So, do I Actually Have to LOOK at an iWatch?

There are two new, next generation technologies being discussed these days: smart glasses, notably being pursued by Google and wearable computing devices which Apple may be considering with its rumored iWatch. Are they equivalent ways of achieving the same thing? Perhaps not.

The more I read about and think about the idea of an iWatch, the more I believe that it is orthogonal to the idea of smart glasses. By that, I mean that smart glasses are a way of overlaying our visual field with information while wearable devices, like the rumored iWatch are a way of achieving a goal or activating a process -- perhaps physically.

Along those lines, this is really Part II of "For Apple, the iWatch Will be Just the Beginning."

Another consideration is that the Google Smart Glass project can be a way for a company to leverage from what we are doing or to offer us opportunities. For example, instead of a smartphone app springing to life to announce that we are within 100 meters of a really good pizza restaurant, smart glasses could, conceivably, measure our blood sugar, then use a blinking arrow in our visual field to point to a "really good" pizza restaurant. (Of course, that assumes that carbohydrates are just what the doctor ordered.)

I cite that extreme example, to make a point. Perhaps it's extreme to some of us and may introduce undesirable personal, privacy and social issues.  To others it may be the path to riches.

The smartwatch, on the other hand, may be thought of as the baton of an orchestra conductor. It exploits not the visual field, but rather, the natural movement of the human's arms to launch a process. I'm thinking here of the fabulous list that Bruce Tognazzini presented in his tour de force article "The Apple iWatch." That article, and the 109 comments, discussed everything that could be discussed about this kind of technology.

What intrigued me, as I studied it further, is that the key features of an iWatch really don't involve looking at an iWatch. That is, the essential purpose of an iWatch, in that discussion by Tog, is not the idea of starring at a 3 cm display for long periods. Rather, it involves presence or movement that would be inconvenient or risky for an expensive iPhone. For example:

  • Encrypted authorization. The ability, by its electronic presence, to act as an electronic pass key, much like some modern car keys that allow you to simply press a "Start" button on the dashboard. Sit at your Mac, the iWatch talks to the Mac, and you never, ever have to enter another passcode. If the iWatch is removed, it has to be re-authorized using biometrics. No need for a nearby iPhone actually.
  • Automatic Find. We tend to always wear our watch, some even when they sleep. The iWatch beeps if the iPhone wanders too far away. Or we lave it on the bus. Or try to leave the house without it.
  • NFC Payments. Wouldn't it be great to grab that cup of coffee at Starbucks at the counter, wave our arm, and the coffee is paid for? It beeps when payment is made, and shows the authorized amount in red LEDs. Just a glace is all we need. No need to display what brand of smartphone resides in the pocket or purse.
  • Sensors. An iWatch on the wrist will be an excellent sensor for body temperature, pulse, and even some atmospheric conditions. Some sensors may be in the smartphone and relayed to the wrist. After all, there are some times when we don't want to be constantly pulling out the iPhone just to monitor some of these variables.
  • Pointing and waving. We shake hands with someone, and business card info is exchanged. We wonder about how to find where we parked our car, and discreet arrows can show us the way, without the need for special glasses.

What intrigues me about this kind of list, and it's not nearly exhaustive, is that the actions are natural. We are accustomed to looking at our watch for the time. We are accustomed to waving and thanking. If Apple were to cleverly select from a set of activities that serve us, some of the essential activities of our lives could be accomplished in a perfectly natural, human way, without necessarily seeming like a Borg, a social outcast, a nerd wearing smart glasses.

Of course, smart glasses will get less and less obtrusive, and some day, one might not be able to distinguish regular prescription glasses from smart glasses. But for now, I am intrigued by Tog's list of natural human motions as opposed to the wearing of glasses that seem to pose additional problems. For example, one might have prescription lenses, but what about the transition to sunglasses? And what about the potential distractions when driving?

A smartwatch, properly implemented, might have a stronger near-term appeal, especially for kids, and avoid some technical issues that smart glasses have. How each company solves the related problems, given their philosophy and patents and the subsequent implementation will be critical.

One thing is certain. If Apple is working on an iWatch, it will likely be in the context of a very practical, useful extension of the smartphone in our pocket in a characteristic Apple way. Something that delights rather than affronts. That's why I like the smart bracelet concepts seen at Kickstarter. They are more of an alert system that a Terminator-like overlay of the visual field, which while exciting, has its own set of human factors and social issues.

When I first started thinking about the iWatch, I started wondering why I would want to look away from the world, or my gorgeous iPhone display, for extended periods of time. Now, as I think about it more, I can see that a smartwatch has much greater potential than I originally thought. It's not a super wrist watch to distract us, but, rather, an conductor's baton. How that plays out instead of or in addition to smart glasses will be fascinating to watch unfold.


iWatch concept via Yankodesign.