Technology That Flows From Us
Raising the bar in a category that has yet to define itself, Apple Watch establishes five benchmarks for wearable technology that place human nature at its core.
Even before the official on-sale date of April 24th, 2015, Apple had changed the rules. In the way Apple Watch was designed, pre-launch interest built, and initial customer experience shaped, Apple departed from its own playbook, and from precedents already set in the nascent wearable technology (WT) space.
But judging from initial positive reviews (e.g., Wired,^1 The New York Times,^2 and The Wall Street Journal ^3), and over a million pre-orders, the company has a hit. As Fast Company stated, “…the Apple Watch could succeed (even if it fails),^4” referencing the far-reaching ecosystem Apple has established, of which Watch forms another layer.
But what makes Apple Watch significant is a new definition of how WT should flow from human nature and our natural behavior, rather than define it. This definition is evident in five hardware, firmware and software interface characteristics that Apple has incorporated into Watch and which, as a set of benchmarks, raise the bar for WT.
While previous devices, such as those using Android Wear OS, have adopted some of these principles, Apple is the first to have seriously tackled all five. It's worth noting that this is just the beginning. There are many more technology/human interface challenges to overcome, and benchmarks to be set, before wearable technology becomes “human enough” to go mainstream.
1. Self-Expression Trumps Everything Subliminal as it may be, self-identity is hardwired into choices about self-expression. Fashion designers know this intuitively; engineers less so. A failure to recognize this principle may well be the reason why Google Glass, one of the more high-profile WT devices of recent years, crashed and burned.
Google Glass may have also suffered as a result of being an early mover. But while it tried to gain street cred,^5 it never completely overcame the “dorky” and “creepy” factors – the ultimate self-expression killers – due to insufficient traction on the fashion front.
In contrast, Apple has continually prioritized design, not only to achieve an elegant synthesis of form and function in its hardware and software, but also as a means for self-expression. Yet with Watch, Apple has gone even further, positioning the device as a luxury accessory (including a $15,000 gold Edition), with creative input from superstar designer, Mark Newson, pre-promotion through fashion channels,^6 and in abandoning its usual limited-SKU rulebook by exploding the degree of personalization (two case sizes, four case finishes, around a dozen band styles and colors). No other wearable device firm has offered such range. Even the Apple Store personal appointments (versus lines around the block) take a cue from luxury retailers.^7
If indeed, self-identity is integral to how we express ourselves, no wearable device can afford to opt out of addressing this principle.
2. Intrude Intelligently One of the prevalent themes in the initial reviews is the level of intrusiveness that Apple Watch notifications have, through sound and, more significantly, through the haptic interface – the little “taps” Watch makes on your wrist when you receive an incoming text, email, etc. Both Joanna Stern (WSJ)^8 and Farhad Manjoo (NYT) extolled the effectiveness of this feature, while bemoaning the annoyance factor and “Version 1” feel that accompanies this new technology.
With smartphones, we often use distance or volume (e.g., place the device in our pocket, or on the night stand as an alarm clock) to modulate the level and kind of intrusion we need for notifications, balancing our desire to know what’s coming in with that of not wanting to be overwhelmed or interrupted.
With devices strapped to our bodies, vibrations become a primary way to “intelligently intrude” via a language of haptic taps and touches. While it is doubtful that industry players will synchronize their efforts to create a universal haptic alphabet, Apple’s introduction of its branded Taptic Engine takes a first stab at establishing a few initial, standardized codes.
Understanding the language of taps, bumps, and vibrations on our wrists (or any body part), and being able to classify them according to a relevant digital notification type, is part of the new experience of wearables. For this benchmark, there will most certainly be a first-mover advantage for the company that writes the code. Whatever the outcome, the design of Apple Watch implies that the “emotional intelligence” (to the extent that a machine can possess this) built into device firmware will be an essential component of creating WT that minimizes annoyance and elicits positive feedback.
3. Shorten the Learning Curve With any new technology, there is always a learning curve. But in our instant-gratification universe, the four days that it took Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times to learn how to use Apple Watch seems like a lifetime. While he ultimately fell for it, the question remains: if it takes so long, will the rest of the addressable market have the patience to make WT part of their lives?
Personalization plays a key role in making technology follow our lead, rather than the opposite. This means more than just a "ringtone level" of personalization (i.e., associating specific rings or sounds with specific people or notifications). Interactive interface adjustments and learning via touch or voice will become essential to shortening the learning curve as we bring technology into more intimate proximity with our bodies.
Being able to ask, “Is an email three taps or four?” and modify if needed, is just one example. Ultimately, any new language (e.g., a haptic code or other complex interface) will need to have embedded “teaching engines” to make them viable. While Apple Watch has the beginning of this capability, two-way functionality for personalizing firmware output will be a must-have capability in subsequent versions before widespread adoption kicks in.
4. Talk To Me, With Context Let’s face it: many of us have fat fingers and not-the-best vision. The small screen of Apple Watch may be more troublemaker than tech savior. Overcoming this challenge is an adjacent benchmark to interface learning, and highlights the vital role that intelligent voice-activated assistants (IA) will play as devices become smaller and more intimate.
Apple is not alone here. Google Now, (integrated into Android Wear) and more recently, Microsoft Cortana (in Windows devices) are also slowly driving the adoption rates of intelligent assistants. Over 720,000 devices with Android Wear shipped in 2014 and, so far, Google Now and Siri seem to have similar customer satisfaction ratings.
But what Siri does best relative to Google Now^9 is customization (e.g., IA voices), productivity (e.g., OS integrated actions), and visualization (presentation of data) – all essential ingredients for small-scale WT interfaces. While IA technology has a long way to go to move from Dick Tracy wrist-in-the-air gestures to a relationship like the one between Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johanssen’s voice in the movie Her, Apple Watch has laid a viable “V1” foundation for what will be a defining characteristic of future WT.
5. Create Magical Convenience Telekinesis and other science fiction-laced themes will continue to inspire technology developers. But with Watch’s more mundane capabilities, like being able to make payments (Apple Pay), open your hotel room door (Starwood) or hail a cab with the wave of your wrist (Uber), Apple has acknowledged the importance of ensuring that WT functionality has an element of magic embedded within maximum convenience.
While things we consider “magic” today will be commonplace tomorrow, technology will undoubtedly continue to play an important role in making everyday activities more frictionless. And as WT devices appeal to our ever-growing need for instant gratification, we will expect both hardware and software to deliver even more frictionless and “life-integrated” experiences – the car opens when you approach, your shopping list is automatically populated, and your Fedex package follows you to the office, instead of home.
Apple Watch-specific apps available at launch suggest that the radically reductive packaging of essential information we use to make everyday decisions will feed this desire for greater control and “magical convenience.” And, as WT and the “Internet of things” come of age simultaneously, Apple Watch V2 may well take this to the next level with an even greater range of anticipatory interactions between our dwellings and our wearables.
These five WT benchmarks will undoubtedly become a platform from which even richer, more human-derived, functionality emerges as adoption rates, mainstream feedback, and new capabilities are created. What Apple has done – again – is recognize that if we are to live at peace with, enjoy, and benefit from technology, the interface rules must acknowledge our humanness, from the desire for self-expression through to the ability to simply open a door.
^1 "Here’s What It’s Like to Use the Apple Watch," Christina, Bonnington, Wired, March 9, 2015
^2 "Apple Watch Review: Bliss, but Only After a Steep Learning Curve," Farhad Manjoo, The New York Times, April 8, 2015
^3 "Apple Watch Review: The Smartwatch Finally Makes Sense," Geoffrey A. Fowler, The Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2015
^4 "Why The Apple Watch Could Succeed (Even If It Fails)," John Edson, Fast Company, March 9, 2015
^5 "Huh, Vogue Publishes 12-Page Google Glass Spread in September Issue," Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic, August 15, 2013,
^6 "Apple Watch Gets Its Own 12-Page Ad Spread in Vogue," Dawn Chmielewski, re/code, February 25, 2015
^7 "Will the Apple Watch Eclipse the Classic Swiss Watch?" Kevin Sintumuang, The Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2015
^8 "Apple Watch: What Living With This Thing Is Really Like," Joanna Stern, The Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2015
9 "Siri vs. Cortana vs. Google Now: Why Apple’s Siri Is Best," Brittany Vincent, Laptop Magazine, Dec 5, 2014