Is There Value in Smart Glass on My Wrist?

Ben Bajarin / March 26th, 2014

Last week I talked about health and fitness wearables and my failure to see how they appeal to a broader market. This week I want to talk about the potentially lucrative category of smart watches. If we count Microsoft’s Smart Personal Object (or SPOT watches) as a smart watch then I have been using these kinds of devices for many years. However, even the current (or soon to be shipping) crop leaves me puzzled. I still question how big of a market the smart watch category could be but honestly, I’m on the fence.

To dive deeper, I think it would be helpful to look at a few current and future value propositions related to smart watches. We have to start with the question, “What is the value of a smart, easily viewed, small screen on my person?” Answer this and we are getting somewhere. The key is the smart watch screen is always in view. Unlike other screens – my smartphone, tablet, PC, TV, etc. – this smart object on my wrist is easily viewable throughout the day as long as I’m wearing it. To answer my question, we have to look at some things I may personally care to be notified of regardless of whether I am looking at any other screen. The key to this is context.

Smart watches and notifications need to get a lot smarter if they are to be found useful on the wrist.

Context

When am I not looking at my smartphone, PC, tablet, or TV? When I am driving, at a lunch or dinner meeting, walking around the mall, city, park, etc. There are many occasions throughout our day when we are not staring at our smartphones, PCs, tablets, or TVs. These are the times a smart watch must deliver value beyond keeping time. Currently the proposed value is in notifications. The smart watch will notify me of an email, text or Facebook message, twitter mention, incoming call, and more. Any app that pushes a notification to my phone can and does push a notification to my wrist. More often than not I find this more distracting than helpful. I get a lot of email, text messages, twitter mentions, and calls throughout the day. My wrist buzzes quite a bit, mostly with notifications that aren’t useful to me. The reason? The watch, or even my phone for that matter, does not know my context. I may not want to see all the emails but if I am waiting for an important response from a client that would be useful. I don’t want to be notified of all phone calls but only ones that are urgent – say, from my wife. This goes beyond a filter. It is all about context. The device needs to know more about me and my situation to be useful. Smart watches and notifications need to get a lot smarter if they are to be found useful on the wrist.

For example, when I am in a meeting I don’t want to look rude as I check my watch 15 times over the course of an hour every time it buzzes. But what if my phone/watch knew where my next meeting was and would alert me of any traffic issues I should be aware of that may change the time I need to leave in order to not be late for my next appointment? This is what makes some of the proposed use cases of Android Gear somewhat interesting. Google Now does a decent job of focusing on contextual data that is useful at a glance. This could be location data, traffic data, and a host of other things that can equip us to take action and make decisions. Ultimately, this type of contextual data, useful in helping us make choices, is where the value of a wrist worn smart screen may lie.

My biggest misgiving is we will experience notification overload. Even though I test some smart watches that have useful filters for which apps notify the watch and which don’t, I still suffer from notification overload. My concern is, if we open the wrist screen to notification from solicitors – trying to get our attention with deals, discounts, and coupons – we again suffer from notification overload. There will have to be an intelligent way for much smarter notifications to reveal themselves if the smart watch category is to go mainstream.

A part of me feels a smart watch is still a solution in search of a problem. Part of me also feels there is value to be found on a screen that is more easily viewed than a screen in a pocket or a purse. Many seem to believe this may be the next hot category. I still have my doubts. Mass market appeal and convenience is what the smart watch needs to find. Until then it will be a niche market.

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio
  • Kenny

    The value of a smart-watch in my opinion, lies on the sensors, and voice action with contextual awareness that provide glanceable information.

    Imagine starting you car, schedules a meeting, open your Garage Doors, reply to an email, and many other with just a voice command to your watch, the possibility are endless, but that still wont make Smart watch as big of a Market as smartphone by example.

  • jfutral

    Great article and I am of a similar opinion. Notification overload is a problem with current smartphones as well, though not to the extent possible as you layout the smart watch scenario. I’ve mentioned before that smartphone users are already more of a notification center by our own behaviour than any software notification system. We constantly check our phones even when it isn’t trying to get our attention. It seems more and more the only time people aren’t looking at their smart phones is when we aren’t paying attention to anything else. Sometimes even when we are supposed to be paying attention to something else. Look around now and tell me when people have their phones away from their face long enough to need a smart watch notification system? I could see the hearing impaired making great use of a smart watch, however.

    Joe

    • Kenny

      that’s not a Problem at all, user will decide the type of notification they want on the smart watch

  • Rene Stein

    Your article reminded me a bit of something I have thought about already. First, the smartphone is already a 1:1 computer. That’s the ideal ratio of persons to smart phones. We are years away from this changing and having a full functioning computer on the wrist.

    Second, if we divide our time up into two sections, time we spend actively engaging in computing (using a laptop/tablet/smartphone), and time we are spend not actively engaging in computing (doing other things) then we can easily see that the smart watch obviously falls into the second category. We have to ask what types of computing tasks would we like to be done when we are not actively engaged in computing? All these current smart watches seem to do is remind us that we should be actively engaged in computing again. There is little value in that as the smart phone itself can remind us of this (vibrations, rings, etc).

    Wearables need to do one of two things. They either need to enable a new type of computing that can be done while we are actively engaged in non-computing activities (driving, jogging, watching TV, etc), or they need to really enhance these non-computing activities. In the first option, the wearable needs to anticipatory and have a good idea of what data and functions we want in order to not be distracting OR it needs to be voice controlled, since we can almost always talk while doing other tasks. In the second option, enhancing data collected, motivation and this type of thing will be key for them.

    So far, a smart watch would not improve my life in anyway. There is absolutely no reason that I need to be notified immediately of anything that a smartphone could not handle. Maybe other people do, but I don’t and I bet most people don’t. If a smart watch is primarily a notification device, pointing you to use your personal computer or smart phone, it will never fly. The smart phone can already notify you of things.

    • art hackett

      Who sys it need to be a computer. At most it will likely be an interface with sensors. The computation will most likely be done on a connected device.

      • Andrew F

        Why does the thinking behind wearables always run along the lines of “no, notifications on your wrist is a dumb idea that will never sell. What it NEEDS to do to is (names petty inconvenience ).”?

        • Rene Stein

          Notifications on the wrist will sell a generous amount to people who feel they need that. However, that is going to be a percentage of the population who feels they need that, and probably not the largest percentage. So the market won’t be nearly as large as the smart phone market. In order for wearables to take off, there is going to need to be a diversity of them.

        • jfutral

          I don’t think notifications on the wrist is a dumb idea, I just think it is twice again redundant (first because smartphones already do that; second, people do it on their own to obsession usually before most notification settings even kick in). I think it will be a great feature, but I doubt it will be the product. Not that it couldn’t. I just haven’t yet seen how it would.

          Joe

          • Andrew F

            I didn’t say you said it was a dumb idea. I think it’s a dumb idea. Especially dumb when the tech giants start looking at it as a potential platform. I say: leave it to Pebble. Small, humble job suited to a small, humble company.

          • jfutral

            No worries, bro. I didn’t take it personally. But as one of those who thinks notifications are not enough, I did want to clarify what I think about notifications on the wrist. Not bad, but not a compelling enough product on its own. I think your positioning of Pebble is spot on and should be enough of an illustration that the notion of notifications is not enough to make a break away product for the wrist.

            Joe

      • Rene Stein

        Wearables will be a category of devices connecting through the smartphone. Notification watches, glasses, other things, shoe sensors, whatever.

  • N.G.W.

    “Smart watches and notifications need to get a lot smarter if they are to be found useful on the wrist.”

    Ben, that will require more computation power and more computation power will use more battery power. How many people will accept a smart watch that needs to be recharged after 8 hours?

  • Space Gorilla

    I view wearables more as sensors that are accessories. A bracelet, or a ring, maybe a pin of some kind (Star Trek Communicator!). As sensors these devices can do a couple of things very well. One, hold our identity (which is secured by being tied to our living body). Two, gather data all day long. The smartphone is then the engine or hub that enables these wearables. Apple has a decided advantage here, they can focus first on building the Apple Network of Things, because they control the stack. I can think of many jobs-to-be-done that get a lot easier if you’re wearing a device that knows you are you and can talk to other devices. On the data side there’s a lot of value that can be gleaned from the information you generate in a day. Apple has an advantage here as well, since it will be hard for Google to resist monetizing that personal data. Apple doesn’t need to. Google does.

    EDIT: One more small point. I’ve been digging around trying to find out if that Android Wear video is a simulation. Seems like it is. Somebody from Motorola commented that it was a concept video, not real. That’s a red flag for me, reminds me of the Microsoft Courier. Anyone else know if that video was simulated or not?

  • Leebase

    My cellphone replaced my watch long before the iPhone was even released. I’m not sure what it would take to not only get me to wear something on my wrist, but to pay good money for the privilege. Looking forward to what Apple comes out with. None of the existing offerings have piqued my interest.

  • stefnagel

    Sensors yes. Glass no.

    • klahanas

      Hey Stef,
      That’s like checking your wallet for your name and coming up with “Genuine Cowhide”. 😉

      • stefnagel

        Ha!

  • Andrew F

    Interesting post Ben, but I think your instinct (that current notification-on-your-wrist devices are niche) betters your reasoning here.

    You mention the need for notifications to become more contextual, but even if this service were perfected the functional limitations of the smartwatch remain the same. It’s still just a conduit for your lock screen. A very limited number of people will find a value in this and for those who do, I’d argue it’s a problem that is better served by small, focused companies like Pebble, not giant tech corporations like Google and LG. There’s a humanity in Pebble addressing this humble job-to-be-done, and at the same time there’s a hideous corporatism in the big guys trying to stamp out any two-bit semi-competitor that infringes on the peripheries of their business. It’s the notion that any halfway-good idea should be a Google or LG program. A thousand yes’s for every no.

    More than that, these giant tech companies are depressingly unambitious in their thinking. They’re still looking at this from along the proscenium arch — they see a new form factor and immediately want to apply old ways of thinking to it. How is a company like Google gonna solve enormously complex problems like driverless cars and immortality (gimme a break) with such small-minded corporate conceit like this?

    Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I think Apple’s foray into this is going to start with a brand new way to interact with wearables, which will in turn make apparent entirely new use cases we never thought possible. Apple’s quiet confidence reflected in its recent movements and behavior suggests a company that is building something enormously ambitious. I don’t think Jony Ive’s recent comments should be taken lightly. They weren’t made unintentionally, and I think the whole purpose of his doing the interview was to make them:

    “We are at the beginning of a remarkable time, when a remarkable number of products will be developed. When you think about technology and what it has enabled us to do so far, and what it will enable us to do in future, we’re not even close to any kind of limit. It’s still so, so new.”

    • jfutral

      “They’re still looking at this from along the proscenium arch — they see a new form factor and immediately want to apply old ways of thinking to it.”

      Wow. Right on.

      Joe

    • art hackett

      Excellent and succinct appraisal between you and Ben.

      …..waits for denialists and naysayers from the flat earth society….

      Just kidding, not waiting.

  • Andrew F

    As sort of an addendum to my previous post, I have to say there has been so much really fascinating commentary by so many extremely smart people in tech regarding wearables. I have a great time reading it all, trying to parse the insights to find some epiphany of what, if anything, The Wearable will enable us to do that will improve our lives, and make us not want to live without it. And I say the following with all do respect to everyone who has contributed to the discussion of wearables in general, myself included — but absolutely nothing that has been said on the subject involves a feature, a job-to-be-done, nor even a sliver of an idea that involves a product I would ever consider buying. Not a single desirable element to anything anybody has said. Nothing. Just vague techie esoterica.

    So, to paraphrase a princess, “Help us O’Steve Jobless Apple, you’re our only hope”.

  • aardman

    What is that you need to be able to view several times a day and that you wouldn’t to have to pull your phone out of your pocket each time? Without meaning to be a smart alec, the time? Then again, that’s why I still wear a watch.

    But instead of something you want to view, how about something you need to show? A QR or bar code to pay at the check out, board a plane, pick up your rental, get admitted to a stadium or concert hall? With some kind of biosensor (this one is probably science fiction for now) that makes sure it’s the rightful owner wearing the device. Are skin micro patterns on your wrist unique enough for TouchID type authentication?

  • “The key is the smart watch screen is always in view.”
    The winter we just went through in the northern states begs to differ. 🙂
    To be serious, though, seeing the beautiful renderings of the new Google watch concept all I could think was, ‘They think I’m going to were my sleeves high on my arm like that?’ In one shot they even had the sleeve folded back. Who is going to do that?

    • jfutral

      I think this is right. The convenience of having something on the wrist versus pulling something out of your pocket is so negligible that cell phones (not even just smartphones) have effectively replaced watches. Always in view overstates the smart watch capacity. It will be no more “always in view” than watches were. And they weren’t all that.

      Joe

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