On Wednesday, Samsung unveiled its new Galaxy Gear smartwatch, a gadget being hailed as a leap forward for wearable computing, the first such device from a major technology company and an important offensive in Samsung’s ongoing battle with Apple.
What Samsung has done with its gadget is certainly impressive. But what its smartwatch could do to us is even more remarkable.
Next to the smartwatch, checking a smartphone seems downright cumbersome. It has to be fished out of pockets or purses, woken up from its slumber, unlocked and navigated. By tying a 1.6-inch display onto our wrists, Samsung ensures the Galaxy Gear is never out of sight or reach. In turn, that guarantees we’re never out of sight or reach to the people and companies that want access to us.
“The ability to put away a smartphone is a feature, not a flaw,” noted Nathan Jurgenson, a social media theorist a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland. “With smartwatches, we’re strapping technology onto things we wear all the time, and I think that’s a major hurdle for them. Being able to put them away is really important.”
The Galaxy Gear can answer calls, send text messages, snap photos, play music, take voice memos, track steps and currently offers over a dozen apps -- including Tripit, Path, Line, Evernote and, for those who need the flexibility to buy antiques from their wrist, eBay. It also notifies wearers when they receive incoming calls, texts, emails or alerts from their apps, and allows them to quickly share content in messages or on social networking sites. The device, set to launch in September for $299, currently works only when paired with Samsung’s forthcoming Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy Note 10.1 -- though the company plans to add more phones to that list.
Samsung bills the Gear as a device that will “enhance the freedom of mobile communications.” But it’s not only the Galaxy Gear wearers who are more free to communicate, whether speaking into the watch, Dick Tracy-style, or snapping photos from its wristband. It’s also the app creators, who, with their new wrist real estate, will become closer and less avoidable than ever. Samsung has handed them an entirely new way to feed us information -- and feed on ours.
The chief executive of Glympse, a location-sharing service that developed an app for the Galaxy Gear, said he sees the smartwatch as a way for his company to increase how frequently people interact with his service. With the Galaxy Gear, checking the Glympse app can become a “reflex,” or “something people can do multiple times a day,” Bryan Trussel, Glympse's co-founder and CEO, noted.
“Anything that gets us in front of the consumer more often, with a simplified interface, we’re all over,” Trussel explained. “[The smartwatch] is a way to get them to use Glympse more often and more regularly.”
The Galaxy Gear might be a new gadget, but it seems poised to exacerbate a (relatively) old problem: the torrent of buzzes and beeps overwhelming peoples’ existing mobile devices, and their constant compulsion to be connected.
A growing number of smartphone-toting humans are already troubled by how much time they spend staring at their screens, and are searching for ways to escape the tyranny of the app. Sleep-away camp has become step-away-from-the-phone camp. Unplugging now refers to people, not gadgets. Digital detox is the new coveted spa treatment.
Though some companies promise the tech that created the tech overload will also cure it, through virtual personal assistants or context-aware devices, Samsung, at the launch of the Galaxy Gear, offered no such immediate solutions. Instead, Samsung Director of Research Pranav Mistry stressed the "ease of glanceability" of the device.
Trussel acknowledged that smartwatches could become an annoyance unless developers show some “restraint and respect” when it comes to what they push to their users. But is there reason to be so optimistic? True, apps risk being deleted if they bother us too often. And yet so far, web companies, for all their innovation, have largely used a one-size-fits-all approach to their notifications. The alerts sent to my iPad and iPhone vary very little, even though one device is always with me, and the other I glance through only at night. It remains to be seen whether those firms will respect the intimate space to which we're giving them access.
If the past is any guide, however, we'll just end up watching our watch.