Smarter Smart Watches

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea …
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” by Douglas Adams

One of the current trends among major tech companies are smart watches. It’s the next big thing after smartphones become standard. If this seems strange to you, then I think the current situation is a bit like before tablets became common. Why would anyone want such a thing? And yup, tablets seemed so Roman Empire clay tablets, while watches seem so 20th Century digital watches.

And yup, some design prototypes are rather … underwhelming. For example, many design prototypes show weather information. Seriously, when I look at the watch and it shows me that it’s raining, I’m probably standing in it. Thanks for stating the obvious.

However, this does not mean that weather information is useless — showing me that I might want to take an umbrella with me (or check that I have it with me), because it is going to rain in a couple of hours, would be a more useful information. Likewise, a smart watch (or smartwatch) can offer a lot of useful functions — if they are designed well.

The main advantage of a smart watch is it’s quick and easy availability. You wear it on your wrist — and there is a reason why watches evolved into that spot. It allows you to have the information quickly available with minimal effort and virtually no inconvenience in everyday life.

The position on the wrist makes the smart watch perfect as:

  • a relay station to the powerful information system inherent in smartphones (which can be buried deeply into your pockets),
  • unobtrusive provider of information, and
  • always available logging system of the user’s context information (activity, position, etc.).

Personally, if I could influence the development of smart watches I would aim for the following functions to make them really smart:

  • Hardware characteristics pick off where the digital wristwatches ended
    I recently ordered a digital wristwatch. It’s got not Bluetooth, no GPS, no computing power — in short, nothing that would make it relevant today. But it is water resistant up until 100 m, the wristband is secure and comfortable in the short and long run, it runs for years without switching the battery, and it can take quite a beating without damage.
    The standard continuously exposed smart watches have to meet is not the standard smartphone meet. It’s where the previous generation of wristwatches ended. Rugged, water resistant, and extremely long battery life.
  • Usable Stand-Alone Functions
    A smartphone is not a PC/Mac. And while some people use tablets like and iPad as replacement for a notebook, it is still limited. However, a smartwatch should have value on its own. I don’t only mean displaying the current time, or setting alarms. I mean other functions as well.
  • Especially useful: Vibration Alarm
    A vibration alarm in a wristwatch is a really useful, highly underestimated feature. It can provide you with information even if you cannot hear anything (or nothing should be heard, e.g., in a classical concert). Unfortunately, most vibration alarms are still too loud. You should not notice that the person sitting next to you in a classical concert just got an information that triggered a vibration alarm, but unfortunately, oftentimes you do. Still, a vibration alarm can wake you up even if you are wearing earplugs and without waking the person next to you. Really, really, useful feature.
  • Especially useful: Motion sensor
    I love the M7 motion sensor chip in my iPhone 5S because it provides me with activity information (using MotionX’s “24/7”) with minimal energy consumption. But I do not carry my smartphone with me 24/7. I would be willing to wear a smart watch 24/7 and a motion sensor would provide much more accurate information this way. And it could remind me when to stand up and walk around.
  • Especially useful: Microphone
    Yeah, I know Dick Tracy from the 1990 movie and the only thing that I remember is the watch. A microphone in the watch is the perfect place for voice commands. Anything that requires more complex interaction might work brilliantly this way. Think of it as an easily available Siri and an easily available hardware button allows you to quickly make voice commands — even in the dark (nope, not during extreme situations, just when you lie in bed with the lights out or walk home in a area without streets lights).
  • smartwatch
    Just imagine a smart watch with easily replaceable batteries — no downtime whatsoever and no need to take it off

    Not that antiquated: Quickly replaceable dual battery
    Any smart watch that provides more than basic time information will need a lot of energy (for a watch). However, the real issue is that you can wear it 24/7, without having to take it off to recharge it. Recharge downtime kills usability. I accept having to connect my smartphone to a power source because I can still use it with an attached cable. But I would not accept it with a watch.
    I think the only way to ensure it is to allow for an easy exchange of batteries. Yes, seems antiquated, but it is really useful. A smart watch should carry two easily replaceable rechargeable batteries and come with two replacement rechargeable batteries. One battery is continuously used and once this battery is empty, the other one gets drained. During that time you can replace the empty rechargeable battery with a recharged one and recharge the spend one. It would allow you to wear the watch 24/7 if exchanging the battery can be done without removing the watch (see picture on the right).

  • Easy access to smartphone “basis station”
    While a smartwatch should work on its own, it should be able to tap into the power of smartphones. A smartphone has the connectivity (Bluetooth, WiFi, Cellular Data) and context sensitivity (GPS + connectivity sources) a smartwatch might lack. Yet, the smartphone is frequently difficult to access. It’s like pepper spray. If it’s in the pocket or bag you won’t have it available if you really need it.
    One main usage of the smart watch would be as a relay station for sound — put earphone into the watch (like an iPod nano worn as a wristwatch) while the sound files are stores on the smartphone. It would allow you to easily tread the cable below clothes along the arm to the watch while at the same time have hundreds of songs and podcasts easily available on the smartphone.
  • Configure Predetermined Responses on the smart watch
    The Smartphone/Tablet could be used to setup a number of predetermined responses accessible via the smart watch. Depending on the kind of information specific replies are possible by pressing buttons on the smart watch. For example, you could reply to an eMail with a predetermined text saying “Yes.”, “No.” or that you will reply soon. Depending on the person the text would be formatted more formal or informal (e.g., business contact vs. private contact). Likewise you could ask the smartphone to send a short message — via SMS or eMail — that you arrive a few minutes later when you have an appointment. Given the limited interface and screen real-estate, a smart watch needs to have access to the users context.
  • Energy Saving
    One function for the always on motion sensor would be when to activate the display. It should react to a quick wrist-flick gesture and activate the display when this gesture is made.
  • Assistants
    I was deeply impressed by Apple’s old “Knowledge Navigator” spot. While still way in the future, I think using some archetypical assistant functions might work well with a smart watch. Just imagine you got some predefined functions for

    • office assistance
    • house assistance
    • entertainment assitance
    • travel assistance

    that you could activate easily.
    The limited screen real estate and hardware buttons of a watch would not matter that much, because the context shapes the interface. The office assistant would inform you about the next appointments, allows you to use the Pomodoro technique easily, and watches your activity. The entertainment assistant allows you to easily change the channels and volume with the hardware buttons.

  • Digital Calendar
    I tried out different digital calendars, starting way back with really basic PDAs. While I like the iOS 6 calendar more than the iOS 7 one, I think the time is finally right to go digital. Entering appointments is fairly easy today. Personally, I only wished there was an “I don’t know how long it will take, just take down the start time” option. This being said, the smart watch should show the time until the next appointments (including travel time warnings). If others would be allowed to change the appointments (think secretary) it would be even more useful.
  • Repeat Alarm
    A tiny thing but a useful thing: Repeat alarms. Some old digital watches restart alarms immediately. It’s a really useful feature if you want to check on something in regular intervals.
  • Right/Left-Handed Settings
    If that watch has any hardware buttons, it would be nice to mirror the button placement. While I am right-handed I know how obnoxious it can be when the buttons are all palced “wrong”. A simple “mirror” switch would remove this issue.
  • Works for Android and Apples smartphones
    If we think about smartphones as the “basis station” for a smart watch, it matters that the basis station can be anything. Yup, the hardware battle between Android devices and Apple will likely advance the devices, but a smart watch should be able to use whichever device is available. The only limitations should be genuine limitations when something is actually impossible to realize.
  • Actually detrimental to usage: Camera
    Sometimes I think that developers spend to much time thinking about potential while ignoring consequences. Yes, I would love to take high-quality photos without other people knowing. But that’s a wish. Reality has more to do with photographed subjects starting lawsuits or social media storms. Even worse, a camera can prohibit entry to certain places. I love spa’s, but I would not be able to wear a smart watch if it has a camera. A camera is a liability for watches and should not be included. Just opt out of the race for ever higher mega pixels (which do not mean much) and give me something I can use anywhere without any risk of appearing like a glasshole … sorry, smart watch pervert asshole.

Hmm, that’s it so far, probably a lot of other useful and detrimental features out there. Personally, I am very curious what the smartwatch revolution will offer. And yup, I hope for a “Alpha Centauri” “Quicklink” type of world. It’s such an underestimated but highly powerful technology just begging to be used well.

I probably won’t play a role in that revolution, but hell, I’m gong to enjoy it. I hope you do too. The potential for supporting creativity is certainly there. 🙂