Four years of ambient computing

It’s been four years since the Apple Watch was released, and I’ve worn a variant of the miniature device pretty much every day of my life for most of this time. You see them everywhere now, but in 2015, wearing a smart watch was a novel idea. I’ve always been interested in gadgets, owning my first “smartwatch”, as Casio Databank, when I was in secondary school. I remember the sum of £40 seeming like a huge amount when I bought the Casio watch, and to be fair, for a 12 year old in 1997, it was.  I would marvel with amazement that a Casio Databank watch could store and entire 50 names and phone numbers, schedule alarms way off into the future, and knew how many days were in each month (no need to manually skip over the date for shorter months). The idea of walking around with all that information and potential on my wrist was both mysterious and exciting. How exactly did such a small device know to sound an alarm at precisely the time I’d chosen? Where exactly did all those names and number go when I entered them? I studied computer science and got a job as a software developer and so now it’s much less of a mystery to me how it all works, but my curiosity for these kind of smart devices never went away.  

A UNIX Box on every wrist

Maybe it’s just because I’m now in my early thirties and relatively old, but it seems to me quite fantastical that the smart watches, especially the Apple Watch, are now mainstream. That it’s actually considered normal for someone to walk around with an always-on, UNIX-based computer strapped to their wrist – a computer far more powerful than any of the computers I grew up with back in the late nineties and early 2000s. 

I find this especially interesting because these days, other consumer hardwire such as smartphones and laptops (or tablets) just aren’t that interesting. Phones don’t really do anything new anymore. Nicer screens, easier ways to log in, slightly better cameras – incremental updates that make the experience a little bit nicer. Smart watches on the other hand are vastly more compelling from a geek’s point of view.

First, there is room for a variety of styles: some of the designs released by LG and Fossil look genuinely beautiful, though Apple Watch is in a league of its own on that front.

Secondly, there is plenty of potential for new sensor input on the wrist. At the moment we have heart rate, accelerometer, and now ECG sensors with the latest Apple Watch, and there is so much more potential for a device that’s always on, and always being worn. Will the smart watch eventually displace the smartphone, just as the wrist watch displaced the pocket watch? I don’t think it will be as clear cut but I think they will eventually surpass mobile phone usage for many tasks. I certainly find that I need my phone less when wearing a smart watch – I just prefer to use it for certain tasks, mainly idling time reading the news or Facebook, or using the camera – the former is something I want to cut down on anyway.

Yes, I'm pretty proud of that time!

Despite my initial skepticism, I’m now hooked on the Apple Watch.  My home is strangely devoid of clocks. Apart from various computing devices, and my microwave, I have no clocks that I can easily glance at (partly due to finding ticking annoying!).  Apart from making daylight saving days less of an event, it does mean I rely on a watch or smartphone to keep me on track during the morning. Outside of just telling the time, I’ve found the Apple Watch useful for using Siri to do things like set timers and reminders. This means I have no need for a dedicated smart assistant like Amazon Echo, a smart watch beats a stationary cylinder in many respects because it’s always with me. It’s now second nature to dictate reminders into my wrist. Those reminders can always be location based (“At work”, “when I leave my car” etc.), unlike an Echo or equivalent.  Admittedly, I’m not going to listen to music on the watch’s speaker, and the inability to easily control Sonos via the watch is disappointing (there are 3rd party apps, but they’re pretty clunky). Apart from this, I do occasionally reply to text messages and emails I receive while at home, more often though I’ll initiate a text via the watch using Siri to dictate.  Initially I thought I’d use the remote control ability for Apple TV more than I do, partly because there’s no volume control for the TV on the watch, nor the ability to send Siri input to the TV (for example to search for something), and so I end up usually needing the Apple TV remote anyway.

Wearing a fitness tracker like the Apple Watch has also helped motivate me to keep active. I was an occasional runner before I owned an Apple Watch, but since, I’ve really progressed in part due to the ability to easily measure my pace and exertion using the GPS and heart rate sensor. The built in activity app is pretty minimal, and so I find exporting to Strava useful to get some more useful insights into my progress. The ability to go for a run with just a watch and some headphones, and still have access to music, podcasts and statistics while I run is truly amazing.

The downside of wearing a computer all the time is that it can be difficult to switch off.  Whether it’s BBC News or Strava, companies and apps are desperate for our attention, and the watch can make it easier for them to grab it from us.  I’ll address this in a future post, but I feel the Apple Watch’s fitness goals and achievements are focused on gaining “streaks” and never missing a day. I’d love to see Apple admit that once in a while, disconnecting is also good for your health and reward users for doing so.

Overall though, I’ll admit I’m hooked.

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Apple just gave me a new smartwatch, for free

Well, not quite, but the latest update from Apple might as well be a new watch. The new operating system, watchOS 3 is one of the best operating system updates I’ve ever seen in the 18 years or so since I’ve been interested technology.

There was a time when a new OS update meant inevitable slowness until you finally succumbed to the marketing and upgraded by either stuffing more RAM into your PC, or shelling our for a brand new machine. This changed in the PC world with Windows 7, which famously had the same operating requirements as it’s then 2 year old predecessor, Windows Vista. Apple hasn’t always been so kind, with new versions of iOS regularly slowing down older hardware, though this hasn’t been so much of a problem since the 64-bit era (2013 iPhone 5S or newer), but even now an iPhone 6 doesn’t feel as snappy as it did 3 years ago.  So it was a nice surprise when Apple announced back in June that its latest incarnation of the operating system for the Apple Watch, watchOS would be focused on performance. This was long overdue. Apple Watch’s main failure was it’s slowness. Unlike a laptop or a phone, a slow smartwatch can be physically painful to use. So for the most part people didn’t it seemed – 3rd party apps were few and far between.

The new version of watchOS achieves this speediness by keeping apps in memory for as long as it can. You now get to choose your 10 favourite apps and place them in a ‘dock’, and they’ll be prioritised over other apps to not only stay in memory but also receive more frequent background updates. Frequent background updates also apply to ‘complications’ (widgets on the watch face). What is striking though is the amount of fit and finish that’s been applied to the system. Now apps do really launch instantly, for the most part. If like me you only use 4 -5 apps of a regular basis, then it’s likely those apps will always be in memory. This results in a much more usable device.

Siri, the voice controlled virtual assistant is now much more efficient at communicating its status as when you ask for something. Instead of having to watch your wrist to see if it managed to understand what you said, you can now drop your wrist and it will subtle tap you when it has your answer, or to tell you if it didn’t understand. A small change, but it makes a big difference to the usefulness of the feature.

You can now draw characters onto the screen to transcribe text. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s a nice way to quickly reply when your phone is out of reach. Reminders are now available on the watch, and stay on the screen for up to 8 minutes after you last used the app, so I can walk round the supermarket checking off my shopping list on my wrist. The watch now feels more useful then it did before, when I was only really using it for notifications and fitness tracking (which are still first class).

On my smaller 38mm machine battery life still isn’t great. It seems to be slightly worse than before. Where I would have previously been at 25% at the end of the day, I’m now at 10%. This may well be because I’m using it a lot more now. I’ve long been in the habit of a post-lunch charge at my desk, so it’s not an issue most of the time.

I’ve always been compelled by the idea of having a computer strapped to my wrist, accessible at any time. This ‘ambient computing’ experience is finally realised with watchOS 3. What is really needed now is a watch with it’s own cellular modem, so the phone truly becomes an optional extra.

Making the Apple Watch more ‘glancable’

One of the biggest annoyances I find with the Apple Watch is that despite being billed as a 'smart watch', it's often not very smart at all. Take for example complications (widgets that go on the watch-face). Currently you have to manually choose what goes where, like so:

The weather is set to show at the bottom

 

This one shows that I have just over 2 minutes remaining on that timer (very useful when cooking, or when you've paid for park for a fixed amount of time):

I could also configure it to show the remaining battery percentage, my favourite stock price, sunset time or various other tidbits of information. So what's the problem? The problem is i need to configure it every time. It's not just a case of setting a timer, and the watch automatically replacing the weather with the timer, I have to manually edit the settings each time (unless I save a different watch-face with each combination, in which case finding the right one would take just as long).

Instead I should be able to say 'show me one of these things, depending on what's happening'. So if I've set a timer, show that. If it's going to rain, show the weather. If my battery is low, show the percentage. This would be a really cool addition in my view, and as far as I know it's not been announced for watchOS 2.