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The Potential in Smartwatches [Opinion]

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When I first saw the Pebble I was honestly amazed. As the amazement wore off and the waiting settled in, I daydreamed about receiving notifications and being able to control my music from my wrist. Then, I received my Pebble and reality took over.

Now that I’ve had the Pebble for a week I’ve resorted to turning off the Bluetooth and using the watch to tell time and play Snake. Was it worth $150 for that? Not really, but I do love being able to shake my wrist to activate the backlight. Even though I’m generally disappointed with the Pebble, having it has made me think more about what a smartwatch should do and whether or not it’s a product that has the potential to change the way we interact with the world around us in a meaningful way. 

I think smartwatches will be like the first cell phones and smartphones. When the first cell phones came out people questioned why you would want to take calls anywhere. Smartphones simply extended that question to emails and the web. What we found was that we were able to stay connected with people, our information, and the world around us in insanely meaningful ways. We also found that our lives became increasingly more cluttered and distracted because of the influx of information and the ease with which we could be accessed. Smartwatches will never be the next smartphone, but they may be useful in some circumstances. We’ve already seen some of the initial reactions to smartwatches and they fall in line with early responses to cell phones and smartphones. Are you so lazy that you can’t just pull your phone out? Do you think you’re that important that you need to have yet another device? Chances are none of us are really that lazy or that important, but the idea of having another device to keep us even more connected in an unobtrusive way may still be tantalizing.

If (and this is still a big “if” at this juncture) smartwatches are able to show us information and interact with data in a meaningful way, they could be a major new disruption in the market. That said, I don’t think anyone is going to solve the big problems (UI, battery life, input) facing smartwatches without making some incredible compromises that will push most consumers out of the market. Those of us remaining who have the money and the patience, however, may be looking for the ideal product for a while.

Input and Notifications

The largest obstacle facing smartwatches is, of course, input. So you have a connected device that is able to show you notifications and information about what’s going on around you. Fine, but how do you input responses to interact with those notifications or information? Voice is a possibility, but it can’t be the only solution. There are simply too many situations where talking at your watch won’t be appropriate, much less expedient. Trying to put a keyboard on a watch is even more laughable.

The only solution that makes any sense to me is to have three possible responses to a notification like a text message or an email: dismiss, mark as read, and respond with a canned message. This would deal with most situations and make the watch useful beyond telling you what you already know – your phone just buzzed. If the notification is something you need to respond to later or in detail, you hit dismiss; if the notification is something you need to read, but not respond to, you hit mark as read; if the notification is something you need to respond to generically, you pick a canned response that you’ve prepared.

You might be thinking, “But I already do this with my phone. Doing that on my watch doesn’t actually help me.” You’re right; most of the time this sort of interaction won’t be helpful unless you’re in a meeting and can respond in one of the first two ways. Often times I’ll be in the middle of a conversation with someone and receive a phone call or text message. With my Pebble I’m (usually) able to tell if it’s something I need to deal with immediately or not with a quick glance to my wrist. It’s a subtle difference, but I can honestly say I’ve found it beneficial.

Another instance where I’ve found this sort of response helpful is when I’m driving. I know some of you live in states where public transportation exists and traffic is something you hear about in movies, but in southern California traffic is an integral part of life. Every day I travel for at least 40 minutes between home and work, sometimes more. Being able to quickly glance at my wrist to see what the notification is instead of changing my field of vision completely to glance at my phone is much, much safer. Again, this is subtle, but I’ve found it beneficial.

Context and Summarization

The second problem facing smartwatches is whether or not context can be used to the watch’s advantage. This is something that is still wildly underused on most smartphones. When we set up a new phone we go through the process of allowing Google and the manufacturer and the carrier to know where we are through GPS and wireless triangulation, but our phones still underuse that data. Apps like Groupon and Eye in the Sky use your location for deals and weather, but the vast majority of apps and services still don’t use this data for our advantage.

The classic example of using location data is walking into a Starbucks (or whatever coffee shop you frequent) and having your Gold Card show up for you to pay for your drink. Right now that sort of thing shows up on your phone, but it could also show up right on your watch for the barista to scan. If you have your headphones plugged in, your smartwatch could prompt you to start playing your favorite playlist. While you’re waiting for your drink to hit the bar your watch could notify you that the friend you’re scheduled to meet is about 5 minutes away. While you wait, your watch could show you your unread emails, things left on a to do list you have in Google Keep, or show you headlines from Google News.

This might sound like a lot to do on such a small screen. As a Palm Pre 2 owner, believe me when I say that you can see a lot of information on a smaller screen than you might imagine. These are all things that you could do on your phone (although some of these actions really aren’t available on phones still), but a smartwatch is uniquely positioned to be able to show you summaries of your content, notifications, and things to do in a quick way without having to jump through tons of apps. Again, this sort of summarization would be great to see in Now or even in DayDream, but I think it would be a good fit on a watch too.

Miniaturization

Like I said, I don’t think smart watches are the next big revolution in technology. Over the past few decades we’ve seen the computer go from something that takes up an entire room to something that fits in your pocket. While we may see it get miniaturized to the size of a watch, it will be forced to have limited capabilities because limited size limits utility. I hope we’ll see innovation in that space that doesn’t involve imaginary projected keyboards, but until then smartwatches will have minimal applications outside of time, notifications, displaying directions while driving, and summarizing information.

  • http://twitter.com/actiontvonline Jamtech

    Smart Watches are more than time keeping it has cell phone capabilites read more

    http://jamtechnews.blogspot.com/2013/04/what-is-smart-watch-smartwatch.html

  • Brandon Golway

    I always knew that they would be a novelty item that you’re amazed by for about a day or two then think, “yea it’s cool that my watch runs Android, but how much do I really use it?”. Since I regularly started carrying a cell phone with me (about 10 years) I rarely ever wear a watch, I don’t even know where any of mine are to be honest.

  • Nicholassss

    I work in a recording studio and its and pulling out your phone in front of a client is really frowned upon, but sometimes important things get communicated via text and i’d like to be able to just glance at my watch to see if its worth stepping out of the room to respond.

  • Seth Schorr

    Why would you turn off the bluetooth!? If you wanted a watch that you shake your wrist to light up the screen, buy a Casio or Timex. The Pebble has been a blessing. It allows me to be aware of next appointments, messages & phone calls with a quick glance at my wrist (especially when driving). Wait until the developers get there hands on it. It will blow up the abilities this watch offers. Best thing to come out this year!

    • http://ronoffringa.wordpress.com Ron Offringa

      I turned off Bluetooth because I can’t take any actions on the notifications and 90% of the time I’m in a position to do something about it or I can wait, so the benefits aren’t there for me right now. I don’t want to dismiss notifications twice; that isn’t helpful for me. As I mentioned in the article, I definitely see the benefits of the Pebble as is for some, but I think smartwatches will need to be much more before they become really useful. Also, with Bluetooth on my Pebble is only lasting a day and a half. I don’t want to be worried about my watch battery, so until they fix that issue I’d rather just use my phone instead of looking at notifications that I’ll have to look at again.

      • http://profiles.google.com/k3gman Keg Man

        yeah, I think with the more things that need to be charges, a universal charging mat at night has to be the way. No one is going to plug in 3+ items a day. I’m up to two right now phone and tablet and its annoying but doable. adding more is going to be silly.

      • Seth Schorr

        I think it is up to Android to rewrite the code to dismiss the notification on the phone, not the watch manufacturer. Also, if you are only getting a day and a half with the bluetooth on the watch, then your watch is defective I believe. I have the bluetooth on the watch turned on 24 hours a day and I get almost exactly 7 full days of battery life on my Pebble. In fact I haven’t heard of anyone getting less than about 5 days of battery life on the Pebble. Maybe you should contact the manufacturer. Just a thought.

        • http://ronoffringa.wordpress.com Ron Offringa

          It technically lasted me about 2 days, which is the bare minimum according to Pebble. They said they’re working on a fix. It doesn’t bother me much since I can’t do anything with the notifications anyway.

  • Trysta

    I think the most difficult thing for me is that for so many people there is no transition technology. I didn’t go immediately from nothing to owning a smartphone. I doubt many people do. I first had a land line phone, and then a “dumb” cellphone before I graduated to a smartphone. I was used to the idea of have something that I needed to carry with me and not lose.

    I know some people still love watches but it certainly isn’t the majority of consumers. I’ve never worn a watch full time and wearing one that screams “tech-geek!” wouldn’t be something I’d consider unless it was really great (and maybe not even then).

    I think Google will have a similar challenge with Google glass. There is a greater social barrier to introducing new things to what people wear versus what they carry with them. Sure there will be early adopters but I think it is going to be a serious challenge to take these kinds of wearable tech mainstream.

  • Todd Dixon

    I feel the same about my I’m Watch. To me the idea of a Smart Watch seems so simple, but yet developers makes it look so difficult.

  • Josh Oberg

    Basically I would want a smart watch to show me everything on my lock screen and notification. Text, respond with voice or pull out phone, music playback and control, ignore calls answer calls(bluetooth) over a speaker phone. Basic gps navigation info, weather calendar notifications and Google now. I see it being a secondary lock screen. If my phone is across the room or in my pocket all I ha e to do is glance.

  • Nick Daulton

    What wrong with the Watch replacing the phone? I could get used to it. Especially with the advances in keyboards, aka:Minimum, this has the potential to be a full on device.
    The way I see it, why don’t we make it slightly bigger than a watch with a bigger screen? Make it like a slim Pip-Boy as mentioned earlier. That would be awesome in my opinion.

    • http://ronoffringa.wordpress.com Ron Offringa

      That may be an option for some people, but I think most people would chose to have a full smartphone than be limited to a wrist-sized device.

  • http://twitter.com/dewguzzler Jesse Blacklock

    I have ordered one, waiting for my turn to come up. This post doesn’t discourage me nor do I plan on canceling my order. I think this market will soon be booming and I think Pebble is on top of the game right now. I don’t think a smart watch is something you get used to by people who don’t often find themselves wearing a watch so personal preference comes into play here. I love watches and can’t wait to have one tell me notifications instead of having to dig out my phone. Plus, I lost about 50% of my hearing in the Army. Having something on my wrist notify me will be much easier for people such as myself

  • Jason Brown

    let’s hope for google’s sake that they enable bluetooth 4.0 software compatibility in android for any smart watches that come bluetooth 4.0 only. taking a look at this long list of comments, it looks like android isn’t enable to connect to phones that have bluetooth 4.0:

    http://gc.codehum.com/p/android/issues/detail?id=33371

  • http://youtu.be/GvPlAyTG4ik?hd=1 1PhoneDoesnt.com

    ya don’t personally get it, if i wanted a smaller smartphone i would buy a iphone.. at 3.5 that was too small as it is…. anything smaller makes smartwatches meh in my book. I want a nice looking watch not a tiny phone on my wrist… it’s a pass from me

  • http://twitter.com/Brett328 Brett Vrancken

    Think I’ll stick with my waterproof, scratchproof, perpetual calendar, kinetic movement (never needs a battery or recharging) SEIKO, that looks great with anything from a tux to a bathing suit.

  • ConcernedReader

    Please never post another Ron opinion article again. These are simply terrible.

  • sk3litor

    I could see this in the future as an accessory simply labled a notification watch which you could get with your phone for an extra 50 bucks, and basically just be your phones notification panel for your wrist. Just for the reasons that Ron mentioned where it would be inappropriate or unsafe to pull out your phone. Would have to keep it simple and fairly cheap though

  • ataraxia

    A beta version of runkeeper is floating around that has pebble integration. This is great, because it provides a dashboard for progress at a glance (mileage, pace, heartrate, etc.). Of course, it is beta and glitchy, and without Bluetooth 4.0 on my phone, or scratch that, without operating system support for the Bluetooth 4.0 chip on Galaxy Nexus (hello, Google?) the battery suck of bluetooth isn’t that helpful. With Bluetooth 4.0 (and Pebble availability), once Runkeeper gets out of beta, I’d purchase the watch and a Bluetooth LE heartrate monitor asap. I would not wear it for notifications, the last thing I need is another device requesting my attention.

  • RW-1

    The real issue here is what you expect to get out of it. First, we get a watch that gives you info from the phone, and you want to react with it. We then go further and give you that ability, well, at that point what you have it a smartwatch on your arm, just toss in the radios and be dick Tracy, because where does the cycle end? We’re already seeing this with the lock screen, and now the DashClock widget. For he most part this is why the watches will just not catch on, because either to some it is not enough to interact with, or to others who will not bother because they already have a device TO interact with.

  • http://www.scaryuncledevin.com/ Devin Rodriguez

    I ride my bike to/from work and would find a good smartwatch handy, from checking notifications to controlling my music. I tried Sony’s LiveView and was mostly disappointed, the screen was hard to read, the navigation was poor, and the controls for music just didn’t play nice. It was good in concept, but failed in execution.

  • http://www.facebook.com/archercc Ryan Stewart

    Im still holding that they have some potential but its very limited and wont have any value to me until its integrated into a normal watch. Watches, at least for most men, are really jewelry. You have your bling watch, your understated SS watch for work, etc.

    Now, if you could incorporate the ability to do something into those normal looking watches I would be down . Right now though they are really just the modern calculator watch, for geeky people.

  • Granted

    Actually, for me, the first thing I do when I purchase a new Android smartphone. Is immediately turn off all the GPS/Location functions and switch off all syncing entirely. I have found that I do not miss neither the sync nor the GPS, and it is so nice knowing that I cannot be tracked and every picture that I take isn’t uploaded to the intrusive and retarded Google+.

    • J Davis

      Save yourself some money and get a feature phone..

  • http://twitter.com/jheyneman James Heyneman

    I just got my Pebble today. Apparently I get less text messages than I thought.

  • http://www.getintonursing.com/ Jon

    I’ll wait for the Galaxy Watch II with S-pen and front facing camera

  • renGek

    A lot of people have the same reaction to tablets. They spend a lot of money on one and then 3 weeks later it just sits there displaying photos until one day they decide not to charge it because they’re lazy. Then at some point months later they remember they have a tablet but thats only because there is a story about a new tablet and they’re thinking of buying it.

    • hyperbolee

      I laughed at this. My friend talked up this iPad and how he “needed it for consumption of media and reading PDFs” so much and then it just set on the desk for weeks at a time and he would pick it up very rarely.

      • http://profiles.google.com/k3gman Keg Man

        google currents and nexus7. 3 hours of reading a day at no cost other than the tablet. Cant beat it and I’m not draining my phones battery. However, once I get a galaxy note, i can see myself not using it anymore.

  • Andrew

    I really enjoy my Pebble and use it everyday. Luckily I am in a position to charge my phone fully around mid day, so the constant bluetooth isn’t an issue for me.

    I haven’t had hardly any problems with it like others describe with pairing. I find the ability to get notifications there to be great in certain situations, and to me it was definitely worth the price.

  • TheWenger

    Another problem: media. Some people like to watch videos on their smartphones, which is the reason that screens are getting so much larger (ignore the elephant in the room). Unless a watch can have a Star Wars style holographic projector, I don’t see it taking off too much.

  • Bionic

    Smart watches work good with X phone

    • Bionicman

      lol now you are just trolling ;)

  • JBartcaps

    I hate to say it, but once Apple comes out with one than everyone and their mother will want one.

    • Captain_Doug

      I hated you saying it too. ;D

      • JBartcaps

        lol!

    • TheWenger

      Lots of hate, but unfortunately it’s true. Even if it’s a piece of garbage, the uninformed sheep will throw their money at Tim Cook and crew.

      • Dylan Patel

        To be fair, we did the same with the Pebble.

        • http://twitter.com/dewguzzler Jesse Blacklock

          to be fair Pebble is not an android watch, it connects both to iPhones and Android phones alike

        • brennansarkar

          my best friend’s step-sister makes $63 every hour on the laptop. She has been unemployed for nine months but last month her pay was $12200 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Read more on  Fab99.c­om

    • Austin Warren

      Too bad apples smart watch isn’t actually one. Its just an attachment for the iPhone

    • shamu11

      And somehow it will be completely “revolutionary” and “never before done”

    • YummyTommy

      actually… NO.

      1) watches are style accessories (people will not want to wear the same watch)
      2) watches popularity is on decline, because they’re not comfortable for all people and do less than smartphones/tablets.
      3) people will not see your MORE expensive main device when you will use $199 smartwatch
      4) watch display is small, it’s not a display almost
      5) it will be ios-only
      6) Google Watch is already in the works/patents, will be cross-platform and give access to Google’s powerful SERVICE infrastructure, not to “slide to unlock” and “Siri” and other Apple’s me-too gimmicks.
      7) battery life and design

      8) SAMSUNG’s flexible smart Galaxy Watch.

      Apple watch will become Apple TV. It sells, but is not a hit.

  • http://twitter.com/misterE33 Mr E

    with phones getting bigger, i can totally see a use for a smartwatch, especially to check on notifications/weather, stuff like that. also, if you could use your watch for menial tasks, it would be less obnoxious to enable higher security/unlock on your phone.

  • Captain_Doug

    When I think of smartwatches, I feel the need to play Fallout. I wish I had my very own Pip-Boy.

    • http://www.deathbycone.com Jared Kotoff

      Having an ipod nano watch (i wouldnt suggest it but) it kind of is when i can listen to live radio with it.

      • Captain_Doug

        I just couldn’t bring myself to buy anything made by Apple. I like the idea and the functionality is great but I haven’t owned anything made by Apple before and I’m not going to start now.

        • http://www.deathbycone.com Jared Kotoff

          I can’t buy anything apple either. I got this for free from 1st gen nano recall. The functionality is pretty terrible. I dont put music on it cause itunes is terrible and its only a few GBs. The radio is the best feature and i only use it seldom.
          The main reason i wear it is because i find it extremely stylish with my black aluminum band.
          I also feel like tony stark or something wearing a full colored screen on my wrist, to bad there’s nothing to do with said screen though.

          • Captain_Doug

            Truth. I’m hoping the 2nd gen of Pebble will blow me away. The first gen is really close to tempting me enough to get it.

    • Brandon Golway
      • Captain_Doug

        Ho, ly, crap. That is so cool. I couldn’t help my grinning at it’s awesomeness. Good find. Smartwatches are great idea and I hope they evolve to be large enough to replace my phone.