Here Come the Smartwatches

September 6th, 2013 17 Comments

This week featured big news for smartwatches with the announcement of the Samsung Galaxy Gear, Qualcomm Toq and Sony SmartWatch 2.

These watches are all essentially smartphone accessories, but in the event that you want an independently smart timepiece, the Omate TrueSmart Kickstarter project is for you.

RWW has dubbed this flood of devices, the “arm race,” and given the persistent iWatch rumors, you’d expect Apple to join the race very soon.

While many are watching and waiting, we’ve decided to jump in with a watch that’s already (sort of) shipping, the Pebble.

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Why? First, Jeremy, our fearless leader, has one by virtue of backing the initial Kickstarter project. Plus, Pebble has an SDK and small, but dedicated group of developers already pushing the device and probing its capabilities.

I got my Pebble a few weeks ago, and quickly set it up and got down to business adding watchfaces and pushing watch apps to the device. There are differences between the two.

I quickly hit my functional limit with the SDK, which requires C, a skill I only developed minimally back in the first Clinton administration, so my impressions are basic at best. Even so, here they are.

The Watch

I’m not a watch guy, so take that into account. The Pebble doesn’t do much, and that’s OK. It’s solidly constructed, with a rubbery band, which can be replaced, and a display that is big enough to read, but not too big for the average wrist. It’s chunky, in a cool way and very easy to read, thanks to its display¬†which also contributes to its hefty battery life.

In my unscientific testing, the battery life has been outstanding. It’s been on my desk for at least a week without a charge.

The watch body has four buttons, three on the right side, one on the left, for basic navigation. This design is decidedly right-hand friendly, depending on how much you decide to manipulate the watch. If I were using it left-handed, I might find it difficult to press the buttons.

Again, not a watch guy, but the overall weight seems comparable to other watches.

Software

Initial setup of the Pebble requires a smartphone app, iOS or Android. Although I didn’t try, I think the Pebble would function just fine as a basic watch without the smartphone.

The Pebble uses Bluetooth to communicate with your phone, and the app controls the notifications you receive on the Pebble, which include new emails, texts, calls. There might be more, but again, not a watch guy, limited testing.

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I did test the mail notifications from the Android Gmail and stock Email apps; the Gmail app shows new mail, which you can open and scroll through via the buttons. The Email app only shows a general notification of how many new messages you have, with no ability to view the message.

OOTB, Pebble includes three watchfaces, and via the smartphone app, you can find a handful of others, including Big Time, which I’ve been using.

pebble

Beyond that, there’s a large community at My Pebble Faces, where you can find a surprisingly wide array of watchfaces.

Installing watchfaces (and watch apps) from your smartphone is the easiest path. For example, if you hit My Pebble Faces from Chrome on Android while running the Pebble app, each watchface has an Install button. After a quick update, the Pebble app pushes the watchface to your Pebble, where you can immediately use it.

pebble2

Overall, the software experience is good. I’d expect the Pebble app to include more watchfaces over time as third-party developers are vetted, evolving into an official Pebble store, but for now, you have to trust the at-large communities like My Pebble Faces to get variety.

SDK

We’re an R&D outfit, so obviously, the SDK matters. After you register a developer account, you can download and install the SDK. The install instructions are very complete. On OS X, you need XCode or at least the command-line utilities, which is a bit of a bummer. In retrospect, I should have gone the Linux route to avoid that annoyance.

I breezed through the install and all the dependencies and then the Hello World example.¬†Beyond this, I’m useless. So, now it’s time to hand off to Anthony (@anthonyslai), who used to teach C apparently, for the real work.

Deploying apps to your Pebble requires an http server, which isn’t a big deal. It was a bit of a surprise to me; I was expecting communication between the watch and computer via USB, but again, I’m functionally useless so there’s that.

Some clever developers have built a communication protocol called httpebble, which according to the developer:

. . . is a scheme for communicating with the internet from the Pebble, using a generic protocol and without any application-specific code running on the phone. It also provides a mechanism for storing persistent data, reading timezone information, and getting the user’s approximate location.

Nice little workaround.

What’s next?

Although I’m not a watch guy, I like the Pebble. I’m definitely interested in the coming tsunami of wearable devices and how they can enrich the overall user experience.

It’s actually refreshing to design for a device like Pebble, which has very limited functionality. These limits actually clear the mind of all the noise of what could be done and focus it on only what matters to the user.

And once I get the Pebble to Anthony, we’ll start working with Jeremy and any other smartwatch users we can find to build some representative cool stuff.

Thoughts about smartwatches generally or the Pebble specifically?

Find the comments.


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17 Responses to “Here Come the Smartwatches”

  1. joel garry Says:

    Fancy phone accessories.

    This article mentions the Toq is basically inspiration for product developers: http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2013/sep/05/tp-technology-to-watch/

    Watch app nags you to order beer from your phone at football games, avoid concession lines: http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2013/sep/06/tp-making-devices-more-intuitive-is-goal/

  2. Jake Says:

    @joel: Yup, saw that same take elsewhere, framed more around hey-developers-please-use-this-display-technology vs. “inspiration” but that’s 6 vs. half dozen stuff.

  3. Ultan Says:

    (Miles behind as usual; OK a month behind).

    I backed the Pebble on KickStarter too around the same time as Jeremy. And I only just got around to taking delivery of it! Since then I played around with other watches, including the Mutewatch from Sweden, and various fitness type devices. Years ago, I even had one of those Microsoft Timex Datalink thingies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timex_Datalink). Thing is… I’m not really a watch guy anymore. I don’t need it… I carry two iPhones though rarely make any phone calls with them – Starbucks app, email, runkeeper, iTunes, alarm clock, Twitter, I don’t need a watch…

    On wearables, I think that’s an interesting area; though it is dominated right now by fitness and healthcare as far as the general consumerized stuff is concerned – and Google Glass of course. I see some potential there – data gathered and communicated around life/work balance and so on, and enterprise use cases revolving around cloud data and APIs. Some interesting thoughts on this and use cases/possibilities are here: http://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/show_story.php?id=31113#.Ukdsb9srMcs.twitter, here http://www.sension.co/case, here: http://www.lambdal.com/

    Watches though, I just don’t know…. maybe when there’s a blinged out Rolex Jay-Z sports I’ll take a look again… but you can be sure if Apple and Samsung are in there that something’s gonna happen and it aint going away. It’s all about the the optimization and exchange of the data that can be communicated through these deives that will drive the enterprise use cases to success I think… http://www.itsc.org.sg/pdf/synthesis08/Five_Internet.pdf

  4. Jake Says:

    @Ultan: I’m w you on watches. Aside from development and experimentation purposes, the only way I wear a watch is if it can replace the phone entirely. That’s already here, but it needs some refinement.

    Other wearables are interesting if we can get out of the fitness tracking funk.

  5. joel garry Says:

    I had a Datalink too! Was it when NT came out that the psychedelic upload through the computer monitor stopped working?

  6. Ultan (Apps UX) Says:

    Sounds about right, would have been NT 3.5 I think.

  7. Jake Says:

    Speaking of NT, just found NT 4.0 install diskettes.

  8. Ultan Says:

    We can knock NT, but I have to say 3.51 was a great release. I think I left a desk server running on the thing for about 7 years non-stop.

    Back on subject, I’ve been trying the Pebble IRL – for runs with runkeeper and notifications for calls, SMS, etc. Works great on Android. The iOS version is not so good. But the value add? Sure it’s great to see that you’ve an incoming call and read an SMS on your wrist and see your distance or running time, but I’m already carrying the devices that do the same. So, value is low. Still, it’s nice to show these devices off in public. As soon as they become popular that attraction will be gone too!

  9. Jake Says:

    @Ultan: Not knocking it at all, 3.51 was sweet, esp compared to Win 3.11. Felt the same way about NT 4 vs. 95.

    The killer app for wearables is still out there, thinking it will bubble up in the next year or so as these devices trickle out to early adopters and developers get to building.

    Or maybe it never will bc something else takes our attention.

  10. Ultan Says:

    Ah memories – The Timex Microsoft Datalink watch on Ebay: 175 bucks! I’ll pass. Not that much of a hipster…

    http://www.ebay.com/itm/VINTAGE-TIMEX-MICROSOFT-MENS-DATA-LINK-WATCH-NEW-IN-SEALED-BOX-/261306707945?pt=Wristwatches&hash=item3cd717efe9

  11. Jake Says:

    @Ultan: Related, I’d like to find a legit storefront that sells vintage tech. Never been in love w eBay.

  12. Ultan Says:

    Vintage tech?

    Dude, where were you?

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/oracle/2013/10/22/geeky-old-men-steve-wozniak-homebrew-computer-club-plan-night-of-pc-nostalgia/

    Maybe the attendees need to be vintage too… (cough)

  13. Ultan Says:

    But back on subject of the Pebble. I decided to give it a real test by wearing the thing in the Dublin Marathon (you can just about see it in this pic: https://www.dropbox.com/s/gk0rf4q9vitf4v3/AISB4722-rt12x17-9700.jpeg).

    I was using it to get the runkeeper app notifications from my Android Samsung SIII sent to my wrist. You get three bits of date – the time you’ve been running, the distance run, and your average speed per mile (or KM). A bit limited, but definitely nice to be able to see this on your wrist, but bear in mind I have to have the Samsung on me doing the real work (I was also carrying an Apple iPhone for my music – I can’t run with music – but that’s another story), so some overhead there…

    Still, I was concerned that moisture would mess up the watch too (we know the iPhone story there). It was raining in part and I sweat like a dog too and there’s water being drunk and spilt all over the place. Glad to say the watch kept working OK despite the waterworks going on.

    I’ve also tested the thing out at night – the so-called backlight motion capability I couldn’t get to work at all. Had to stop to press the middle button to see how I was performing, finding a convenient street light to illuminate. So stopping to check your performance is kinda self-defeating. Maybe that’s something the watch manufacturers can work on (the MuteWatch illumination via motion by comparison is super – http://mutewatch.com/video).

    On other notifications, I use them for gmail mail alerts (on low volume accounts) and phone calls and SMS alerts. Nice, but to be honest once you get the notification and alert and read it, that’s about as far as the watch based action will take you. It’s out with the phone to respond again.

    Finally, being a nosey UX type, I am always interested to see what other wearables are on the go in various races. At the HMB marathon and the Dublin marathon it was pretty clear that most people (the amateur, casual runner) use their smart phones with running apps installed, usually carried on armbands, and the remainder hardcore runners or wannabes using Garmin wrist devices. Between the two races I saw maybe a dozen or so Pebbles. To be fair early days though. DId see some people using Fitbit flexes (I think):I presume they were some kind of comedians. Interesting space, interesting times. I’m waiting for wearables to start hitting the catwalks of Milan soon – and that’s a good thing. Blog here (YMMV with my usual ravings): http://www.multilingualblog.com/localization-wearables-schmerables-why-italians-should-have-designed-google-glass/

  14. Ultan Says:

    Oops, meant to say I can’t run WITHOUT music. Oddly some marathon organizers don’t like you wearing earbugs or headphones during races on insurance grounds…. go figure…

  15. Jake Says:

    @Ultan: Re. homebrew club, not before my time, but above my skill level for sure. I play a developer on TV.

    Re. marathons, good on ya. Been reading a lot of interesting and snarky natch stuff about the effects they have on the body over at Deadspin.

    Would be interesting to get a post on that road test if you have the time/interest.

    Surprised you didn’t see Nike+ Fuelbands, given their positioning. My view of the Pebble has been as a casual user’s device for fitness, so good data points.

    Agree that wearables need some real fashion design, we nerds don’t have the research data necessary to build good clothing and accessories.

    Good stuff, thanks for contributing.

  16. Ultan (Apps-UX) Says:

    Probably were fuelbands, didn’t notice, so can’t say they were lots. One of the problems I have is keeping up with the proliferation of these devices. Jawbone is another. I’ve only ever seen it on sale in Apple stores and in Duty Frees, though I know people who wear them.

    Call me cynical, but I tend to regard people wearing these kind of devices along the lines of heavily tattooed people. You kinda need to look good BEFORE you get them, otherwise, it’s well…

    Back on track, yeah, let me see if I can write up something for you fairly soon. Love to do some real data collection though, maybe we can get some UX people to run around with some devices and use the data and some comments… I think that it’s the data collected that presents some serious business opportunities, way more than just healthcare. I just discovered the whole quantified self thing over the weekend in Ireland… found a local SV meetup to check out…http://www.meetup.com/quantified-self-silicon-valley/

  17. Jake Says:

    @Ultan: Quantified self is interesting. We can put together a UX test group pretty easily. I know several people rockin Fuelbands, and after a quick straw poll, I’m sure we’ll find a nice range of devices.

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