Google has introduced a new line of smartwatches running its Android operating system staying one step ahead of Apple, which has yet to introduce its watches for sale. Pre-orders of the Samsung and LG watches will no doubt be massive, but there are still questions everyone should be asking about the implications of this hardware. The idea of a device on the wrist allowing for communication and information relay is as old as science fiction itself. But the advances in technology just of the last 20 years are making that possible. The effect of this kind of technology could be astronomical. The sky is not even a limit to the potential that today’s tech has. Back on the ground, however, the potential of what Android wearables and others could do to human interaction is more important than the limitless heavens.
People already complain about the effects of technology on human interaction. Teenagers “these day” do not play outside or they do not talk to each other like they used to in the “old days.” Children have their noses buried in iPads instead of books. Adults would rather look at their phones than at each other. The breakdown of human contact is a common complaint today and it has its solid points. Anyone who commutes on public transportation can see the effects just of smartphones. Almost everyone is scrolling through Facebook or Twitter or texting someone else instead of paying attention to the world around them. Scenes like these are what account for almost 18 percent of all web traffic in the world, a statistic that comes from 2013 but could easily be higher today in 2014.
The argument about this kind of occurrence is that instead of communicating with each other, people are absorbed in their smartphones. Obviously, the fear is that the same thing will happen with wearables like the new Android offering. Wearables look like an escalation of the problem, not a solution to the decrease in human interaction. To a certain extent, this is a valid worry. The person across from someone on the bus is not looking at anyone, but is instead reading a news article through Google Glass. Another person is not checking the time to share with someone, but is looking at a Tweet from one or another famous person. The loss of basic forms of human interaction seems real when looked at from this point of view.
Instead of looking at the Wearable revolution as a distraction from human interaction, however, it can also be seen as a change in the form human interaction takes. Throughout history, new technologies have changed how people interact. The invention of the wheel had to have been revolutionary in what it did for humans. Not only was carrying things and moving around easier, but it gave people more time to interact. The primeval macho man, call him Og, did not have to carry rocks one-by-one to build a house. With the wheel and its corollary the wagon, he could carry all the rocks at one time, making his work faster and giving him more time with his family, wife Mog and children Tog, Dag and Og, Jr. The technology of the wheel changed Ogs life and countless others down the centuries.
In some ways, Wearables are another type of wheel. One of the Android smartwatches’ features is the focus on notifications. The watch vibrates and a quick glance tells the user that their dentist appointment is in 20 minutes or that their flight is delayed. If the user is in a meeting, a quick glance at a watch is far less disruptive than pulling a cellphone out of the pocket, spending 10 seconds to open it, another 10 to find the notification, and about 20 to 30 seconds to read it. That minute or so has been changed into less than 10 seconds overall if the user has a smartwatch. From this perspective, Android wearables like smartwatches could actually improve human interaction in many ways by making people less dependant on their phones.
Smartwatches have a great future ahead of them, as evidenced by both Google and Apple’s involvement in their development. Google seems to be taking a simple is better approach by making smartwatches do one thing very well, in this case notifications. That could very well be a saving grace, if the problems with Google Glass are anything to go by. Glass seems to do so many things that users get overwhelmed and the issues with privacy and security are mounting. One University of Massachusetts professor has found out that the camera on Glass can be used to steal people’s PIN numbers or passwords on other mobile devices. The problem is not limited to the less than good-looking eyewear. In fact, a $700 camcorder will do the same trick from four floors up and across the street. But Glass’ position at eye-level does make it easier. Instead of doing one thing well, like take voice notes or read emails, Google Glass tries to be a complete package by doing everything which has made its use problematic.
Smartwatches, though, are still doing one thing with notifications, making them more attractive and less worrisome than Google Glass. They also seem to have the potential to bring positive improvements to human interaction. At the very least they do not include the same privacy and security worries that their wearable cousin does. Unless James Bond or Jack Bauer gets a hold of a smartwatch, it is highly unlikely that anyone will be using one to hack the Pentagon or take down a creepy super villain. It should be remembered as well that all technology brings changes in human interaction. The wheel made Og a happily married man a few millenia ago. Wearables could have the same effect for modern Ogs today. Mistakes will be made, as Google Glass shows, but the effect of Android wearables and others on human interaction could be extremely positive if people give it the chance.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury