Some thoughts on smart watches, and the threat of TMI

Recently, as you all likely have as well, I've been seeing a lot of posts and reading all sorts of hullabaloo about Apple, Google and now, apparently, Samsung and Microsoft reportedly looking into designing or already working on some sort of "augmented carpal chronometer," or "Smart Watch," in tech blog vernacular. While these are simply rumors, now that the Pebble has launched and wearable computing devices are receiving so much press it seems inevitable that the major players will very soon enter this emerging corner of the market with a device of their own. As each rumor has popped up, it has spawned a veritable arseload of speculations and concepts, most recently Clesanbar's excellent-looking Windows watch concept here. While these concepts are almost always superbly realized and embody the ethos of the platform, they all seem to treat the device in question primarily as a device that puts a great deal of information on your wrist. I think, however, that these concepts overlook the very real threat of overloading its user with far too much information, and I think that that's something companies must be mindful of when they go to design their offering.

I have a "dumbwatch" (I have a dumbphone too). It's old, it's incredibly green, the paint is flaking and it is, by all accounts, a piece of garbage. In spite of all this, and the fact that I have my Surface of my phone out almost all the time, I would feel naked without my watch. Its function has quickly become a part of my life that I can't ever forsake, not for all the gaudy Windows-branded timepieces in the world. It tells the time, and it does that very well. I got concerned when I saw Clesanbar's concept because, in most of the renders, it didn't put the watch face front-and-center, instead opting for some variation of social or informational feed. I've seen this in a lot of places on the Apple Core forums as well with regards to the iWatch, like this concept here and this here, among others. In addition to the rather optimistic attitude the authors take regarding specifications, it has the same problem that I believe most of the other smartwaches share: it puts far too much information on your wrist.

I don't want a watch that will show me my Facebook updates. I have a Surface and a laptop and an iPod Touch with actual, readable screens for that. Nor do I want one that reads me my emails or enumerates my notifications. I don't want a watch that will have me staring at it like I stare at my phone. It should not be an alternative to the smartphone, it should be an augment.

The smartphone revolutionized personal, mobile computing by putting immense volumes of data in your pocket. Most of the smartwatch concepts floating around the Blogosphere purport to do the same, but to put it on your wrist instead. This, I think, is the fundamental issue with these concepts. Instead of giving us more, it should give us only what we need in a way that's unobtrusive to us and the people we interact with, while not sacrificing itself as a watch. I think a smart watch could accomplish this in a couple specific ways:

  • Act like a watch. The watch face should be the main focus of the display the vast majority of the time. Instead of switching "cards" entirely to go to a music player, a design that incorporates album information (perhaps even organically "weaving" album art or current weather conditions, to take that example) and play/pause controls into the watch face would be preferable. When it displays a text message blurb or an incoming call notification, the watch face shouldn't completely go away., but instead fade mostly, but not completely, into the background. There should only be very few times where the watch face is completely obscured, like in a settings view or fitness tracker app where volumes of data is necessary. Otherwise, the watch face should always remain present so to remain a smartwatch. And above all, I cannot stress how important battery life is. The Verge put it best in their Pebble review: "Will you see a clock the next time you look at your wrist, or will you see the dead plastic talisman of a society shattered into pieces by information overload?" Having to put my watch on a charger more than once every couple weeks would be an absolute and total deal breaker.
  • Look like a watch. One issue that I have with many of the iWatch concepts centers around their form - that is, tending towards larger, shinier objects approaching bangles in their size and shape. This, I think, calls undue attention to the device when it's on your wrist. While it should look futuristic (it is 2013, after all; this isn't your grandfather's Swiss masterpiece), it should not be gaudily so. Of all the smart watch concepts I've seen, the best belongs to one that's already on the market: Pebble. It's sleek, unobtrusive (though the reflective screen could be replaced with a matte one), evocative of many digital watches I had when I was younger, and in my opinion almost hits that balance between modern and retro. I would wear that watch, I would NOT wear this one. I'd like, if possible, to actually have a circular display, but that's not as important and I fear that's mostly wishful thinking. I think it should also eschew (most) touch functionality in favor of physical buttons, because, frankly, think about going around tapping and dragging on a box on your wrist. Is that how you want to look? I rest my case.
  • Never give us TMI. A watch that gives me Facebook or Twitter notifications is a watch that I will stare at all day and make me put off my friends and probably run into things and definitely look like a fool. I did a design project for the IEEE Open Design Competition recently in which I explored the idea of distilling a deluge of data into a format by which a user could discern only what they needed to know by simply glancing at the device. For my project, I looked at the case of weather forecasts and created a desk-top box that physically recreated the weather, but the same idea of data distillation can apply to the smart watch as well. As I mentioned earlier, the smartphone revolutionized mass data consumption. The smart watch, I believe, could and should revolutionize distilled data consumption.

I think the Pebble does a lot of things right, but misses the mark on some issues as well. It looks the best out of any concept I've seen, and its concept of small notification vibrations is a brilliant way of telling the user something's up without flashing noisily or causing a ruckus, but it needs a better display and eschews the watch face for its auxiliary functionality, among other things. Nilay Patel remarks at the end of his Pebble review that he'd like to ultimately be able to text or email directly from his Pebble, though, and I think that goes too far. In conclusion, then, the smart watch I'd buy would be a watch that showed my texts and tracked my steps, but if I were to glance at it with no ulterior motive, I would simply see a watch. Maybe I'm a bit old-fashioned in the way I like my timepieces (I've been coveting an Astrolabe watch for a while now - but a good smartwatch should be able to replicate this, right?), but a watch that merits excessive watching is not a watch I'd want.

Aaaaaaannnd, discuss. One of the things I love about The Verge forums is the amount of level-headed, involved discussion there is. I would love to hear what the community has to say.

P.S.: If it doesn't double as a wrist-mic for my Bluetooth headset so I can be a spy when I want to, then it's not worth my money.

P.P.S.: My Photoshop/CAD skills are abysmal, hence the lack of concept renders. Besides, this isn't a concept post as much as a discussion of what those concepts get right, and what they lack.

P.P.P.S.: I think I'm going to post this to the Apple and Android forums as well, to get the input of those communities as well.