Essays on Technology and Culture

Apple Watch and the Wearable Use Case

If you’re a regular reader, my skeptical stance on wearable computing should be no surprise. Of course, those pieces were on Google Glass, of which the glow is now far, far off. Now, the excitement is in the “smartwatch” space. It’s the new hotness, and I write this on the day Apple announced their entry into the game.

Like all good Apple fanboys, I watched the announcement of the new iPhones, and new Apple Watch, and was impressed. The Apple Watch looks to be a neat piece of kit, and combines a lot of technologies in an exciting way. It also looks pretty cool, though I was hoping for a round face. Problem is, the Apple Watch is just doing the same stuff most other products are doing in the smartwatch space. It’s doing them in a flashier, more integrated, and Apple-like way, but the main features are the same as most other smartwatches. It’s a second screen for your iPhone. It’s a fitness tracker. It’s a NFC device for Apple Pay. It can run apps. Great. That’s going to be enough for some people.

How many people, though? Even ignoring the $349 stating price.

A few days ago, on September 4th, I attended a panel on wearables, run by local tech group Digital Dumbo. Despite my skeptical stance on wearables, I figured it would be worth my time to attend, even if my worst fears came true and the whole thing was just a bunch of tech douchebags singing the praises of Google Glass. I was pleasantly surprised to find the discussion, which included Robert Genovese of Kenneth Cole, Dick Talens of Fitocracy and Pavlok (more on that later), and Gareth Price of digital agency Ready Set Rocket, was plenty questioning and skeptical.

Criticisms ranged from the problem that current wearables are just “slapping smartphone technology on someone’s wrist” to the evolving social norms around wearables. The meat of the panel, however, came around use cases for wearables. They came up short. Dick Talens was critical of fitness wearables as a behavior changer, and as a co-founder of Fitocracy, he has some insight into this. Data alone does not change behavior, unless you’re the sort of auto-didactic nerd who eats up Quantified Self stuff. It’s interesting that Talens current endeavor, Pavlok is a wearable that’s about changing habits… through electric shocks (and social pressure).

There’s two questions that need to be answered with wearables. The first is what it means when we wear something, which was raised by Robert Genovese early in the panel. The second is what value it adds to someone’s life. When you look at the current state of wearables—including the Apple Watch—the answer to both questions is a little fuzzy. Apple’s “Digital Touch” feature, which uses the Watch’s “Taptic Engine” to communicate through sending touches, or by feeling someone’s heartbeat. It’s the sort of touchy-feely—no pun intended—thing that you’d expect from Apple. In other words, Apple’s answer to the meaning of wearables is the human element, the smartwatch as an interpersonal device. It makes for a neat demo, but I don’t know how much it would be used in the real world. Maybe you have to try it to get it. As an answer to what wearables mean, it might be a success. As an answer to the value add of wearables over phones, I’m still skeptical.

It’s the value-add that we’re still going to be figuring out over the next few years. If I were a betting man, I’d be putting my money down on Apple to figure out the right value add, at least if you’re in their ecosystem, before anyone else. Back in June, I speculated on an “Adjacent Possible iWatch” that added smarts to the traditional watch form factor, in the vein of the Withings Activité. My theory was that it would execute supremely well on a small set of functions, possibly incorporating them into the body of an analog watch.

I was wrong. The Apple Watch is very much a full computer, with apps and an interface, and the whole shebang. The “Digital Crown” UI is interesting in the light of this thought from June:

[Apple] combine a lot of pre-existing technologies with a knack for aesthetics and UI that other companies miss, and they often do so in ways that seem painfully obvious in hindsight.

I wonder if the variety of built in functions and app ecosystem are Apple hedging its bets on what will be the value add of a wearable. Much like how there are a million watches to fit everyone’s aesthetics and needs, a more general purpose device does give the owner the ability to make it theirs and use the features that suit their lives. Dismissive as I was of the “Digital Touch” feature earlier, if I had the money, I’d buy an iPhone and Apple Watch for my girlfriend so we could feel each others heartbeat. Haptic feedback for walking directions would be wonderful too, as would some of the fitness features. I’d probably never bother with the photos and messaging stuff, though.

A few years from now, when the prices drop, the battery life improves, and the feature set grows, we will certainly be having a different discussion. Well, I hope we will, at least. I look at the pre-Apple Watch smartwatches and see devices that are trying to overreach in what they can do from a hardware, software, usability, and utility perspective alike. The Apple Watch, much like the original iPhone, is underreaching. It’s leaving head room that will be filled in upcoming years and with hardware and software updates. The best we can hope from Android Wear and other smartwatch is catching up to their potential. Apple’s likely to get to where they want to be first, if history is any judge. And, maybe, when they get there, I’ll put my Casio F–91W out to pasture and send someone my heartbeat.