With the iWatch hype reaching all-time highs, it seems clear that the landscape of wearables will change quite dramatically over the next year or so. But as usual, it's much harder to predict how things will change, instead of just saying that they will change.
In order to find out at least for myself, I recently started playing around with more services and devices than already usual. I always have been a e-gadget addict, but now I am reaching new heights: On yesterday's long trail run in the Sierra, I realized that I was carrying around 4 GPS devices: a Garmin 910XT GPS watch, my iPhone, my GPS-enabled camera, and my SPOT satellite tracker. That's probably a bit more than needed, but the only ones I actually use are the Garmin (displaying basic data such as moving time and distance), and the camera (and I never enable its GPS, because it takes way too long to get a good GPS fix). The SPOT is for emergencies only, and the iPhone is just for running the Moves app.
How did it get that bad? About a month ago I started using a Basis watch, mostly to start collecting data for our research activities around wearables and personal fitness goals. I stopped wearing it pretty soon because the band causes irritated skin, and the watch turned out not to be waterproof. I also disliked the incredibly dim display. But even during the short time I used the watch, I discovered that what I found most intriguing was something that I never would have coinsidered.
The Basis is pretty smart at figuring out what a person is doing. Not in many different ways, but good enough to distinguish walking, running, and cycling. I really liked how when I was getting around town, I could simply look at the watch and it would tell me that I had been walking or cycling for however-many minutes.
Since the Basis hardware had various issues, I recently switched to the Moves app. It does everything that I liked in the Basis. It does not give me heart rate or the other two nonsense measurements (perspiration and skin temperature) that the Basis records. But more importantly, it has GPS and thus is much better at being a meaningful diary (they also team up with Foursquare, so the app will suggest meaningful place names for many places).
A day in town may look like the picture shown here. Have some coffee in the morning, then stay at the office most of the day, pick up the car from the mechanic in the afternoon, and get some pizza in the evening. Moves has a great UI to make it as easy as possible to fix some of things that the app may get wrong, so ending up with such a geo-diary takes almost no effort. But it still means that I have to go to the Moves app and clean things up. Which at this point, I am willing to do because it's for the greater good of research, but this is where wearables (remember? this is where i got started...) enter the picture.
What a good wearable could add here are two main things that right now are missing from the Moves app:
- I am not a big fan of carrying my phone everywhere. If an iWatch/iPhone app combo is done well (more on that later in a more technical post on wearables, WoT, and REST), then all I need to carry is the wearable, and it'll sync as soon as it gets in touch with the mothership again (such as requesting place names from Foursquare, and so on). What's most important here is a wearable app that's very specifically designed to work well when not paired with a phone.
- Instant feedback on the wearable a bit like the Basis: Tell me that I have been walking/cycling/driving for some amount of time, and let me fix it if the wearable app guessed wrong (Basis does not allow fixing at all, Moves takes a bit of work to get to the UI place where I can do it).
In the end, what users end up with is a very personal, very contextual way of looking at their history. Of course this then could be used for Big-Data-style sensemaking, but that's a different issue (more about this in a later post). Mostly, it's a great way of building up a diary of places and tracks. And with a convenient feedback unit on your wrist, it's easy to see how it's building up, to intervene with direct feedback/corrections, and to not have to carry around the phone everywhere.
One of the interesting questions is where this data is being kept, and who gets access to it. I'd prefer this to be something that I own and control, which is not the case with Moves. I would be perfectly happy to pay money for this, but I guess as usual, that will not even be an option, and you end up paying with giving up privacy as the only accepted currency.
Being a major location geek, I am excited about the prospect of a better and more flexible wearable, and the iWatch may turn out to be for wearable space what the iPhone was for the smartphone space (even though the latter was probably even more trailblazing, by redefining so many aspects of the category). I have been using my GPS for about 5 years now, but only for sport activities. The Strava heatmap shown here is the result of many runs trying to cover all Berkeley Hills roads (blue means less coverage, read means more runs along the same road). Building up a similar personal geography for everyday activity may not just be fun, it also can be useful in terms of better understanding one's life, and figuring out things such as how to better get around town to get things done.
As said initially, I guess it's safe to say that the iWatch will change the landscape of wearables. Personally, my hope is that it focuses on being a good platform, and not so much on getting one single application right. That may be the best and maybe even the only way to avoid the current fate of most wearables, which is that they are novelties that early adopters get and play around bit, and then they get discarded.
Current wearables get discared quickly because they are too narrowly focused on doing just one thing, and there is no platform thinking backing them up. If there is one single thing that Apple is great at, it's platform thinking, so the iWatch very well could be another game changer, 7 years after the iPhone changed the smartphone category.