iWatch, iBeacon and What's Wrong With Wearables

iWatch Concept from Charlie No

When you working with iBeacon technology, the coming generation of wearable devices seems like a natural extension to how you think about user experiences.

What better place, after all, to push a welcome message triggered by a beacon than to your wrist? If you’re not asking your customer to take their phone out of their pocket every 15 seconds as they wander the aisles of the grocery store, surely you can increase information and message density if all they need to do is glance at their watch?

But just like the earliest press reports and experiments with iBeacon technology were mostly clumsy and focused on a narrow set of use cases, the way we view smart watches is partly wrong and is focused more on the retailer, hardware maker, or ad platform than on the actual person who needs to wear the thing.

What a Watch Means

I still remember my first watch. It looked kind of stylish with a gold edge and clean white face and serif font symbols. Wearing it made me feel – well, adult, I guess.

I suppose it was a status symbol – although I come from a generation where you didn’t measure your peers by the kinds of sneakers they had, so it was probably a less blatant symbol than a smart watch might be today. But it was certainly a marker – it said to ME, at least, that I had passed a border into some kind of pseudo adult world of responsibility and ornamentation.

To that end, Forbes speculates that the recent hiring blitz for wearables talent at Apple means they’re about to become a fashion company, ready to launch a luxury brand:

I contend that Apple is in the process of building a brand strategy that will make the smartwatch in general and the iWatch in particular ubiquitous in the high-end retail environment and in popular culture. Through this positioning all of the utility promised for health, fitness and contextual information will be delivered—but that is the cart not the horse.

And while this might seem obvious to the general consumer (a watch should look beautiful, should convey more than utility) it isn’t always obvious to tech-obsessed engineering focused companies like Google or Amazon. As Khoi Vin neatly summarizes:

When technology companies look at goods that are built from the outside in, they generally see irrationality and inefficiency, a broken market just waiting to be corrected and “disrupted.” They believe that they can engineer so much value into these items that people will be swayed to buy goods built from the inside out, that the promise that drives hardware and software—“adopt this and benefit from its utility”—will convince people to upend their sartorial habits. This is how you get products like Google Glass, which assumes that consumers prize utility so much that they’re willing to look like they have no interest whatsoever in having intimate relations with another human being.

The Control of Time

But my watch was also something else. While perhaps illusory, it was also a symbol of control. It gave me the chance to have personal control over The Time.

It meant I could manage it, segment it, keep an eye on it. Being able to “Watch The Time” was now personal, and I had the tool to do so.

In my generation, time was perhaps the defining anxiety. Popular culture imagined “a time” when we’d have more time for leisure and would need to dedicate less time to work. Technology was imagined as a time saver – meals could be prepared faster with microwaves, houses could be cleaned faster, we’d need to spend less time at the office. We were on the cusp of a society-wide leisure class, where time would be released because of technology and would give us more time for the things we love.

We were trying to shake the boundaries of time. Live longer, enjoy more, work less. Technology would make it possible.

But instead, time took second position to a new anxiety, a new obsession.

We don’t talk about time anymore – other than as subservient to a new age of anxiety, one driven by information. Time has been lost because we have to deal with too much information. Time isn’t the end game, the thing to be controlled.

Instead, it’s data we wrestle with: too much information, too many e-mails, too many tweets and wall posts and pins, too many late night text messages from our boss and too many feeds we feel we need to keep on top of.

We once wrestled with, dreaded and remained hopeful that we could control time. Now, we wrestle with, dread and remain hopeful that we can, somehow, control the flow of information.

We worship at the altar of the cloud, of Big Data, and information becoming smarter. But this comes coupled with anxieties over surveillance, information overload, and desperately looking for a new tool, a new dashboard, a new way to deal with the deluge of data.

iBeacon: Programmed to Receive

Bluetooth LE beacons are simple. They send out small packets of data which your phone receives and can then act upon.

From this paradigm, the design of user experiences seems to follow a natural progression to ‘pushing’ data and information to a customer based on proximity.

But as I’ve long argued on this blog, beacons very quickly challenge UX designers to think about user experiences in new ways:

  • How many messages are too many?
  • How do you trade off ambient and ‘push’ experiences?
  • If beacons are triggers to real world people, places and things – how does the physical world itself need to change to enable to user experience?
  • What happens when you have more than one beacon? What happens when people (like shop assistants) are beacons too?
  • How do you juggle the fact that a phone can detect more information density than a typical consumer – especially when you combine the information density of a phone with the visual density of a physical place?

And yet the current generation of smart watches treat the wrist as an extension of the “receive/broadcast” paradigm.

They’re just another screen that’s programmed to receive – whether ads, push notices, or directions to work.

Driven primarily by companies with a vested interest in creating more advertising space, wearables are treated primarily as another screen that’s meant to receive.

In contrast, health wearables like Fitbit or Nike Fuel are data collection engines. Ostensibly acting to motivate and measure, to give you a sense of control over the amount of exercise you do, the number of calories you burn, or the number of hours you sleep – they walk a difficult line between providing this sense of control and just adding to the problem – more data to parse in your already information-saturated day.

Smart watches are another ad screen (albeit with lots of other stuff wrapped around that idea). And health wearables are data gathering engines programmed to create more data on your phone, tablet or PC.

More data, more information, and less time.

A Clean, Well-Lit Space

In a seminal interview about virtual worlds seven years ago, Eben Moglen, an IBM fellow, spoke about the challenges of digital space on our sense of privacy and control:

I see again and again the ways in which people now find themselves unable to make certain life choices easily because there digital self has acquired an inflexibility that constrains their non-digital self…We understood when the Soviet Empire decayed that all over it were places where people felt trapped in webs of surveillance and betrayal and interaction that had a kind of sinister feeling even if there is no Gulag and there is no shooting. And many of us feel very uncomfortable with the changes in the society we live in the United States in the past several years where for us there is no Gulag, no shooting, no being swept away with out charges.

Social contracts ought to be available in a machine readable form which allows the (user) to know exactly what the rules are and to allow you set effective guidelines about I don’t go to spaces where people don’t treat me in ways that I consider to be crucial in my treatment.

It has got to tell you what the rules are of the space where you are it has to give you an opportunity to make an informed consent about what is going to happen given those rules. It has got to give you an opportunity to know those things in an automatic sort of way so I can set up my avatar to say, you know what, I don’t go to places where I am on video camera all the time. Self, if you are about to walk into a room where there are video cameras on all the time just don’t walk through that door. So I don’t have to sign up and click yes on 27 agreements, I have got (a profile) that doesn’t go into places that aren’t clean and well lit.

This concept of a clean, well-lit space has resonated with me for years.

And thinking of it now, it reminds me of my first watch: a device that gave me a sense of control, a clean interface to something over which I might not be able to change, but I could at least learn to accommodate, to live with, to manage.

The current generation of wearable devices might give me more information, and the data it presents might even be smarter…but measuring its utility (as Google did in launching its wearables platform) in the number of times I won’t need to take my phone out of my pocket (or the ability to order pizza) is a less compelling emotional story than my first watch – which gave me control over time itself.

Will The iWatch Transmit or Receive?

I have no idea what Apple has planned for its iWatch, obviously. But knowing their history in carefully balancing consumer trust, privacy and experience on the one hand, and developer tools and flexibility on the other, I expect them to tackle this issue of control in an Apple-like way.

Now, clearly, an iWatch will receive. It will be a screen. And a few months ago I would have imagined that its primary purpose would be to offload push messaging, step tracking, heart rate monitoring, music controls and other functions from the phone to the wrist. (And all of these things will likely be true).

But there’s potentially another paradigm in place – one that will be recognized by those who think long and hard about beacons. Because in addition to being another screen, data capture device and interface controller, I think the real value of an iWatch could come from someplace else.

Because what if, much like beacons, the iWatch was less a receiving screen and instead was more like a broadcaster? What if your watch was, like a beacon, a way to signal to the world around you: “I’m here, and here are the permissions I’m giving you, here are the rules of my being in this space, and if I choose to I’ll share my identity or let you send me messages and communicate.”

In this view, an iWatch (and other future wearables) shouldn’t just be a screen programmed to receive.

It’s a wearable form of identity and intent.

It lets the world know what you want to do today, what kinds of friends you want to say hello to, what kind of relationship you want with the store or the gym, what kind of cashless transactions you want to participate in, and what your rules are for clean, well-lit rooms.

Power, connection, control, a sense of self, a tool to shift the balance from the broadcaster back to the receiver. And maybe it will look cool too.

Share Your Thoughts

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5 thoughts on “iWatch, iBeacon and What's Wrong With Wearables

  1. Hey Doug,

    I would even challenge the notion of a screen.

    My gut says in the relationship between today’s smart phone and future wearables, the screen may be the analog to the Start button of Window’s PCs and the first smart portable OS, Windows CE. It may be assumed to be the logical starting point by engineers, but in fact just trying to cram an existing approach into a new and actually different operating environment.

    If we assume that the wearable is less a glance-able information source, but rather a signal of intent to the surroundings or a set of sensors for personal data accumulation, then you already have a more useable visual and touch interface for that wearable in your pocket. It’s your smartphone. The most power hungry feature of any wearable with a display would be the display. Is a display really worth the design comprises it demands?

    Apple is a company of patterns and I think we’ve already seen a very telling pattern in HomeKit. With HomeKit, the iPhone is the hub for the intelligent devices that your home ‘wears.’ I will not at all be surprised if Apple brings to market an ecosystem of wearable devices that leverage the iPhone/iPad the user’s visual and touch interface and reserves their very spare battery and processing capabilities to be highly focused on one or two extremely specialized functions.

    YouKit, MeKit, WearKit? Who knows? But I’m betting it’s gonna be cool.


  2. Thanks Doug for your thoughts and agree that we are really seeking control of our personal “world”. I, too, like David’s comments above in that we will start to think differently about the display. Once we live in a world that no longer requires a separate “smart” phone (i.e., the radio are in the wearable), our paradigm will change again. What we will need as an “interface” will be guided by many of our senses, rather than just vision (device output) and touch (device input).


  3. hi Doug, a really thoughtful post. Thanks for your ideas and insight. I’m excited about the possibilities of wearable technology too. The barriers are the same as with every new technology including: true usability or Jay Baer’s “youtility”; design that doesn’t look like an engineer or code cowboy created it while on LSD; and the budget to survive long enough to take it from the garage/lab to Rodeo Drive and Amazon. Really, has anybody tried to read or view video on their smartwatch or write, create or anything important with the device as it stands today? There will need to be in a whole host of design and application changes to make these wearables truly functional, useful and so valuable that I must want to own one. I am honestly don’t think the Smart Watch is anything more than a starting point for where we will end up.


  4. I’m a little late in the conversation, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the last days trying to make sense of wearables and whether the time is right for them. Since I also work with beacons, I’m a little biased towards integrating wearables with contextual information. However, my problem with beacons is the very thing that lead me to them in the first place: their simple single purpose nature of just broadcasting an ID. I feel like there’s a feeling of loneliness when we lack two-way communication and that beacons should not be restricted to just saying: “Hello!” without a way for us to say “Hi!” back. And I’m not talking about the technical ways in which we could build a transponder beacon, but more along the same lines with Doug above, in which both wearables and beacons are one-way now, pointing towards us and adding up to the already crowded flux of information coming our way.

    Context for me means a way to filter out the information that is not relevant at a specific moment in time and in a specific location. This means its a personal tool to limit information and control it for my benefit, not a trigger to open the gates for more and more unsolicited data. This is why I see wearables as tools that help me act upon my environment. It’s cool to see the weather forecast, but it’s even cooler to control it with your watch. While this may not be possible (yet), the one thing I liked in the Android Wear introduction video, was that one can open a garage door with a watch. One can act upon the environment using a mix of personal and contextual technology and this is awesome.

    The reason I chose the garage door scenario is because this post made me realize that wearables are about personal identity. A phone is in your pocket, on a table, in a bag, forgotten in your car.. but a watch is stuck to your hand, reading your pulse, the chemical composition of your blood, your mood and your feelings. This makes it an excellent choice for storing my virtual avatar. I don’t want somebody else opening my garage door using my watch, but I’m not afraid this will happen, because its the mix between the wearable device and the one who wears it, the merging of my virtual and physical identities that create my context enabled avatar and allow me to control both the virtual and real objects around me. Thanks guys for helping me figure out why Apple seems more interested in contactless payments, instead of advertising through beacons. Because contexts needs identity to authorize and record data, and wearables offer not just identity, but enhanced physical identity merged with virtual one.


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