Apple Watch: Some Musings


By Andrew McStay

I’ve left this blog for far too long so time for an update of sorts. Since I started this blog I’ve got though a lot of wearables and now have a shelf’s worth of bits, bobs, trackers, wellbeing helpers, EEG units and wearable computers (not least Google Glass). Of all the wearables I’ve kept using, I like Spire’s respiration wearable. This is a pebble-like object that clasps into trouser hips or bra straps tracks breathing so to assess whether people are feeling calm, tense or focused. While breathing, inhaling and exhaling may not seem an especially subtle measure, the results are actually quite accurate (verified by me).

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The unit itself gives prompts when to take a break and when to collect one’s thoughts and get things in perspective. For people who spend a lot of time with computers this can be quite useful. Although Glass hasn’t had much use of late, it still remains a technology with a great deal of potential (see here, here and here for Glass posts). Undoubtedly there will be a Glass 2, although Vuzix have a range of interesting (and less dorky) glasses to arrive to market. Having met one of their managers at WearablesEurope, a conference in London, I was left wondering whether they are marketing this well enough to be noticed by the mass market (or even mass military and industrial procurement arms).

The wearable I’ve been spending most time with is Apple’s Watch. I opted for the 42mm gun metal sports version as I do a fair bit of bike riding and running.


My thoughts so far are mixed. Of all Apple products, this is one that certainly seems “work in progress”. However, this is not for the reasons you might expect. Apple have received criticism for Watch’s battery life but this is proving a non-issue. The battery actually lasts longer than advertised (presumably Apple erred on the side of caution) and will do under two days at a push. This means the watch will easily a last a full day and therefore can simply be charged when the user is charging their phone.

On unpacking the unit, I found the first wearable watch problem: which arm should one wear it on? On the right which feels most natural but involves using the left hand to navigate it; or, awkwardly on the left arm, so to be navigated with the more dexterous right hand? I opted for the right arm. The functionality of Watch is limited in that it is highly dependent on the user’s phone. Calls can be made with Watch, but this is an extension of the phone. Twitter and newsfeeds (such as Guardian and BBC) can also be monitored and scrolled-through, but functionality is limited. Voice recognition for Twitter would be useful. There are also a range of voice to text apps available. I’ve been using Drafts which is great for when an idea strikes and needs to be written down there and then. These can later be emailed from the phone.


More gratification has been gained from the health and sports tools. Some of these I’ve installed myself (such as Strava) and others come bundled. The bundles health package records calories burned through movement and exercise, amount of movement measured by time and the amount of times one stands through the day. If one thinks back to Tim Cook’s “sitting is the new cancer line”, the idea here is that the user responds to the hourly prompts to get up and take a break – if only for a minute. The app relies on the tracker so does not detect all forms of exercise. It would be good if the bundled health app on Watch would play nicely with Strava so to register cycling (distance, heart rate and climbing). However, where it comes into its own is in “nudging” one to get of their seat, to spend a little more time walking and to burn a few more calories. This is gamification of sorts, but what is attractive is that it is doable and prompts the user to better day-to-day health. When linked with Apple’s Healthkit that has capacity for extraordinary detail, it really drives home how little we know about our own health. For example, I had no idea my heart rate is so low (mid-50s to 60s), although I admit I very rarely darken my GP’s doors. While I’m no ardent libertarian, Apple’s move into health really shows how antiquated our [UK] system is. I will definitely be seeking to have greater control over my own records and a copy of these for myself.


This then raises questions about privacy. Apple recently have been making all the right noises about privacy, encryption and lack of access to keys (interesting Wired article here). This is a branding exercise but one seemingly backed up by real tech’ developments. Given that privacy campaigners, defenders and writers have for too long been tarred with the “what have you to hide” mnemonic, having the coolest brand on the planet on-side is no bad thing. For the first time in a while I feel rather positive about privacy developments. In the UK we have just had the Anderson report, European countries such as Belgium are stepping back from dragnet surveillance, the US seems to be climbing down from surveillance of its own citizens (but not its “friends” around the world), email services such as Lavaboom are gaining traction and for some time now we have been using apps with PGP. While there is much work to be done (particularly in UK), there is scope for optimism.

Back on Apple, credibility is required. Their future is clearly focused on generalized healthcare and sensor-driven homes, as well as entertainment, so Apple are right to try to put the best moral foot forward. Close assessment of where data goes and whom it is shared with (in aggregated form or otherwise) is required, but in general I buy the ethical brand line because it makes strategic economic sense. After all, surveys from the data industry, academics and organisations such as Pew Internet Research repeatedly highlight that people do not feel in control of personal information (see Pew survey here). I hope I’m not proved wrong because the stakes are going to be rather high.

Soon smartwatches will listen to your body to work out how you’re feeling



Reposted from The Conversation


Final details of Apple’s new smartwatch have finally arrived at the firm’s glitzy Spring Forward event. But while the hype machine steps up another notch, there are other issues regarding health and self-tracking and, possibly even more important, over wearable tech companies’ interest in our emotional lives.

Apple’s Watch records exercise, tracks our movements throughout the day, assesses the amount of time we are stood up and reminds us to get up and move around if we have been sat for too long – let’s not forget Tim Cook’s “sitting is the new cancer” line. It achieves this by means of an accelerometer, a heart rate sensor, WiFi and GPS. There are already many smartwatches on the market such as the Pebble and offerings from LG, Sony, Samsung and Motorola, among others. Of course, these haven’t had the Apple marketing Midas touch.

Whether the Watch will be a flop or success, Apple’s entry is a significant contribution to industry-wide attempts to get us using wearable devices. The market is predicted to grow from 9.7m units in 2013 to 135m in 2018, according to CCS Insight, while a report from UK retailer John Lewis also records steady growth in wearables for health and well-being: sales were up 395% from 2013. This is notable because John Lewis is not aimed at the tech-savvy, and therefore presents a reasonable indicator of mass-market take-up of wearables.

Information is power

To understand the significance of Watch and other self-tracking wearables, we should look to Silicon Valley and the Quantified Self movement. This began in San Francisco around 2007 as the editors of Wired magazine, Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, initiated a group of like-minded people interested in “self-knowledge through numbers”, a motto and philosophy of sorts for the Quantified Self movement. It entails a deeply libertarian outlook of de-centralisation, a shrunken state, autonomy and self-reliance, and pre-emptive and preventative measures based on the use of data.

Apple’s move into wearables is inevitable as the market grows, but the broader interest in health is also notable. It reflects an interest from corporations and national health providers alike in promoting preventative and anticipatory technologies. The promise wearable technology offers is information: about consumers’ and patients’ behaviour, their health, and whether they stick to prescribed treatments.

This has ushered in an age of medical self-interrogation, in real time and real life contexts, whether this be from office pressure, in relationships, or the impact of disease or physical stresses on the body. Wearables are only part of the health story, as advocates of digital health care foresee how the doctor-patient approach would be radically altered by means of wearable monitors and sensors in the home. Technology behemoths such as Apple and Google alongside many startups would clearly be interested in the possibilities offered by reorganising health provision along these lines.

Think and act

Beyond health, Apple’s interest in emotion is key to understanding the significance of its watch. Apple’s website promises that we will reach out and connect in ways we never have. Watch will allow us to draw doodle pictures and observe others as they create theirs, give loved ones a “tap” on the wrist to show we are thinking of them, send real-time heartbeats to others, and so on.

The message is to use connectivity to be intimate even at a distance, with the languageApple uses an attempt to claim intimacy and sociability from afar, and to humanise and make palatable what are essentially tracking technologies.

There is however a more literal emotional dimension to biometric technologies: the Watch is an example of what I term empathic media – machines able to assess, collect and make use of data about our emotions. This can be achieved through interpretation of speech patterns and tone, gesture, gaze direction, facial cues, heart rates, and respiration patterns. While Apple’s product does not offer all this (although earlier iterations of Watch made similar promises), it still sits within a wider context of technologies that quite literally feel our bodily reactions.

Until now the online world has understood our preferences through the search term keywords we use and what we click; empathic media will quite literally feel our reactions. This is important because if companies can understand moods, emotions or states of arousal, they have access to information that may sway the decisions we make.

We have yet to see Apple’s privacy policy for the watch. While I’m sure it will state that no personally identifiable information will be disclosed to third-parties, what remains to be seen is what can be drawn from aggregated biometric and emotional data, and where that data ends up. This is a key revenue stream for other empathic media and wearable companies. Will Apple be doing the same?

Why Glass failed: a problem of narcissism?

Google Glass – a pair of augmented reality spectacles in development since 2010 – was introduced to the public in April 2012 under the name Project Glass. Across Spring 2014, Google flirted with the US mass market, first offering the ‘Explorer’ beta version of the product for sale in April 2014 for 24 hours only (costing $1500), selling out in hours, and then in May, putting this version back on the market until its stocks sold out. An upgraded beta version was launched in the UK in June 2014 for £1000. Industry analysts predicted that a commercial version of Glass would probably be launched at the end of 2014 or 2015. Then, in January 2015, Glass was officially withdrawn from sale.

Despite the media furore around privacy-invasive ‘Glassholes’, Glass did not fail because of people’s concerns about privacy or surveillance. We contend it failed quite simply because the wearers look odd and conspicuous, thereby themselves becoming ‘subjects of the gaze’. Our own experience with Glass (and other more inconspicuous wearable cameras like Narrative Clip) is that thankfully no one punched us in the face (as widely hyped by the media), although our forays out in public were limited. In fact, with Glass, the only looks received in public (on trains and in coffee shops) are “I’d really like a go but don’t know how to ask” (We could of course be really bad at reading faces… maybe we should check our life-log!).

Along with lack of apps and day-to-day functionality, Glass primarily failed at the first hurdle because it could not persuade wearers to use it. Indeed, having recently met with staff from Google Glass in San Francisco, in regard to their own usage downtown, they pretty much said as much, i.e. it draws too much unwanted attention on the wearer. Further, after two weeks in the tech capital, we did not see one person wearing Glass despite the litany of start-ups and established tech’ companies populating the area. One might question the safety in wearing Glass (it’s pricy, after all), but even in coffee bars populated with the tech elite South of Market Street, and on trips to Palo Alto and Stanford, not a single person was wearing it – even around the Computer Science departments (maybe because Apple were having a recruitment day on the lawns outside).

Is that it then? Is this failed foray into smart-glasses the last we’ll hear of it? It seems not. Although Glass may have failed, there are plenty of competitors attempting to create and own the smart-glasses market with products that do not make the wearer look like Arnie or Robocop, including Vuzix’s M100, GlassUp’s Eyeglass, Recon Instruments’ Recon Jet and Telepathy’s One. Notably too, lessons are being learned and recent iterations have recognised the need for a product that looks better than Glass.

However, there is little point in speculating on whether smart-glasses will or will not be adopted. The more interesting dimension is the associated cultural norms and principles that are developing around ‘veillance’, or mutual watching. Although most obviously linked to surveillance, this is only one form of watching. The field of watching and visuality is much broader than that. After all, since Kodak introduced box cameras in 1888 (that also brought with it questions about privacy), we have all enjoyed watching and recording each other by mediated means. As made famous in the last couple of years, we also enjoy watching ourselves by means of the humble ‘selfie’. Veillance can be fun.

Professor Steve Mann from the University or Toronto, long dubbed the ‘father of wearables’ has been creating and reflecting on wearable technology for several decades now, and has conceptualised a wide range of concepts concerning ‘veillance’. At a recent seminar we held at Bangor University titled DATA-PSST!, Mann asked what would the world look like if wearables are adopted by the masses, reflecting on how social norms of mutual watching may play out. He points to some interesting themes and begins the messy business of untangling perspectives and multiple modes of mediated seeing. These include: being watched, but you are able to watch back; watching as a means of holding powerholders to account; watching without the consent of others; powerholders watching others but us being banned from watching them; direct action to prevent any form of veillance; and the theoretical possibility of equiveillance where surveillance is balanced with sousveillance.

It remains to be seen whether smart-glasses will ever becomes mass-market, but what is for sure is that regimes, fields and modes of visuality are set to deepen and develop.

Hello San Francisco

Friday morning was spent at Google Glass base-camp on Spear St off Market Street, in SF. I was little late for my appointment as I got managed to get lost in the building, but all smiles on arrival. Free Coca Cola, beers (IPA) and Pellegrino in fridge among other local US beverages. The Coke did indeed refresh after my stomp to get there on time. As you can see in the pics, the hotel loft was minimal but breezily lit (to mix metaphors).

Chelsea asked what would like to know and I told her that my Glass use had been fairly limited and a little underwhelming so she asked me what apps I’d been using. I haven’t spent as much time as I should with it, but told her Strava (the bikey/running app) was the one I use most.

She suggested that I use Hangout. I’ve used this for virtual conference attendance, but not with Glass. This allows conversation via chat which sounds useful, not least as I often use Google chat with Vian. Another app is Word Lens, for translating signs as you look at them. For example, I would not understand Dutch for a sign that says take the second left for the Royal Hotel. Not only does Glass translate, but the typography and sign design remains the same. Quite useful if you do a fair amount of travelling. I wonder if that works with Welsh? Google Translate does, so maybe!

Surprised that I haven’t seen anyone wearing Glass in SF, I asked Chelsea if she uses Glass herself out and about. She said that if tired she doesn’t as it she does not want to answer questions (“Google Glass! – can I try it?”), but if energetic she’s more accommodating. I’ve only worn Glass out a few times – but the experience accords with my own. People are interested, not spooked.

I also talked her through MindRDR, the app developed by ThisPlace that I blogged about a couple of weeks ago. She was VERY interested in this, but who wouldn’t be – telekinesis is an easy sell. On the nature of development (and she was keen to stress that this isn’t her area), Glass is being developed as a neutral platforms so for developers to use it as they will. This chimes with other start-ups that I’ve been talking to (for example Planet Labs) who also highlighted that their technology is neutral in character. I got further into this discussion with Planet Labs and there is definitely a philosophy behind this – possibly even a Bay philosophy – in that they’re just putting technology out there and people will do what they will with it. This is quite different to how social constructivists and cultural scholars look at tech’. For them technology is always political as it has dispositions, affordances, and it intervenes and makes a different in society. This seems to ring true for Glass, but it remains to be seen what differences these will be.

#Telekineticmedia, ThisPlace and ‘Performance Anxiety’ ☺

A busy week in London seeing analytics companies and developers, but in one standout meeting I took my first photo by means of telekinesis. This was on Wednesday at ThisPlace, the developers of MindRDR. A massive thanks go to Russell Plunkett (Innovations Director) for generosity of time and installing MindRDR on my Glass unit. Much appreciated.

Having been a somewhat underwhelmed with Glass the MindRDR app grants insight into the potential for Glass. Despite the mass-market push (will or won’t Google launch it, how much will it cost, what will people do with it, will they be beaten to the UK market by other headsets, and so on), I’ve been fairly sceptical about its adoption. I’ve yet to meet a wearer who feels comfortable with Glass in public and who does not recognise the potential for making other people around them feel uncomfortable. We began by discussing some of the opportunities of the wearables field, applications and thoughts about privacy, but as Russell’s real passion is MindRDR, we soon got onto that.

The MindRDR app itself is deceptively simple: it currently allows the wearer to take photos by means of the EEG unit and share them to Twitter. Russell installed the application on to my Glass unit and showed me how it works. This is not a regular app and requires sideways installation. Details here. Taking photos is very simple, but it requires one relax and focus so to allow the correct brain activity to take place. The idea is that the user relaxes and concentrates so to generate enough brain activity for the EEG unit to gain a suitable signal. The notion of ‘concentration’ is an interesting one. We use the word a lot but with little in the way of a referent. For MindRDR, success is gained by quietening external stimuli, relaxing and focusing. I struggled with this at first, perhaps because I was aware that it was taking time, my mind was wandering (I was meant to be taking the lead on our meet-up), and I was also ‘mindful’ that Russell had other things to be getting on with. It probably did not help that I was trying to take photos of Russell and on thinking what he might be thinking about, my concentration was broken. Performance fail! I soon got the hang of it when playing with it later. This image below is from the meeting room of ThisPlace.

It works by means of the EEG unit reading electrical activity in the brain, sharing this information with Glass by Bluetooth, and Glass taking and sharing the photo. The user-interface that we see is a horizontal bar across our line of vision that we mentally ‘command’ to go up. Once the bar hits the top of the screen it takes a photo.


Russell also mentioned ThisPlace are in process of developing further iterations with more complex interactions so to cause bars to go up and down, and left and right. This will grant more control over devices and applications. Overall this experience highlighted positive dimensions of Glass, particularly in terms of health – for example Locked-in syndrome and broader cases of paralysis. On regular use, one just has to relax!

What does it feel like to be the subject of the Glass wearer’s gaze?

By Vian Bakir

Vian Bakir and Andy McStay are co-writing a book on Wearable Media, and so have been trying out some wearables for a few months now. Vian has often been the subject of Andy’s steely Glass gaze. What does this feel like? Decidedly like the cyborgs are moving-in.

A small, blue-tinged light beam emits from just above Andy’s eye, and as I’m caught in the beam, all I seem to be able to focus on is the beam. It carries connotations, for me, of being inspected. It’s not unlike the beam of light that opticians shine into your eye when they want to inspect your vision – particularly pronounced if the Glass wearer and the gazed-upon are in a poorly lit room.

As Andy says ‘Ok Glass,’ and proceeds to talk instructions to Glass, I feel simultaneously a potential subject of the wearer’s gaze, and irrelevant to the gaze. Andy is in conversation with something I can’t see or hear or interact with. Even when he interacts silently, I can see that he’s interacting – his eye lids rapidly move from side to side as he reads his Glass screen – a small movement, but perceptible. (I’ve heard less PC-minded people say, on observing the Glass wearer, ‘He looks like David Blunkett’ (a blind, long-standing UK Member of Parliament).) Even more noticeable is that Andy stops talking (at least, to me) – he is absorbed.

On the upside, Andy’s talking to Glass in my presence is usually to find out something that we both want to know – and the answer’s always come up really quickly. Much quicker than Googling on a mobile, tablet or computer (no need to type). He’s definitely better informed with Glass, than without – and as a result, so am I.

But then there’s the taking of photographs or video surreptitiously. I’m now in quite a few Glass photos – none of them posed (at least by me), and hopefully, most of them deleted. Of the photos that Andy’s shown me, I don’t think that I was aware that Andy was taking photos on any of the occasions. The ones he’s shown me of myself are pretty good quality – but do I want this record to exist? I’m not sure. I belong to that group of people who dislikes any photo taken of them recently, but normally within a few months of re-viewing think ‘what a good photo – didn’t I look much better back then?’ (This is probably a testimony to rapid signs of aging – although I’ll welcome anyone else’s psychological explanation for this!) At that point of re-viewing, I’m normally glad the photo exists, but I do also exercise the ability to delete. However, with Glass, I have no control over Andy’s deletion processes – and can only trust that he can be bothered to do this, and will make the appropriate choices.

More annoying – whenever (usually a stranger) asks Andy-when-wearing-Glass ‘Can I try them on?’, the first thing they normally accidentally stumble upon, as they negotiate the unfamiliar controls for the first time, are his pictures. This, to me, does feel like a privacy violation, and it’s at that point that I start to feel a bit tetchy. You wouldn’t give your smart-phone (and its backlog of pictures) to just anyone to have a good look through, would you?

So – he looks like Cyborg and his information search and capture powers have also been upgraded. The question for me is: what is the impact on social relations?

Things might change if (or as and when) smart-glasses become ubiquitous, but for now, from the above musings, it seems to me that the responsibility is fully on the wearer to think through how other people might feel at being (a) visually captured, stored and maybe shared (deliberately or inadvertently), without consent; and (b) rendered socially irrelevant as the Glass interface absorbs the wearer.