Apple Watch: Some Musings

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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.

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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.

Health

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.

Privacy

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.

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