloud

The latest in smartwatch mockups is Todd Hamilton’s iWatch concept, which is very interesting, and it’s probably the first concept I’ve seen so far that could convince me — if it were a real product — to at least give it a try. What I really like about it is that it’s not an outrageous sci-fi concept, but something that follows Apple’s design style more closely than other visual ideas and mockups I’ve seen on the Web since the iWatch fever broke out.

The current problem with wearables

Both the products currently available and the various concepts that try to anticipate Apple’s take in this category have, in my opinion, one significant flaw: they lack mass appeal. As I hinted in my article Selective enthusiasm, written almost a year ago, current smartwatches and similar wearables are a bit like those calculator wristwatches from the 1980s: cool gadgets for geeks, boring and unstylish contraptions for most regular people. And the fundamental problem of the few stylish proposals I’ve seen so far is that, when you look past appearances, you’re left with a device of limited usefulness.

But the real underlying problem with wearables is, I think, an identity problem.

What should these devices do? Which functions should they have? Should they replace existing objects/devices — and why — or extend their functions — and how? These are very basic questions, I know, but I honestly wonder if manufacturers of current devices have seriously considered them in their rush of being the first to hit the market.

I’m trying to approach this from a user’s perspective — from a regular, down-to-earth user’s perspective, putting down my technology enthusiast’s hat for a moment. And I ask myself:

– Do I want a smartwatch?
Do I want a device on my wrist that essentially tells me the time and sends me a few notifications by connecting/pairing with my smartphone? I already have a nice wristwatch with a timeless design. It looks cool when I’m elegantly dressed and when I’m sporting more casual clothes. Alternatively: I have that great, expensive wristwatch I wear on special occasions where I must dress elegantly, and then I have my everyday cool inexpensive Swatch that’s perfect for my casual style. I have my smartphone, it’s always in my pocket no matter the occasion. Why would I need such smartwatch? It doesn’t do anything really new or interesting. It’s another fairly expensive device I have to care for. It’s too dependent on accessories that I already own and which already work great for me.

– Do I want a full smartphone replacement on a wrist?
Sorry, but I’m already spoiled by big smartphone screens, their user interface, their versatility. And how do I read stuff on this tiny screen? How do I write stuff on this device? And… it’s on my wrist, so one-hand interaction all the time while keeping the forearm at an angle. Any task that takes longer than a minute gets tiring very quickly. And how about battery life? Do I have to charge this thing every few hours? What’s the point? Where’s the convenience?

– Do I want some ‘health monitor/smartwatch/smart-thing’ hybrid?
Here’s the thing: I won’t deny that a wearable sensor that monitors heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, etc., has a certain usefulness. I also think that, unless you have specific health-related reasons to monitor yourself, having such a wearable monitor that gives you that kind of data in real time all the time only leads to unhealthy obsessions. During the day, blood pressure may rise, heart rate may accelerate or there might be episodes of temporary arrhythmia, and these things happen and they’re not uncommon and in most cases there’s nothing wrong with you. Normally, you don’t even notice. And if you notice that something feels really off, then that’s cause for concern and you don’t really need a wearable device to tell you that.

Now think of having a device on your wrist that feeds you health-related data constantly. Sure, you certainly won’t spend your day looking at it (I hope), and all that ‘quantified self’ data may even be useful in the long run because you can detect patterns like your average blood pressure steadily increasing during the last month and stuff like that. But most of the time you’ll be obsessing with false alarms and data you can’t reliably read or trust without the help of a doctor (who can provide reasons, analysis, context).

– Do I want a device that borrows some features from the smartphone and puts them in a more convenient solution I can wear on my arm and check more comfortably?
Maybe. We take our smartphones out of the pocket for simple and complex tasks. Simple tasks include: checking the time (even the date, sometimes), checking notifications, maybe taking a look at the weather for the next hours, reading a text message we received, listening to music, and so on. Complex tasks include: writing an email, searching for something on the Web, taking/editing/sharing a photo, handling appointments and reminders, taking notes, reading news/ebooks/feeds (I consider this a complex task in the sense that it needs a certain screen size for reading and navigating the interface), playing a game, etc.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to perform the simpler tasks without having to take the smartphone out every time? That the wearable device could act as a sort of outsourced lock screen/notification centre? The immediate answer would be yes, of course. But consider some of the costs for such (positive but limited) benefit:

  • An additional device to carry around.
  • An additional expense.
  • Yet another device to care for (You have to recharge it, of course, but also protect it from all the accidents that usually happen with wristwatches and other accessories you have on you).
  • A device which is largely optional, a luxury, something that may be cool to have but not exactly compelling per se.

I don’t have solutions

It’s difficult for me to wrap up these observations by offering ideas as to what kind of wearable device should be manufactured or what kind of features this hypothetical wearable device should have for me to want to purchase it. I keep thinking that such a device needs some key technology that’s not fully developed or ready yet. The current offerings are unstylish, uninteresting and unimaginative devices, which appeal only to a niche target of enthusiasts and technophiles.

The challenge to build the ‘right’ wearable is both design- and engineering-related. Certain ideal characteristics seem to interfere with one another: for example, to be comfortable and practical, it should be a small device; but a small device can’t have a too complex UI and retain a good degree of usability (think of Apple’s 6th-generation iPod nano, with its tiny screen and its terrible touch interface — you could do more things on it than on the iPod shuffle, but the more complex UI really suffered from a usability standpoint; while the iPod shuffle has a better, easier-to-use interface, but also simpler).

Another ideal characteristic could be a long-lasting battery, but again, it’s still hard to produce a small device with great battery life (I’m counting on Apple for this). And another ideal feature could be a Siri-like interface with vocal commands, but such technology still has slow reaction times and intermittent reliability. And so on.

And once the inherent design and engineering challenges are overcome, there’s still the problem of mass appeal. What can this hypothetical wearable device do to make people want to get it as an effective smartphone companion? What can it do or have to make people interested in carrying it with them — on them — all the time, well past the initial novelty rush? It’s the classic “I’ll know it when I see it” situation.

I’m willing to bet that if Apple decides to enter the market of wearable devices, it will be with a very simple, streamlined device that doesn’t want to solve many problems at once or have a Swiss-army-knife approach, crammed with features for features’ sake. I’m thinking something like the original iPod, disarmingly simple and effective, doing one thing well and kind of uniquely. And once it becomes a commercial hit, expand its features little by little, iteration after iteration.

Anyway, as the title of this piece goes, I’m just thinking aloud about the whole matter and there’s probably something I’m missing. As always, feel free to reach me via email, Twitter, App.Net with ideas and suggestions.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!