Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Google’s watch and how wearable tech needs a purpose

A “smart” watch isn’t very clever.

Tue, Mar 18, 2014, 17:31


The news that Google’s new toy is a watch that can do, you know, stuff with, kind of bores me. I’m sorry.

Wearable tech and the internet of things may mean smart thermostats can turn Nest into a multi-billion-dollar company that no one had heard of before and perhaps pave the way for Google House, but in terms of hardware (hardwear?) I think entering the watch game means Google has coughed up a furball and is trying to convince us it’s silk. The most important part of Google’s cheesy ad for the watch – showing us loads of stuff that our phone does anyway – is the “open garage” part. Google wants the techy keys to your gaff.

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The issue with wearable tech is that it needs to serve a purpose, and it needs to serve that purpose well. Something that you physically place on your body has to have a pay off. It needs to do something that another product hasn’t done before. And potentially, it needs to do that so well that it actually influences your behaviour, and in some tiny way changes your life. The reason Jawbone’s UP is so successful is because it’s offering people a bunch of information about themselves. It’s the flip side of actually putting your own data out into the world. The UP gives you your own data.

Users complain of having to replace the UP many times, but they still replace it, because what it does is useful. Tracking your steps, monitoring your sleep, keeping you active and waking you up is useful, even if ultimately the UP is still superfluous, I mean, we did live without it. But the thing is, it’s less superfluous than other wearable tech. The reason the UP is cooler than the Nike FuelBand is for a simple reason. People who are into fitness gauge things in kilometres or miles. They don’t gauge running in units of Nike Fuel. In sticking with a made up measurement, Nike frustrates people who are into running.

Innovation in hardware has stalled. We had huge advances in smartphones, tablets, light laptops, games consoles and the UP, but a smart watch isn’t innovation, it’s replication. It’s not like it’s a new thing either. Watch companies have been making smart watches for decades, from Casio’s calculator watch to ones that doubled as remote controls. The new era smart watches appear to me to generally be ugly, oversized, and I dread to think what their battery life is like. The Samsung Galaxy Gear, Sony’s SmartWatch 2, and one of the worst ever named tech products, Qualcomm Toq, have all failed to make an impact. Weirdly, it’s the minnow of the industry that’s the most interesting – Pebble. A focus on fitness and food consumption, as pointed out in this Daily Mail piece seems as thought the watch wants to be an UP band with a dash of your smartphone.

Google has yet to get a piece of hardware really right. It’s dalliance with Motorola didn’t exactly work out – buying the company for $12.5 billion and then selling most of it on for $2.9 billion. Google’s enthusiasm for chucking almost prototype products out there speaks to the zany experimental side of the company. But it also means that you’re not going to get the fetishisation of the design of its products by Apple nerds. Glass might appeal to geeks who envisage themselves as potential cyborgs, but the derision the product has been met with is damaging.

Another crucial element of the lukewarm reception to Google’s hardware is its insistence that we talk to our tech products. How often do you use Siri? Not very much, right? It was a fun toy in the beginning that became incongruous and most of all ineffective. Spike Jonze got a movie out of it but that’s about it. Unless you are a seven-year-old kid playing spy games in your treehouse, or Michael Knight, you probably won’t want to have the chats with your hardware. There is no way that I’m going to say “OK Glass” or “OK Google” on a crowded train or walking down the street.

But here’s a question about the G Watch: why? What’s the point of this product? Real innovation answers those questions automatically. Searching for a reason to buy something means it’s probably a toy that you’ll quickly get bored of.

(photo via the Android Wear video)