Why Apple isn’t going to be making an iWatch

by Doc Coleman - Nifty Tech Editor on September 6, 2013 · 9 comments

in Editorial

While we at the Nifty Tech Blog don’t report on the tech press, that doesn’t mean that we don’t read it. Although sometimes we might wish that we hadn’t. It is a known fact that Apple has hired people to work on wearable technology of late. That much has been well reported. But tech pundits have gone on from this fact to deduce that since Apple is investing in wearable technology, it must mean that an iWatch is most surely about to appear. The lack of vision that these pundits display makes it clear why they are reporting on technology, while Apple is innovating in the field. They see only the most basic of possibilities and assume that since they imagined it, it must be true…

Do I know what Apple has up their sleeve? No. I don’t. But I can give you some very good reasons why it won’t be an iWatch.

First off, they’ve pretty much done it.

When Apple came out with the 6th Gen iPod nano, one of the first accessories that hit the market was a variety of bands that allow the user to wear the nano as a watch. Did they take the world by storm? No, not really. Could Apple do it better? Possibly.

But why bother?

The strangest thing about the tech press’ fixation with the iWatch concept is that it really isn’t a great concept. Yes, people wear watches, and some of those people would want smart watches, but more and more people are forgoing watches in favor of their smart phones. Why would Apple injure a market they own in order to create an iWatch? Answer: They wouldn’t.

Why not an iWatch?

What is wrong with the iWatch idea? Well, to start with, it is limited. Yes, you can make a watch that has lots of additional functions besides just telling time, but confining yourself to a watch form factor seriously limits  those functions. Screen size is limited, which in turn reduces your control interface. This also means that while manipulating the controls the user’s hand effectively covers the user interface. These are all part of why the 6th Gen nano didn’t take off like wildfire. On top of that, since the device is strapped to a user’s wrist, it has to be used one-handed, further limiting your control interface. Yes, smart phones are usually used one-handed, but they can be used with both hands.

And then there are simple ergonomics. Let’s say you’ve got the smartest possible iWatch on your wrist. What are you going to do with it? Listen to music? Fine. You can plug in a headset or use bluetooth. No problem. Going to watch video? What position are you going to assume while you watch the tiny screen on your iWatch? Will you hold your arm out from the shoulder, your forearm bent parallel to your chest? Will you rest your arm across your stomach and look down at the screen? How long can you hold that position? Then there are functions like games or surfing the web. Now you’ve got to hold that position and put your other hand in the way to manipulate controls. Not the great experience Apple wants to offer for their customers.

Fundamentally, a watch is a device that you consult briefly to gain information, and then put away. How many functions does a person do every day that fit that mold?

So, what does Apple want to do in the wearable space?

Obviously Apple thinks that it is an important market to get into, but what market is Apple aiming for?

Well, what about the Google Glass? Isn’t that wearable technology? Wouldn’t it be much more interesting for Apple to go after that market?

While I doubt Apple will come out with a product to directly compete feature for feature with the Glass, I can see a lot of potential for them to do interesting things in the market by approaching in the typical Apple way: Implement one key feature and do that very well, and then add the rest later.

So, let’s say that Apple is set on eating the Glass’ lunch. How do they go about it? What are the characteristics of this theoretical iShades product? Well, it needs to be lightweight and comfortable to wear. The heads-up display is a must. It needs to be very light, so wireless connectivity is needed, most likely a Bluetooth connection to a separate processor unit. The real question here is would the iShades be a product in and of itself, or would it be an accessory? Imagine being able to go out for a run with your iPhone strapped to your arm and wearing a pair of iShades and seeing real-time data about your time, distance, speed, and progress towards your run’s goal being projected in real-time on your iShades while listening to your favorite music. And still being able to see where you are going.

The modern smart phone user is often criticized for always looking down at their phones. Now imagine that these users will be able to hold their heads up thanks to the iShades, because now they can see the world around them while reading a book or their Twitter feed. Or maybe a new class of augmented reality games? Or reality aware software that hides content to focus the user’s attention on the world around him before he walks into the person in front of him. Or a pole. Or traffic.

Compared to the iWatch, the iShades has a lot more in the way of interesting possibilities. Let’s not make it just a display device. Let’s add a camera and microphone to the unit so it is an input device, too. Some heads-up displays accept input by watching eye movement and tracking that against the projected display. That might be great for a fighter pilot who has his hands full, but you wouldn’t want to use it as your primary method of controlling a device. So let’s go one step better. Let’s go Minority Report on this! We can track eye movements, but let’s also track the movements of the user’s body. X-Box Kinect already uses a similar system  to track the player’s movements, so the technology is available now. So now you can have the iShades track the movements of your hands against virtual objects projected in 3D space on the inside of the lenses. This means you can really leaf through your music collection, or flip through your e-mail. Even type in mid-air. Apple would love that: a keyboard interface with no buttons.

Could Apple do this? Yes. The technology is pretty much all there. Would they? Maybe. For Apple the question is could they make it small and sleek enough? And if you can make something like the iShades, why would you bother with something as plodding as an iWatch?

What else could it be?

Let’s face it, the iWatch and iShades are just two possibilities from the field of wearable technology. And nothing says it has to be one multifunction device. Apple could be planning a suite of affordable single-function devices that coordinate together into a customizable personal environment. Or perhaps SmartClothes, where the computer controls the color and design of your clothing, giving you the ability to change style on the fly, from something as simple as a variable message T-shirt to an outfit that changes color with your mood or the environment. There are some startling possibilities in the field and we are just barely starting to scratch the surface. Science fiction remains our best view into what could potentially be done with wearable tech.

For now, all we can do is wait and see what Apple announces on Tuesday. And speculate. But if we’re going to speculate, why not speculate on something cool? I’d rather have a future so bright that I have to wear iShades.

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