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The state of Smartwatches and wearable computing: Notifications on your wrist.

The premier smartphone experience is starting to plateau. While phones continue to improve, the changes between yearly iterations aren’t quite as revolutionary as they used to be. We’re all starting to agree on the same general principles dictating smartphone design, and we’re racing towards a world of rectangular glass slabs. Slabs which all provide the same basic services regardless of who made the hardware or developed the software.

Three of the hottest smartwatches on the market today.
Juan Carlos Bagnell

We’re now very interested in companion services and accessories. One of the most anticipated markets right now is wearable computing, and smartwatches were all the rage this year at CES. It’s a brand new market segment, and companies are rushing in to try and offer a killer app which will entice consumers.

As there hasn’t been a breakout hit in this market yet, each offering is as different as the company offering it. Samsung’s approach to smartphones is one of total services domination, an “everything and the kitchen sink” design aesthetic. Their Galaxy Gear watch is no exception, sporting sensors, mics, a speaker, and a camera. Think Dick Tracy meets Swiss Army.

At the polar opposite end of the spectrum, Martian offers a traditional chronograph watch face with a small monochrome LED ticker to deliver notifications.

Pebble is the current sweetheart of the group, following their successful Kickstarter and the announcement of their Steel watch. It hits an affordable price, and has growing developer support, while doing an admirable job of covering the basics.

Even Qualcomm’s Toq features unique solutions, like their outdoor-readable Mirasol Display, touch sensors in the watch band, and wireless charging. Mix in fitness trackers, GPS solutions, and other variations, and you’ll see an eclectic field of competitors all vying for your phone’s bluetooth and the space on your wrist.

The general theme we see at play with wearables is one which falls in line with futurist predictions. The rise of the smartphone happened fast, maybe faster than our ability to adapt socially. We might be seeing the “market correction” on that adoption now. To an extent, all smartphone users are cyborgs now, and “data” is becoming our sixth sense. Force someone to unplug, and you can often expect them to get cranky at the thought of being deprived of their data delivery service. As we move forward, our next conversations need to surround the idea of more seamlessly adopting data without it blocking our natural senses.

In social situations, responding to an alert by pulling out your phone can kill a conversation. It’s a sign that the human interaction happening in front of you is less important than the POTENTIAL digital interaction on your phone. Smartwatches help by making that gesture a little less severe, but socially we equate looking at the wrist with boredom or impatience. It’s better than whipping out a phone, but only slightly.

Extrapolating tech evolution and social adoption, smartwatches as delivery systems might not be a long-lived market segment. They still represent a “blocking maneuver”. We can’t look through them. We have to focus on them to the detriment of the world around us. They do represent a terrific “gateway drug” to more organic systems however, opening up the discussion for things like heads up displays, bone conduction audio, and eventually implantable computing.

While that last idea might seem like a long way off, the acceleration of adoption for each new technology we’ve used recently has been profound. The amount of time needed to reach a healthy audience of desktop users pales in comparison to smartphone adoption.

The benefits are recognizable, moving technology closer to our natural senses without blocking our natural ability to see and hear. It improves social interaction while also being safer to incorporate into other activities like walking, exercising, or operating a motor vehicle.

The current crop of smartwatches all have a somewhat BETA feel to them, but they’re starting to become a really fun way to continue this conversation of tech evolution.

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