Bearable wearables

Like many other lucky people at Google IO this year, I am now the owner of one of those hot new wearable devices: the Samsung Gear Live. Being the geek that I am, of course I had to take it for a spin. All in all, I have to say that it had no impact whatsoever on my happiness or effectiveness.

Wearable devices are the hot new thing and VC companies swoon when you mention it. Many a startup is gear-ing up (geddit?) to build the next app that changes the world and makes people happier and turns your poop into bitcoins or whatever.

I get it. I also want that. Throughout SciFi history ubiquitous computing has always been the dream. Ever since Dick Tracy talked to his watch and Michael Knight to his car I wanted that. Computers should be our humble servants. They should be there when we need them to answer the things we can’t. They should prepare things in other physical locations for us to be there when we arrive.

The dream of wearable computing falls short once you leave the world of make-believe. We live in a grimy physical world filled with battery power issues, environmental influences and connectivity failures. Some of these issues we will solve over time. Yet it feels to me silly to pretend these issues don’t exist when we try to sell a new technology hype to people.

And a hype it is. And people have already been well conditioned to be on the lookout for it. A few times in the train people asked me if what I was wearing is “the new Apple watch”. There is a firm understanding in the consumer world that no other company can innovate.

Let’s get physical

It is unfair to judge a technology idea by its first iterative hardware implementations. Still, here’s what I experienced with the Gear Live:

The watch is unusable in bright sunlight — all it is is a big block of shiny metal and black rubber on your arm. Forget about being able to read it — no matter what watch face you choose.
The watch is too bright in social environments — I annoyed quite a few people in the pub. They stared at my shiny blinking hand rather than my face. Humans are wired that way — shiny things that blink do get our attention.
The rubber strap makes you sweat and is unpleasant to wear. This is ironic on a watch that has a heart rate monitor and step counter. A big seller of wearable technology is that it totally will make you more sporty. Running and exercising with this one is uncomfortable and it is too bulky.
The battery life is a joke — you have to charge the thing every evening and when you use it a lot even during the day

Let’s talk about dependencies

The main letdown for me of any wearable device in the Android space is it’s dependency on a phone. Without a connection to your phone they pretty much become useless. The wearable devices themselves don’t run apps or do anything useful. They just measure and send data back and display notifications of apps running on your phone.

This means you have to have a Bluetooth connection between the two the whole time. This is neither good for battery consumption on either nor in terms of security. I can see a fun world of Bluetooth hacks ahead of us.

Connectivity is another big issue. If you aren’t connected your phone is annoying, but you still can play games. A wearable is dependent on Google’s (or Apple’s) servers. Otherwise you don’t get the language to “I hope this is what you meant” text conversion which is the main input. That limits the usefulness of wearable once you end up in a non-connectivity zone — which of course never happens. Right?

In essence these expensive wearable devices are nothing more than a headset with a screen. OK, building shiny headsets is a good business model. But that doesn’t mean that we are having a revolutionary new idea on our hands.

Let’s talk about usefulness

The big sales pitch in the Google IO keynote was that “user research found that people look up to 1000 times on their phone in a day”. Or some similar and more impressive number — I can’t remember. Having a smart watch would mean you don’t have to endure the horrible chore of reaching into your pocket and getting your phone out. Why we became such a slave to the small screen is not the issue — let’s make it easier.

You get notifications of your apps on the device. You can swipe left to dismiss them without having to get pestered by them on your phone or desktop later on. This is useful — especially with Google Mail. But it fails to be useful when you get real emails and not the well-formed one liners shown in the demos of the device. You can swipe right to answer the notification with a canned “yes” or “no” response. Or you talk to the watch and hope for the best (more on that in a second). You can also “open on device” which would open the app on your phone. You can then read the message you were just trying to read but gave up as a watch face is too small to hold the kind of messages we send to another. unls u spk lk dis.

The biggest issue I have though is that the device to me just added to the noise I don’t want in my life. Let’s face facts: 90% of our social updates are unnecessary noise. I don’t follow all the Facebook updates — I go there once or twice a day and go through my unread list skimming and deleting in one go. I don’t want a buzzing pocket or arm every time someone liked something I was mentioned in or someone liked a picture of a kitten. A like means nothing whatsoever and is only useful cumulative to stroke your ego giving you the impression of importance once you broke the 100, 1000, 10000 mark.

Sure, all this is configurable to be less intrusive. Fact is, though, that the initial setup of every social app isn’t modest. Instead they tend to be a needy cyber-bully trying to make you interact with them all the time and never leave and do a lot of things for them.

Most social notifications benefit the app or web site they happen in. You get curious, you go there and boom — one more eyeball, one more click, one more ad display.

If anything, having the notification on my arm made me pull out the phone more. The form factor of a small watch face showing lots of text is awful. Maybe I have just friends who are too literate and happy to write a lot. Good - I like people like that.

Of course, some notifications are great to get. Flight delays, train arrival times, restaurants and bars nearby, weather and all the other things Google Now does are useful. They are not really new though and still do work better on a larger display.

The main issue I have with wearables now is the interaction model though: speaking.

Let’s talk — or try to

Speaking to a computer has always been a dream of ours. Every SciFi program had a “OK Computer” in one way or another. Star Trek TOS’ computer took voice input and gave beeps back. Later on it had a female voice. Star Trek TNG’s computer got much cleverer. It had inflections, it understood not to react to sarcasm, it gave sensible results. Iron Man’s J.A.R.V.I.S was even sarcastic and drew conclusions. This, of course is scary and always inevitable leads to the extinction of humans — if movies are right.

The culmination of this dream was “Her” where the protagonist of the movie fell in love with the voice and “persona” of his AI computer. This also made him even more lonely and sad and disconnected from other people in the real world (not the MTV program).

This, to me, seems where voice recognition on wearable devices is at the moment. The marketing play wants to make us believe that we are all bodysurfing, basejumping beautifully clad people in chrome and glass surroundings that are of perfect temperature and humidity to avoid sweat and discomfort. In reality most mobile phones are a great tool to cover up social awkwardness. You don’t have to sit in a bar in front of a beer on your own any longer and stare moodily into the mirror. Now you can play with your phone and enjoy the hypothetical life you have in cyberspace. We are not getting less social — technology just makes it easier for us to not having to try.

Voice recognition works against that: it is intrusive and personal. I feel like an idiot talking to my watch in public. I suffered a few blank stares from my partner when I did so to try how good Google’s recognition is.

Voice recognition expects quite a high level of silence around you to work. Damn that car sounding its horn when I try to find the train station. We live in a noisy world - and that’s not going to change. People around us will talk and us talking to a computer will annoy them.

The biggest UX issue I found is “undo”. It is frustrating to talk to a computer and keep having to say no to it as what it recognised was of aesthetic beauty and almost lyrical but not at all what you tried to say. Many of my colleagues in the last weeks got creative emails rather than understandable ones.

Voice recognition now is not like of the J.A.R.V.I.S. or the TNG computer. It feels more like talking to Eddie the mental onboard computer of the starship Heart of Gold in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Many misses, a few hits.

This is understandable. Getting meaning and infliction and emotion and accent from an ever-changing entity like language is hard. We as humans keep failing to understand each other so how can we expect a computer that was taught by a — most likely — not too social human being to do it?

Stop hatin on wearables?

Does this mean wearables are bad and I hate everything about them and anyone involved and their pets? No, I love the idea of wearables. I am worried though that we are right now in a phase where wearables are the big new technology hype. People who give technologists money want to hear about hypes and the next big thing. Wearables are that right now. Marketing and make believe and messages of making tasks we shouldn’t spend much time on in the first place easier is where we are at.

Wearables are a good idea, ubiquitous and on-demand computing is a great idea. Technology should be there for us though, not us to serve technology. Having smart watches to get notifications to make us do more in the apps we got the notification from isn’t usefulness. It is whiling away the time.

The main thing wearable technology has to fix is the input case and the data display. Sound in either direction doesn’t cut it as it doesn’t scale. Imagine an office with 300 people speaking to their computers. Not fun.

Any technology interface in the last few years shrunk and then grew. The first digital cameras could fit in the palm of your hand, now they are all SLRs as phones replaced the small ones. The first feature phones flipped out the keyboard and were super small, now anything below a 4" screen is “not usable”.

Maybe a wearable device like Leela’s wrist band is a better idea?

Maybe my hand should be the input and any glass plane the display as shown in the remake of Total Recall?

In any case, we need to find a way to make the body part of the equation. Gestures of the hand and using my smart watch as a remote would be a great thing to do.

Right now, I feel like an intruder in the cozy connection of my phone and its remote display on my hand. Let’s get better.