My summer with a smart watch

I broke my wrist watch just before leaving for summer vacation this year. I decided to borrow a smart watch from our lab and test it during the summer. Who knows, maybe I would decide to ditch my Tissot for a smart watch? After two weeks I decided not to. But at the same time, I became even more interested in smart watches as a platform for assistive technologies.

To the left is the LG R. To the right is one of my Tissots.

To the left is the smart watch LG R. To the right is one of my Tissots.Which one is prettier?

I own two Tissot wrist watches. I almost never use my mobile phone’s clock to check the time, but I use my wrist watches a lot. I do research on mobile technologies. We have used smart watches in research prototypes, like this one for fall detection among elderly people. But I had never owned a smart watch. So it was time for me to try one. I borrowed a black LG R and off we went to Greece for a couple of weeks of vacation.

The first thing I noticed –before we had even left the town –was how cheap the watch felt compared to my other watches. LG R was light, felt like plastic, had a leather strap that also felt like plastic. This first impression lasted all the summer. Traditional wrist watches have a functional role –they tell you the time. But at the same time these watches have evolved into pieces of jewellery and tell a lot about the wearer’s personality. LG R failed in this respect. It felt cheap.

On my second day the battery nightmare started. It was a completely new experience to charge a wrist watch. And it was not a pleasant one. I had to charge it every night. I assume newer models are better. But compare it to the 2-3 years of battery I have on my other watches! The charging creates a whole different and inferior experience. Maybe an experience more similar to carrying a Tamagotchi than wearing a wrist watch.

Because of the battery issue I had to turn on the screen saver function. This means that the watch face goes black when you don’t use it. To see the time you have to perform a gesture with your arm –i.e. lifting your arm up, holding your wrist in front of your face, and making a sudden turn with your wrist to bring the watch face towards your face. A quite awkward gesture that also looks ridiculous. And then you have to wait 1-2 seconds for the watch face to light up so you can see the time. You can also touch the screen instead of performing the ridiculous gesture. When you don’t use the watch, its face is totally black all the time. People around you might wonder why you wear a wrist watch with no face (see the photo).

But a smart watch has got to be smart. LG R runs Android Wear. This means that the watch could communicate with my Android smartphone. I did not install Android Wear because I don’t like Google recording my every move (probably they do anyhow). But anyhow the watch was connected to some of the most common application on my smartphone. I could see –and feel through vibration –arriving SMS, see who is calling, and had some apps for weather, counting step and some more. It took me some time to turn off the most annoying notifications from these apps. At the end I was left with seeing SMS messages and seeing who is calling. Although these –and other apps for other people I guess –are nice to have, I am not sure if they really give any added value. A couple of times I found it useful to see someone is calling –the watch vibrating and showing the face of the caller — for instance when I had my smartphone in my backpack. But all these apps and notifications assume you want to be available all the time. If that is you, then you might enjoy this type of functionality.

I have observed others with smart watch in meetings and social gatherings. Honestly I am not sure which one is more impolite in a meeting, checking your mobile phone or your wrist watch. In the old days I would have considered very impolite to continuously check your wrist watch in a meeting. But social norms change all the time.

At the end, I am not sure if LG R is a smart wrist watch. It probably is smart, but is it a replacement for a normal wrist watch? Not for me. My wrist watch is beautiful, heavy (enough), metallic, and feels like it is not there when I am not using it. My wrist watch is a good example of a calm technology. It shows me the time without me even noticing it is there attached to my wrist. It is ubiquitous. No-one else notices either that I am wearing a wrist watch. All these aspects are gone with the smart watch that I tested.

Wrist PERS compare to wrist watch

Wrist-based PERS (Personal Emergency Response Systems) have not changed noticeably during the last forty years. They look as ugly and stigmatizing as they did in the 70s.

But I still think it is possible –also for me –to change my behavior when there is a deep unmet need. The potential of a smart watch is that it is a platform. You can build new apps for it. This is what we tried to do for the elderly people with a risk of falling. Suddenly the wrist watch is more than a wrist watch. It can save your life. The new smart watches have a huge advantage in this respect. They look much nicer than the alternative PERS devices (see the figure to the right). You can actually let the wearer choose model and color. Wearable alarms (PERS) are unfortunately as ugly and stigmatizing as they were for forty years ago. Smart watches might change this. It might make elderly people happier.

Disclaimer 1: No one, including Tissot and LG, has paid me to write this.

Disclaimer 2: This is a limited trial since I (a computer science researcher) was the only user in the experiment. You should do more experiments or read about the research done on smart watches before you make any decisions!