not so smart

Stop treating your phone like a pocket watch

January 28, 2013
Obsession
Mobile Web
January 28, 2013

We have been so distracted by all of the features of smart phones that we failed to notice the absurdity of the way we use them. If anything, usage of the quintessential 21st century technology is more reminiscent of a distinctively obsolete 19th century device: the pocket watch.

Perhaps, not for much longer.

Pocket watches were the most complex technology many owned at the end of the last century. During World War I, they lost their chains and gained straps in the trenches. After the war, trench watches developed into wristwatches, designed for the strap instead of modified for one. (Of late, military men have even worn two)

According to a recent study published in the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing (pdf), humans look at their phones 34 times a day. That’s pulling a device out of a pocket or purse or off a conference table more than twice an hour (assuming they’re not checking during an eight-hour night’s sleep). Almost half of people with cell phones say that their phone has replaced their watch.

We’re right back where we started. Timepieces in our pockets.

So far, slapping a phone onto a wristband has created innovations as exiting as … the wristwatch calculator. And few concepts for wrist-worn phones have been developed. None has achieved mass appeal. The future is leading us to wearing a different, but auxiliary device to complement our standard-form phones.

Taking advantage of the ever more vacant wrist is Pebble, a company crowd-funded on Kickstarter. It just began shipping its eponymous product–a wrist-worn cell-phone-driven information device–last week. It doesn’t replace your Android or iPhone, it enhances it by letting you keep it out of your hand. Feel your phone buzz in your pocket? Look at your wrist to see the Pebble showing the text you just received. Don’t like the song that’s playing? Press the button on the side of your Pebble to skip it.

Our empty wrists are not going unnoticed by consumer electronics makers either. Last year, Jawbone and Nike each released high-tech pedometers and wellness devices that are worn on the wrist and sync data with smart phones. Nike’s has an information display, Jawbone’s does not.

Before these products, the only company making such a device was FitBit, a pack-of-gum-sized electronic block that owners of the device would keep in their pocket or attach to clothing. FitBit users initially scoffed at the premise of wearing the tracking devices on their wrists. However, with the company’s newest pedometer offering, called the FitBit Flex, the company saw the benefits in their competitors’ designs; it’s a product worn on a wrist.

Indeed, the human wrist is one of the most useful locations to keep our tools hands-free and accessible. American football quarterbacks attach lists of plays to theirs. (Referees, meanwhile, use wrist devices to keep track of downs). Other athletes use sweat bands, avoiding a strange mid-match sweat wipe with a hankie from their pocket. Tailors store pins on a cushion attached to their wrist. Hospitals attach identification. Nightclubs and festivals keep track of authorized patrons and those old enough to drink.

Google is taking a more “Top Gun” approach to the problem (and at a much higher price point) with Google Glass, a conspicuous single-lensed pair of digital glasses.

Multi-device interaction only makes more and more sense considering the trend in smart phone sizes, making it harder to pull so-called phablets out of a pocket. We’ve seen watches, Walkmen, radios, cell phones, address books, calendars, checkbooks, and even wallets combine into multi-function devices. Android, iOS and Windows devices are now capable of replacing all of them. All the while we’ve ignored the most convenient place to keep track of all that information. Pockets are where we store our lint. Nascent information could easily be made available on our wrists. It’s high time.

Follow David Yanofsky on Twitter @YAN0. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com. 

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