Wearables & the ‘Age of Context’


So the fabled Apple Watch is mere days from hitting the shelves after what seems like years of rumours and speculation. While you seemingly can’t go online without being bombarded with some commentary about the new gadget, it appears that the jury is still very much out on wether it will be a genuine game-changer or not. Some commentators are hailing it as the next big thing, while others deride the concept as a gimmicky flash in the pan, only making headlines because it is Apple’s latest poster child. Whether this iteration is the blockbuster product that some predict or not, either way, it’s likely that it will kick the wearable’s product category onto the next level to some degree in terms of mainstream awareness at least.

wearables

The nay-sayers deride the reliance on it’s parent smartphone, perceived limited functionality, or question marks over how users are meant to interact with the device taking into account it’s limited input methods. Also, it basically doesn’t do anything your smartphone can’t already do, so what’s the point, right? While I have up until recently been of the attitude that smartwatches will remain a huge niche category until they can work independently of smartphones, a few articles that I’ve come across recently have forced me to re-evaluate the fundamental purpose of these devices. It seems that, while they’re not meant to replace your smartphone, they are designed to marginalise it. Wearables aren’t about adding a new layer of interaction with technology to your life, they’re about stripping it away. Removing the need for interaction to only when it is a necessity.

In a fantastic Wired piece this month on the development of the Apple Watch (notably called “iPhone Killer: The Secret History of the Apple Watch”), members of the Apple design team suggested that the main benefit of the device was the fact that it removes the need to constantly check your phone for notifications, prompting the user to only reach for their phone when deemed necessary by their watch. The whole point, in effect, is to make the iPhone redundant unless you’re carrying out a specific task or reacting to an important notification.

Along the way, the Apple team landed upon the Watch’s raison d’être. It came down to this: Your phone is ruining your life.

Our phones have become invasive. But what if you could engineer a reverse state of being? What if you could make a device that you wouldn’t — couldn’t — use for hours at a time? What if you could create a device that could filter out all the bullshit and instead only serve you truly important information?

The goal was to free people from their phones.

The smart-watch is meant to reduce our overall interaction with technology. Even the interactions you do have to make are to be reduced to their bare bones. Instead of engaging as you normally might with a notification or message, you can simply be presented with a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ style decision that’s super quick to make. Apple came up with a system called Quickboard that analyzes notifications and messages and suggests a handful of possible responses. If you are the one instigating the message, then sure, use your phone. But if you are the one reacting, this makes life that little bit simpler.

When your date asks if you want to do Mexican or Chinese for dinner, “Mexican” and “Chinese” automatically show up in the list — tap one and you’ve replied. You’re in the moment; just send it.

But in most cases, you’re not meant to have to do anything at all, wearables are meant to react to their environments and your habits. Christian Hernandez elaborates on this ‘Age of Context’ in this piece based on Robert Scoble and Shel Israel’s book of the same name.

In the Age of Context personal data (ex: calendar and email, location and time) is integrated with publicly available data (ex: traffic data, pollution level) and app-level data (ex: Uber surge pricing, number of steps tracked by my FitBit) to intelligently drive me towards an action (ex: getting me to walk to my next meeting instead of ordering a car). It is an age in which we, and the devices and sensors around us, generate massive reams of data and in which self-teaching algorithms drill into that data to derive insight and recommend or auto-generate an action … data needs to be compiled into succinct notifications and action enablers.

In this ‘Age of Context’, the Starbucks app, for example, will know that you usually get off the train at 8:50am and walk to their local store to order a Grande Latte. At 8:52 your smart watch will know your routine, know that you’re around the corner from Starbucks, and simply generate an action-driver that says “Grande Latte – Order?” A few minutes later you can pick up your coffee, which has already been paid for as the system is integrated with your payment details. These services are already possible today, but will be made much easier to automate with the proliferation of wearable devices.

Another great Wired feature last month profiled the success of the Disney ‘MagicBand’, a wearable wristband that lets visitors to Disney World in Orlando ambiently carry out an absurd array of functions all by virtue of having this sensor on their wrist.

The MagicBand replaces all of the details and hassles of paper once you touch-down in Orlando. Express users can board a park-bound shuttle, and check into the hotel. They don’t have to mind their luggage, because each piece gets tagged at your home airport, so that it can follow you to your hotel, then your room. Once you arrive at the park, there are no tickets to hand over. Just tap your MagicBand at the gate and swipe onto the rides you’ve already reserved. If you’ve opted in on the web, the MagicBand is the only thing you need.

It’s amazing how much friction Disney has engineered away: There’s no need to rent a car or waste time at the baggage carousel. You don’t need to carry cash, because the MagicBand is linked to your credit card. You don’t need to wait in long lines. You don’t even have to go to the trouble of taking out your wallet when your kid grabs a stuffed Olaf, looks up at you, and promises to be good if you’ll just let them have this one thing, please.

And that hit’s the nail on the head; devices like this are there to ‘engineer away friction’. A place like Disney World is the perfect control setting for technology like this that needs buy-in from both users and the multitude of places they come into contact with on a given day, so it can be difficult to imagine how this might work in the real world. But the MagicBand certainly gives us an idea of what it will be like in however many years, once the rest of our environment has caught up with the gadgets that we have in our pockets and on our wrists. Read the piece here.

So back to the Apple Watch, I certainly won’t be rushing out to buy one on launch day, I just don’t think there’ll be that many real world use cases out there for it for another year or two at least. But maybe it’s getting that

bit easier to picture our cities a little more like Disney World in the not to distant future.

Recommended reading on wearables and the ‘Age of Context’

  1. Disney’s $1 Billion Bet on a Magical Wristband (WIRED)
  2. Into the Age of Context (Christian Hernandez: Medium)
  3. iPhone Killer: The Secret History of the Apple Watch (WIRED)
  4. Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy (Scoble & Israel)

Share
Start a Conversation