Sunday, September 7, 2014

The (Broken) Promise Of Wearables

This week the Moto 360 became available and sold out in record time. Next week Apple is rumored to introduce their iWatch along with the next generation iPhone. And Samsung just announced their next generation Gear watch last week that is expected to ship at the same time as the Galaxy Note Edge.

It is clear that Wearables hold a lot of excitement and a lot of promise, and obviously capture people’s imagination. But let’s pause for a moment first, and talk about past experiences with Wearables:

Wearables on a table

Among the many tech gadgets that I’ve acquired in recent years, I also purchased the first Samsung Gear watch when it came out last year, I bought the Google Glass Explorer Edition, and I bought the Fitbit fitness tracker.

Each device held a unique promise that it would make life easier and would add useful functionality. And each device ended up breaking that promise in subtly different ways.

My experiment with the Galaxy Gear smartwatch was very short-lived. The essential promise was to show important information about incoming emails or messages without the need to have to reach into your pocket and get out your phone. However, it wasn’t ubiquitous. Apps on your phone had to be written to be compatible with the watch. And for the most important communications medium – email – all the watch would tell me is that a message had arrived from somebody. No subject line. No relevant content summary. It was essentially useless.

The Fitbit fitness tracker held a simpler promise: wear it all day and all night and track your health. Except that it is so small that I lost it about 3-4 times during travels and only rediscovered it again when I emptied the suitcase after the end of the trip. Here it was the need to go to your computer and sync it there that broke the promise of ease of use. And the tracking information was primitive at best – a simple step counter. I gained no useful benefit from the device that would really help with my weight loss efforts.

Google Glass was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the three. The promise of having an augmented reality experience sounded great. But all it really did was provide notifications about messages, news, and occasional information from other Glass apps about restaurants, sightseeing spots, and other trivia. And after a short while any person wearing Google Glass was labeled a Glasshole and privacy concerns soon resulted in sings being posted everywhere that Glass was not welcome.

In the end, all three devices suffered from a lack of really useful and unique features that actually provided a real-world benefit combined with the need to be constantly charged using various different charging devices and having a fairly short battery life. The day came when I forgot to charge them and then left them at home. Then the day came when I forgot where I put the charger. And now they’re all sitting in a drawer somewhere…

So I look towards the new generation of Wearables coming out this fall with a bit of cynical skepticism: how long until they, too, end up in a drawer somewhere?

In the end, there are only two devices that I carry with me all the time and every day:

  • My watch is a Seiko Astron Kintaro Hattori Limited Edition. It is a solar-powered watch that has a built-in GPS receiver and synchronizes time with the atomic clocks aboard the GPS satellites. And it also automatically adjusts your time-zone when you have landed – based on the GPS position. It never needs to be charged and it does one thing extremely well that I care about: tell accurate time.
  • My phone is a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (soon to be replaced by the Note Edge). I’ve gone through many smartphones over the years, and it is my favorite so far. I hate its battery life. I hate that I have to charge it. But it does so many things so well in just one device, that it’s worth the hassle. And I use it all the time.

That last point is, perhaps, the biggest question about Wearables that we should ask ourselves: if we already have our phones in our hands all day anyway, what is the additional benefit of a wearable device?


Maverick said...

Interesting review, and probably true. I have a Pebble, for a year and a half now. It did make me wear a watch again, after years of just using my phine to check the time. The bigget advantage of the Pebble in my opinion is that the battery last for a week, because it does not try to be a cellphone on your wrist. Also do to its simple b/w display it is easily readable even in direct sunlight.

Holger Schmidt said...

I agree with you for the most part and especially with smart watches I had similar experiences... The only smartwatch I had used for a rather long time was the pebble but if suffered all this time from not displaying notifications from several apps or just loosing connection. I've now tested for several weeks the G Watch from LG wit Android Wear and I've been very biased before starting my tests. But I have to admit it worked perfectly fine. Each and every notification arrived (including emails with subject lines and senders name etc. etc. Wear was the first system that "Just worked" and that's what I'm so much looking forward on the Moto360 as it's (in my opinion) also a good looking watch.

Regarding Fitnesstrackers... well, it's a mixed bag, I'd say. They don't work for everybody. As you said, the Fitbit didn't give you the benefits you hoped for, and it probably wont't for many others. For me activity trackers tend to work fine but I'm more of a "control freak" who wants to just track each and everything (just tapping into home automation these days ;-)). I've tested almost all of them. Fitbit Flex & Force, Jawbone UP and UP24, Polar Loop and now use the Jawbone System quite happily as it also integrates with my calorie-tracking system (MyFitnessPal) and gives me extra calories for eg. playing some extensive Ingress session. But clearly, activity trackers are en vogue but still not mainstream enough to fit every bodies needs perfectly fine.

And concerning Google Glass... I honored the fact google DID bring this to life, but I wasn't sold from the beginning. However I think in the future once this is fully integrated into contact lenses and/or normal glasses it will be huge. Just not yet.

What I don't get is why Samsung doesn't plan to release the Note Edge some time soon in Europe or the US. It's actually (right now) only planned to be released in South Korea...

Personally I'm happy with Android (and a year ago I'd NEVER have dreamt of saying this!) - it works fine and with my Oneplus One I found an affordable yet amazing cellphone. And I already know that Android Wear fits me needs.
We'll see if Apple will release something "new" and "exciting" tomorrow... I really hope, they do, although... it's been quite a while since they blew me away with innovation...

EuroMarkus said...

Spot on. You summed up wearables better than Gibson could.

I've always thought the core "flaw" with wearables has been the "interface" -- it's visual when it should be audible.

The success of GPS in the car wasn't so much visual, it was the audible -- turn-by-turn voice directions.

And SIRI's most useful feature isn't her visual search results, but that she interfaces with us like a human -- with her voice.

This was the promise of Star Trek and even HAL.

It's okay for the input to be visual (optics for facial/object/location recognition), but the output should be audible (and in the near future it will be neural)

Google Glass is fun, but not very practical. But an earbud that whispers the name of the client standing in front of me and the date of his last big order, or translates what the German shopkeeper is explaining, that's something useful.

The job of a wearable is to provide short bits of information based on situational awareness, status changes, or queries from the user -- that's it. A GUI is superfluous.

The promise of a weareable isn't found in a better visual interface, it's found in sound.