I haven't worn a watch in 15 years, but Android Wear has me reconsidering
This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
I haven't worn a watch in 15 years, because it simply didn't make sense to me. At first, there were clocks in every room I was in (high school and home), then I had a cell phone in my pocket at all times once I went to college, and since then the time was never farther away than my left-front pocket. I was never overly concerned about fashion beyond looking like a functional human who cared enough to clean up in order to leave the possibilities open for potential sexual encounters. Therefore, watches had no aesthetic value nor any practical value for me, so I never wore one.
A bit over two years ago, technology has finally reached the point where a watch can offer more practical value than just being able to tell the time and the date. At first, the ecosystem was fragmented and built around proprietary options that could offer a certain level of functionality, but nothing truly specialized, and nothing that was more deeply integrated with the devices and services that I already use. Now, we are finally hitting the point of specialization with wearables. Personally, I am deeply involved with the Google ecosystem. I use Google services for essentially everything in my personal and professional life. Beyond that, I am a tinkerer. I love to be able to customize my devices, try new software, and change the fundamental experience I can have. All of that means Android is the platform that offers me the experience that fits my usage and personality.
Given that, it shouldn't be a surprise that I Android Wear has caught my attention since the first rumors started to arise that Google was working on a wearable platform. I have often jumped on Google products as an early adopter; I've owned multiple Nexus devices, been in beta tests for software, and even owned the original CR-48 Chromebook. As much as I love being in on the ground floor, I wanted to hold out on Android Wear until the Moto 360 was released. I didn't want to have my first experience be with a repurposed Samsung Gear or with the boring LG G Watch.
Unfortunately, my resolve was tested when out to dinner with some Boston-area tech writers, where I was given the chance to borrow a G Watch. I've been using the G Watch every day for the past two weeks, and I have been surprised at how quickly I became used to the device on my wrist. As mentioned, I haven't worn a watch in 15 years, but it is beyond that. I haven't worn any accessory aside from my glasses (which I've had since I was 7) and my wedding ring in that timeframe, no necklaces, no bracelets, nothing. So, it was a very strange experience to feel like something was missing from my body after just a couple of days using the G Watch. It was an awareness I wasn't used to, and it was only the first of many.
Being constantly aware of the time is nothing new for someone who lives the tech elite life, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Living with Android Wear is to become constantly aware of a number of things you never expected. I personally have a very good sense of direction, but living in the Boston area doesn't teach you to be acutely aware of traffic the way you might if you lived in the Los Angeles area. You obviously know that rush hour will lead to more traffic, and you may start paying attention to schedules for the Red Sox or Celtics to avoid certain areas of the city on certain days, but that's about it. However, because of Android Wear, I am constantly aware of exactly how long it will take me to drive home from wherever I am, which can be quite distracting at first, because it is a new piece of info to learn to ignore until the appropriate moment.
One could argue that all of this info has been on my smartphone in Google Now for a long time now, but the personal connection and direct awareness of that info is very different when it comes to your wrist. If I wanted this info before, I had to pull out my phone, unlock it and launch Google Now or a certain app; but now, that information is available, without prompting, at a glance. Combine the awareness of commute with a constant awareness of the temperature, how many steps I've taken throughout the day, and everything else available on Android Wear, and there is a lot to get used to. In some ways, I'm happy that I've jumped in while the platform is still maturing, because it makes it easier to slowly adjust to the range of new information. It boggles my mind a bit to think of what it will be like for a new user when Android Wear reaches its potential.
It shouldn't be a surprise that the majority of my Android Wear time has been spent considering the ultimate potential of devices like this. Smartwatches in general are still finding their way, and there is only the first points of consensus forming in regards to what wearables should be. Given the youth of the Android Wear platform though, Google does have a clear idea of what it wants to see, which is why it is so strange that there is so much untapped potential not just from third party developers, but from Google services specifically.
As many suspected, Android Wear is essentially Google Now on your wrist, but I was surprised to find myself wanting more Google Now on my wrist. I do get traffic alerts, weather, and shipment alerts (no sports because I only really pay attention to the NBA, which is not in season), but I have been surprised to find bouts of bad information coming to my wrist. Just last night, I got a notification claiming that the TV show Homeland was coming back today (August 31st) at 9:36PM. The first problem there is that the Homeland season four premiere isn't until October 5th, and the other issue is that no TV show ever starts at 9:36PM. I've also routinely been alerted about travel times to places that I hadn't searched for; and, starting the second week of use, I began getting traffic alerts to a job I left over a year ago, and hasn't been set as my "work" location in Google Maps since then.
Beyond Google, it is understandable that many apps have yet to integrate with Android Wear, so I can't get too upset about that. But what is annoying is that if I didn't pay attention to the news, I probably wouldn't know when an app added Android Wear support, because the platform does a pretty bad job of surfacing the apps that work, or bringing the most useful information to the top of the Wear feed. This issue is made extra annoying because of how cumbersome it is to open an app on the watch. To manually open an app, you have to tap the top of the screen to start the listening mode, then swipe up to get to the commands list, scroll all the way to the bottom to the "Start..." option, and choose the app you want to start. You can also use a voice command, if you're in a quiet spot, but that carries its own troubles.
Voice commands and dictation on Android Wear, or the LG G Watch at least, is a very different thing than on your phone. On your phone, you are given time to pause and think, which is especially nice when dictating a reply to a message. But, Android Wear is very aggressive about taking any pause as the end of you speaking. This means you may have to get into the habit of speaking more quickly than usual, and knowing exactly what you're going to say before you say anything. As someone who has a habit of forgetting what I'm saying mid-sentence, you can imagine that this would cause some frustration.
Of course, despite those issues, I am still quite a big fan of Android Wear overall. I wouldn't have titled this article the way I did if I didn't like the platform. For the first time in a long time, I can easily imagine myself wearing a watch on a daily basis, although it won't be the LG G Watch for too much longer. I'm exceedingly happy to see manufacturers beginning to put more effort into hardware design, because the G Watch is a failure to me. It didn't need to be though. A plain black plastic rectangle with a rubber wristband has its place in the market, but you damn sure need to make that device waterproof, give it a heart rate monitor, and market it to the fitness community. Or, at least price it on the lower end.
Serendipity and engagement
We're starting to see manufacturers aggressively reaching for the potentials of hardware design, and some developers are also embracing the platform in exciting ways. I expected to get more Field Trip type notifications from Google while using Android Wear, but aside from the hiccups noted above, the platform is quite good about giving me the information I need to know, when and where I need to know it. The app that has embraced Google's vision for Android Wear the best has been Foursquare. I can't even be sure that Foursquare's latest update was made with wearables in mind, but it has absolutely nailed it.
Obviously, not all serendipitous moments are going to be that amusing, but Foursquare has become the standard for what I imagine to be the potential of wearables - quality information, when it is relevant, and frictionless. I could have had the same experience described above with just my phone, but the fact that the whole interaction took place in a quick glance to my wrist rather than pulling out my phone kept me more engaged in the social moment with my parents. And, that is one of the big aims coming from Google recently is keeping you engaged with your surroundings.
Google and Android are undoubtedly designed to help you communicate with friends and family around the world, but Google has been shifting recently to keep you engaged with those physically close to you. As odd as Google Glass may look, it is designed on the same principle of glanceable information as Android Wear. There is information that will add value to the moment, but getting it shouldn't remove you from that moment. Android Wear still has growing to do, but it is definitely on the right path.
As a practical matter, offloading is my number one priority when it comes to my mobile devices. When I found that I couldn't make it through a day with the battery available on my phone, I got a tablet and offloaded my reading, browsing, and gaming to save my phone battery. Now, the issue is no longer offloading battery usage, but attention. My phone probably buzzes less than the average user on a daily basis, but even so, a lot of those notifications don't need my attention. Having to pull out my phone to decide the importance of a notification may not take a lot of time, especially since I have a Moto X, and the Active Display feature is designed to help with that, but it takes far more time than glancing at my wrist.
The biggest value of Android Wear is surfacing quality information, but an almost equally important benefit is in acting as a triage device for your digital world. Not everything deserves your attention, and swiping away a notification on your wrist is much quicker than dealing with it on your phone. It may not seem to be a huge amount of time, but it all adds up in the end.
I may have not worn a watch in 15 years, but the early indications point to the fact that I'll be wearing an Android Wear device on a daily basis for the foreseeable future. Now, I just need to have my wife decide which one fits my personal sense of fashion (which she has chosen for me). I hope it's a Moto 360.