Will the Apple Watch wean us off screens?
OPINION: Screens. For the last few decades, they've ruled the world. Computers with graphical interfaces gave us big screens to do work on, smartphones put screens of an ever growing size in our pockets, and tablets simplified the concept completely, giving us nothing but a dumb screen to browse the web on.
Everything else shaped itself to the screen. Everything became visual. Radio stations hired photographers; newspapers hired video teams. Advertising agencies learned to make the most of certain sets of pixels, and web designers took the web from something that resembled a reference book into something that resembled a glossy magazine.
But our eyes are only one of our senses. They are obviously attuned to handling large amounts of complex information simultaneously, but we don't always want computers to be complex. Sometimes we just want them to do a dumb thing for us.
Like tell us the time.
Wearables properly arrived* last week with the launch of the Apple Watch. Skeptics the world over have given a bit of a shrug - the watch doesn't really do anything new, it just sits on your wrist instead of in your pocket.
Wristwatches didn't really improve on clock towers either. The point is the convenience.
Glancing at your wrist is a lot more natural than pulling a device out of your pocket, opening its case, unlocking its screen, and then reading something. You can glance at your watch during an intense conversation with someone and not miss a beat. If our texts and tweets and emails all live on our wrist instead of in our pocket, they infest our everyday lives in a much more natural way.
In other words, you might read more notifications, but the process will be much less disruptive.
Yes, the focus is still a screen - but this is not a screen meant for intense use. This is a screen that is part of a device, rather than a device in its own right - a device that can listen to your voice through Siri, vibrate in different ways to tell you different things, and track your every heartbeat. Your phone can do all these things to, but it's never really been the point. The point has always been the screen. Wearables change that.
As a quick and somewhat corny example - the Apple Watch lets you feel the heartbeat of someone on the other side of the world. That kind of ambient sharing is impossible with a screen. Wearables could open the door to a whole world of digital interactions that we can barely imagine right now - fabric that changes its texture in different enviroments, games that take place entirely in 3D audioscapes, computers that rebuld your organs while you sleep.
Screens aren't always the best way for us to use electronics. They're often the worst. Designer Golden Krishna explains this in his new book, The Best Interface is No Interface with a diatribe against an app that unlocks a car door. On his smartphone, using a screen based app to unlock a door took thirteen steps - making it far harder to use than a normal car key. With a simple smartkey created a whole decade ago, the process only took two.
Screens are complicated. Screens take time. Screens give us a bewildering number of things to do when all we usually only want to do one. Even encouraging moves away from our screen-obsessed world - the reawakening of podcasts, the 3D printer, voice controlled AI - usually end up involving a 2D pane in some way.
The Apple Watch won't wean us off our obsession with these lit up rectangles. We're still too stuck in a world where using a computer means spending time telling a computer a thing we want to see.
But it's a start.
- © Fairfax NZ News