What's the point of a smartwatch? I don't mean that in a “you spent £200 on that?” kind of way. I mean it at a more fundamental level: how, if in any way, can a smartwatch enrich your life where other technology cant? What element of that device's existence makes it (excuse the pun) worthy of your time?
There will be a different answer to that question for different people. It may be as simple as chasing the latest new device category as an early adopter. Perhaps your Casio has given up the ghost and you've got some birthday money to splurge on something, anything, and the rise of the smartwatch has occurred at just the right time. Maybe you just sadistically want to put Flappy Bird on your wrist. Whatever floats your boat.
For me and (hopefully I'm not being too presumptuous here) I expect many others, the lure of the smartwatch lies in its ability to untether my soul, at least partially, from my smartphone. To allow me to experience the world with my head up, eyes facing forward engaged with my surroundings and peers, without as many periodic glances to my phone. Google's Android Wear and Pebble's smartwatch systems seem tailor made for this purpose – each offers notifications, pinging info from your phone to your wrist for quick-glance updates throughout the day.
Android Wear in particular seemed developed primarily with this goal in mind. Google spoke of “micro interactions”, with its wearable platform offering card stacks designed to take your attention away for a minimal amount of time.
I've reviewed or tested a number of smartwatches now and agree in principal that this works as described, at least to the extent that my phone now stays in my pocket longer.
However, having now lived with an Android Wear smartwatch for a substantial number of months, if anything I'm now being called out as being “anti-social” even more often by my friends and family. What's gone wrong?
It's a two-pronged attack on my social etiquette skills. For starters, the immediacy of smartwatch notifications, sitting on my wrist, makes them even more difficult to ignore. Over the years, I've gotten to a point where, begrudgingly, I've learned how to ignore the buzz of my phone in my pocket during the most delicate of social situations. But I can't help but glance at the watch in the same scenario – though I'm no longer spending as much time engaging with notifications, I'm now doing so more often, roughly working out as the same cumulative amount of time spent gazing at its screen. Maybe this behaviour will recede in time, but I feel the convenience of info-on-your-arm will make it, in some respects, too addictive to ignore.
Which leads onto the second social flaw of the smartwatch. Even if its' just a short glance, I'd argue that culturally it's more offensive to look quickly down at a wristwatch than it is a phone. It's an inherited faux pas from a bygone age and, in fairness, merely a symbolic one – looking down at your watch suggested, in an unspoken way, that you were bored of a conversation, or felt that you were wasting your time with the person engaging you. Perhaps this notion will diminish as smartwatches become more commonplace, but for now, especially while there are people out there who aren't familiar even with what these devices are, a glance at an Android Wear card makes you look as disinterested as pulling a pocket watch from out under your top hat and eyeballing it through your monocle.
And remember; a smartwatch will buzz and vibrate to nab your attention, imploring you to look no matter what the occasion. Heaven forbid you ignore its call to instead find a wasp and its vibrating wings crawling up your forearm.
All this before we even consider talking to a watch, though your social-anxiety mileage there will vary based on how many of your mates thought Dick Tracy was a don.
Full disclosure: I've yet to try on the Apple Watch. It may well turn out to be this magical extension of my thoughts and needs, placed on my arm, devoid of the distractions I've listed above but, let's be honest, it's more-or-less doing the same things as Android Wear and Pebble does, with the same end results. Apps, notifications, a flashy screen all to wrestle my attention away, except with the Apple stamp of approval instead of Google's. If this article seems to call out Android Wear, it's only because I'm most familiar with its workings – my time with any other smartwatch platform would lead me to believe symptoms of the same problem would be found elsewhere.
Now, of course, there are controls to dial back how incessant notifications are allowed to be, and to turn off vibrations. Android Wear lets you select from “All Interruptions”, “Priority Interruptions”, or to switch them off entirely. Turning off notifications is of course a no-go – all your left with then is a watch that runs out of battery within a few days for the sake of being able to muck about with fancy faces. And I, personally, hate using the “Priority Interruptions” option, as that means I have to put my trust in Google's ability to discern what I consider a priority, rather than its algorithms. I'd hate a life-or-death notification to be misidentified by an algorithm, however rarely (touch wood) they occur.
So what can be done to fix this, if anything? Well, to make the smartwatches smarter, of course! If I could strap on my LG G Watch R, or Apple Watch, or Pebble, or Moto 360, safe in the knowledge that its silicon brain would only ever alert me with the ideal, most-contextually and socially sensitive interruptions and notifications, I could stand by any justification I have to give as a pal's eyebrows raise and a conversation is bruised.
But, without plugging my soul into The Matrix, that's something that may never happen. And, as someone that wholeheartedly fears the inevitable Skynet robot rebellion, that's something I don't plan on doing any time soon regardless.
Perhaps then, sadly, I'm finding that I've less faith in the smartwatch concept than my rose-tinted enthusiasm once led me to believe.