I drown in e-mail, which is a common affliction. With meetings during the day, I need to defer e-mail to breaks between meetings or until the evening, which prevents it from being a real-time communications medium.
Everybody builds a communication “bubble” around themselves, sometimes by design and sometimes by necessity. Robert Reich’s memoir Locked in the Cabinet describes the process of staffing his office and, ultimately, building that bubble. He resists, but eventually succumbs to the necessity of filtering communications when managing such a large organization.
One of the reasons I’m fascinated by wearable technology is that it is one way of bridging the gap between batch and real-time communications. Wearable technology has smaller screens, and many early products use low-power screen technology that lacks the ability to display vibrant colors. Some may view these qualities as drawbacks, but in return, it is possible to display critical information in an easily viewable — and immediate — way.
Some wearables are also able to alert you by physical feedback. For instance, a wearable device connected to your smartphone can provide vibrating alerts to call your attention to important information when you’re in crowded, noisy environments where you might not hear or feel your phone. I recently spent some time wearing a Pebble smart watch, which afforded me a few insights. One is that I was relentlessly teased by my coworkers for having a “crowded wrist.” The experience was worth every jibe and taunt, though. If the Pebble were just a remote display for the phone, it would not be that useful. My phone gives me too much information, and what I needed was a way to get the immediate alerts when it was important to pay attention. The smart watch’s configurable rules on what to push to the phone made the experience of interacting with my phone totally different. When the Pebble vibrates, it’s worth paying attention: it is a call or text from somebody I’ve identified as important, or an application from which I’ve chosen to receive alerts.
One funny way that Pebble offered immediacy was that I found it alerted me to phone calls faster than the phone itself did. My phone is paired to my car, and I use the Bluetooth hands-free profile to talk on the phone when I’m driving. One night, I was driving home and the Pebble vibrated on my wrist. The phone was not yet making noise, so I wasn’t sure what to make of the Pebble alert. I looked at my wrist, and saw that there was an incoming phone call. As I read the caller ID off my watch, I heard the phone start to ring. After another half second, the car paused my iPod and alerted me to the incoming call. Surprisingly, the first indication of the phone call came from the Pebble, even though the phone obviously has to handle the call first.
During the time I wore the Pebble, they launched an app store, which was a great move. I had some limited ability to customize the display, and at one point tried to create a pilot-friendly display of groundspeed and altitude to use when I’m flying a glider. I’m not enough of a developer to use the current tools to customize my watch display to any great degree, but that doesn’t mean better tools will not become available. As the community grows, it also will be more likely that somebody will have already designed a layout that displays just the information you need.
Making wearables work well and “just fit” into your life potentially requires multiple intersecting disciplines: industrial design, to come up with a product that fits in with a wide variety of clothing (the original Pebble was clearly a geek toy, but the new metal Pebble is suitable for wear with more professional dress, for instance); user interaction design, so that the right information arrives at the small screen at the right time; and maybe even a dash of data processing, so that the filter of what winds up on my wrist can be “trained” over time to recognize what is important to me. The Pebble is a great first step, and I am looking forward to what comes next.
If you liked this article, you might be interested in a new report, “Building a Solid World,” that explores the key trends and developments that are accelerating the growth of a software-enhanced, networked physical world. (Download the free report.)