Why Today's Smartwatches Aren't Interesting

This past week, at Google's annual I/O Developer Conference, the company announced that smartwatches with Google's "Android Wear" software would be available for pre-order. The most interesting of any of the wearable devices was the Moto 360, which has a circular display that looks the most like an actual watch when compared to competitors like the Pebble or Samsung Galaxy Gear. The Google smartwatches allow you to check incoming texts, emails, calls and also let you speak to the watch to find directions, look at your calendar, and consult with other features via Google Now, the company's intelligent assistant software.

While this initially sounds cool ("Nice, I don't have to pull my phone out every two seconds!"), it's actually pretty boring and uninspired. There are a few reasons for this. First, any of these modern smartwatches aren't actually that smart on their own because they always need to be tethered via Bluetooth to your phone. You can certainly check various messages and events on your wrist, but to do anything beyond that, you'll have to pull out your phone as usual. And even though Google is encouraging users to issue voice commands to control the watch itself, I'm definitely not going to be caught dead shouting at my watch for directions to the nearest Starbucks (see the movie Her for an idea of what that bizarro universe looks like). So while these smartwatches are decent windows into your smartphone, until you can use them without your phone (or without looking like an idiot), they won't be that useful.

It's also simply annoying to have a smartwatch the buzzes/beeps/yells at you every time you get a notification about anything. One tech writer who got to test a Google smartwatch expressed his frustration at the constant email pop-ups, text messages, and continuous shenanigans that the smartwatch would alert him about. While you can, for instance, easily mute all email notifications, that doesn't make the watch especially smart. After all, the whole point of a "smart" device is that it tells you what's going on in your world when you need to know. A better solution might be that you could selectively choose which emails from which people buzzed your wrist at certain times (e.g. only showing emails from your boss unless you're on vacation). But no smartwatches currently have this granular level of control, so it's all or nothing when it comes to your notifications.

And finally, one of the biggest issues with this new crop of smartwatches is that the interaction with them is extremely limited. Most smartwatch apps only display information and other than the usual swiping and tapping that people are used to on their phones, you can't do much else. The voice control that Google is trying to implement indicates that they're at least trying to experiment with new input methods, but until voice gets better or they develop another solution for smaller device interaction, the smartwatch will just be a miniaturized version of the smartphone. Because current smartwatch makers are creatively constrained by the recent success of smartphones and their interaction models (tapping, pinching, swiping, etc.), they haven't yet devised unusual ways of interaction that work for these wearable devices. In just thinking about how some fine, mechanical watches work (see the Rolex Sky-Dweller), it would be an interesting experiment to see how a rotating watch bezel that controls the digital screen would work in conjunction with voice features. This would be similar to the old style iPod click-wheels from the pre-iPhone days and wouldn't even necessarily need a touchscreen to work well.

Now of course, these are the very early days of the so-called "wearable revolution," but I'd love to see Google, Apple, Pebble, or some ambitious newcomer seriously think about different interaction methods while also researching how normal people use normal watches. After all, with a standard watch, you look down at its always-on display and glean information from the dial. You might run the stopwatch on a chronograph or adjust the second timezone hand of your GMT watch when you travel, but interaction is usually very fast and helpful. That's why rather than starting with a smartphone and making it smaller, it would be far more interesting to start with a watch concept and work backwards from there. This ensures that a smartwatch has utility and becomes more that just a dumb window to your actually smart phone.