Until the announcement of the AppleWatch and the fury of smartwatches and other wearable devices that were shown at Mobile World Congress this year, I was skeptical of the legitimacy of the form factor. I just couldn’t understand how manufacturers could sell something people might not really need.
Let’s assume wearables - and particularly smartwatches - are here to stay. How will it change things?
Today, if you go into any public place - a coffee shop, bar, restaurant, park, etc - you see a lot of people looking down at the screen of their phone. We are surrounded by people, but most of us prefer to make connections with others through the intermedium that is the Internet. I'm not a person filled with "technopanic" so this has never really bothered me. Already, I notice that people are making more of an effort to keep their devices in their pockets and bags because we've all become aware that being on your phone while people are trying to talk to you is not socially acceptable. But in a world filled with smartwatches, how will this change our behaviour? It's all well and fine to talk about specifications and theorize how a technology might be used, but how it affects our social interactions is also important.
Everyone is on their phone when you go into a public place.
My best case scenario is that smartwatches free up some of our mental bandwidth by making it so we don't have to reach into our pockets to see what's going on. A quick glance can replace the "reaching arm into pocket followed by a big 'sigh'" action. Ideally, we would look at each other more, and smartwatches (and wearables more generally) will give us a feeling that technology is an accompaniment and not a device we must constantly interact with. My hope is that smartwatches make the glamour fade away, and they eventually become what watches are now - commonplace time pieces.
A good analogy to this is the resurgence of the notebook (the paper one, not the laptop). It was not long ago that paper was considered old hat, and everyone should be taking notes on their laptops. This was most definitely the case when I was in my degree. The light "tap tap tap" was all that could be heard, and very seldom did I hear the scribbling of a pen or pencil on paper. I - being the stubborn individual that I am - continued to use paper because I remember things better when I write them down. (Yes, I don't integrate the word "write" when in context of a computer or screen"). In grad school I took this a step further and began typing up or digitizing notes that I felt were exceptionally important. When I began taking an iPad to class I still had a notebook, but I often drew diagrams and images, or annotated photos of the professor's slides, and saved them to Evernote. The point I am trying to make here is that paper and writing things down made a comeback because people realized that taking notes on a computer didn't necessarily result in increased efficiency. It's hard to stay focused when you have Facebook open in class - something that's impossible with a paper notebook.
Taking notes on a phone, tablet, or laptop is totally valid, it's just not the only way. People make fun of the hipster culture all the time, but the trends that emerge from this lifestyle are often beneficial. They are simple. Now when I look around in classrooms or at public lectures, I still see laptops and tablets. But I'm also seeing a lot more Moleskine and Field Notes Notebooks. People value simplicity, and my ideal vision is that the smartwatch becomes the notebook of digital devices - freeing us up from constantly looking at a phone screen and instead allowing us to be comfortable with glanceable information and simplicity.
If smartwatches do become the next "must have," I think it will not be because everyone needs this device. Our phones can do a lot more. If anything, the positive emotional experience will drive its success. It will be like the iPad. Nobody knew they wanted one until they tried it.
Those who argue that smartwatches are unnecessary often point out, “I just pull my phone out of my pocket, I don’t need to look at a watch.” This is true, but convenience is often not appreciated until it’s experienced. Former Macworld editor and owner of the blog Six Colours, Jason Snell, pointed out during This Week in Tech that behaviours can change.
I totally get watch scepticism, but at the same time there was a time when people carried watches in their pockets, and then they started strapping them on their wrists... pocket watches went away because people thought it was more convenient to look at something on their wrist. That could happen again.
(To hear Jason Snell's comments go to 59:35 in the video)
Ok, so the potential negatives of the smartwatch are fairly obvious. Instead of everyone looking at their phones, everyone just starts looking at their wrists. *Sigh.*
I really hope this isn't the case, but it's a possibility. I fear that since all our notifications and calls will start coming through wrist wearables, they will basically be impossible to ignore. It's a lot easier to try and forget about notifications if your phone is silenced and in your pocket. You will have no idea who tried to contact you until pull out your phone. On a watch, all the tapping and buzzing of haptic feedback might just drive us bonkers. Or perhaps we will just get used to notifications and they won't be interesting anymore? Who can know; I might just have to write a follow up a year from now.
Voice commands will no doubt become much more prevalent in public. You might counter this by saying "we have voice commands now on our phones but people still mostly use the keyboard." Well, yes. Because they have a keyboard. When you only have voice to respond with, you have no choice but to use voice, unless you pull out your phone to do everything. But if you do this, I think there is a good chance that you won't be first in line to buy a smartwatch. One question is how irritated bystanders will be by voice responses and commands. Well, probably a little bit, but I suspect that people will just get used to it and evolving social norms will dictate the inappropriate venues to talk into your wrist. The movie theatre comes to mind. For that you just use your phone! (Only kidding ;) ). It might actually be cool in a way. We can all be Dick Tracy someday.
I predict that smartwatches will make people more aware of their place in space. I know this seems really abstract, but just hear me out. Currently, watches can tell us the time and sometimes health information plus some notifications. I remember the Apple Watch demo, particularly when it showed the sunrise and sunset or the position of the moon. This is only scratching the surface, but I think watch faces and visual environmental data could really impact how we see our surroundings. In a way, this display is a form of augmented reality without the holographic overlay. Am I suggesting that this will jumpstart the telescope and amateur astronomy industries? Well maybe! But, I think it will affect other things as well. Imagine if your watch constantly told you the air pollution level. Or what if it told you the UV rating and how much you should avoid the sun. I think people - over time - would start to become more aware of this kind of data.
The smartwatch has the potential to be both a great benefit and a great distraction, and I have no idea the direction it will go. I do know that it's an important technological experimentation, and the fact that major technology companies see a future in it is a good sign that it's worth the investment.