Finding the smarts in the smart watch
I remember experiencing a moment of nostalgia when the “smart watch” as we know it became an actual thing in the tech world. Strangely enough, it involved a long-running Saturday morning cartoon that went by the name of “Inspector Gadget”. When I was a young buck, early Saturdays (’90s mind you – yes it matters that I say this) were like Christmas morning lite in my childish mind. We’re talking about repeated moments of teeth tainting, gum destroying, sugar infused cereal, topped off with singing bouts to theme songs that I still hum in the shower without shame.
Like clockwork, I would watch this unsuspecting, ponytailed character named Penny raise her wristwatch to her mouth and relay information to a bubbling inspector. She did it as if it was the most natural action in the world and it blew my natural young mind. Here I was with a functionally boring off-brand watch that had the nerve to only tell time, yet the folks who sent a man to space couldn’t think of making this cartoon’s vision of a watch a reality. At the time it seemed to be the most logical idea in the world and in 20 plus years it seems like the industry has finally caught up. Its reception, however, certainly hasn’t been as mind-blowing as my youthful mind thought it would have been. A portion of the population collectively rolled its eyes at the prospect, and from this vantage point, it was with good reason.
But as with most early adopters there will be growing pains, a trait of the “get there first, fix it later” mentality of the tech industry. An idea as logical as a watch that could function like a smart phone has proven to be far too reasonable to give up on in practice.
Samsung was one of the first major manufacturers out of the gate, beating both Google and Apple as a pioneer with the Galaxy Gear. It sported far less of a visual punch when compared to the common wristwatch of the same price. Understandably you weren’t going to find a Rolex level of elegance with the Galaxy Gear, because functionality was the focus when it came to the smart line; consumers knew what they were getting. The problem with making an old idea a reality comes in the timing; a lesson Samsung may have learned the hard way. Going back to my childhood, I never knew Inspector Gadget’s Penny as having the privilege of owning a smart phone like so many of us do today —a device that could do more than just relay information and yet still fit comfortably in one’s pocket. Add the absurdity of using a device with a 1.63” touch screen to do normal functions such as texting, writing emails and browsing the web easily makes a rather pricy idea of a smart watch resemble a novelty rather than a necessary product to most.
But as with most early adopters there will be growing pains, a trait of the “get there first, fix it later” mentality of the tech industry. An idea as logical as a watch that could function like a smart phone has proven to be far too reasonable to give up on in practice. To reinforce this dedication, Samsung utilized the open source Linux platform to develop Tizen, an operating system specifically designed for wearable technology and mobile devices. Android has also responded to this shift by introducing Android Wear, which may end up being a competing product.
It all looks attractive. Yes, both operating systems will be sleek and well supported. I’ll be able to use Google maps, communicate with others and check live scoreboards all on my wrist; in other words, a notification device and nothing more. The problem is that none of this actually translates into a new experience. As a user, I don’t see the urgency in a device that’s playing a backdrop to my main, replicating functions to a lesser degree at a similar price. The future of the smart watch should see it act as its own device. There should be a unique relationship between the user and the watch because of its constant contact with the user. Imagine if Penny’s wrist carried with it built-in gyroscopes that measured orientation, accelerometers that processed acceleration, heart-rate monitors, voice controls and cameras – all of which would analyze her everyday habits and be in tune with her needs. It would easily give the watch a proper reason to be functionally worth it once again. It’s true that smart watches exist with such features, but are they utilizing them in a way that makes sense, as a new age watch, rather than a smart phone replica?
Deep down I’m still that kid that wants my 21st century mind to be blown again by the common watch just like I was every Saturday morning years ago. The industry simply can’t do this by creating yet another novelty from repackaged features. Technology has to feel purposeful and desired; otherwise the watch will continue to be perceived as just that, a regular watch.