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BLOG: How smartwatch designers should be designing smartwatches

Steven Max Patterson | Oct. 31, 2013
All the companies in the smartwatch race are following Pebble's lead. Here's what they all can do to try to stand out in a suddenly crowded market.

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"I wish battery technology followed Moores Law." This was Pebble Watch founder and CEO Eric Migicovsky's answer to my question, "if you had one wish for a technological breakthrough what would it be?" Moore's law is the high-tech maxim coined by Intel that says every two years the number of transistors on a microprocessor chip become twice as dense and the microprocessor twice as powerful. It was a surprising answer from the head of the company that makes a device with a five- to seven-day battery life that leads the industry.

Steady improvements in power management have compensated for lagging developments in battery technology. But the most advanced notebook battery life is still only 10 hours. The power-miserly smartphone blackens its LCD within a few seconds, but still has to be recharged every night and more frequently with heavy use.

A smartwatch is different. The regular annoyance of recharging a third device would hinder consumer adoption.

Smartwatch makers are not in a race to release a next-generation device with faster processors, more memory and higher-resolution displays like the smartphone makers. Sony, Qualcomm and Pebble smartwatches are all powered by a 200MHz or slower ARM Cortex M3 processor, which are unremarkable compared to the processors powering smartphones. The exception is the Samsung Gear, which is powered with an 800 MHz Exynos processor most likely to have the capacity to run Android 4.x.

The use cases for wearables like smart watches are based on what designers call "microinteractions" between people and their smartphones. Everyone has used microinteractions even if they are not familiar with the term. A downward swipe to display notifications or sideways swipes to turn a page are examples of microinteractions. Well-designed microinteractions simplify apps and shorten the time to convert the user's intent into a gratifying experience. Relocating the microinteraction to a smartwatch from a smartphone app tethered together with Bluetooth improves the user experience because the clumsy delay of pulling out a smartphone can be exchanged with a glance at the wrist.

Pebble and independent developers moved microinteractions, such as email and text notifications, checking running pace and changing music tracks onto the Pebble. Smartwatch apps reduce the awkwardness of constantly turning one's attention to a smartphone. For example, one app vibrates both the smartphone and Pebble when an important call is received, eliminating deliberations in answering.

Pebble is the first app-compatible smartwatch to reach 100,000 unit shipments in a year. Migicovsky started iterating designs five years ago in his dorm room. The concept evolved into the Impulse smartwatch designed to display Blackberry notifications. The first Impulse production run was only 500 units. The $10 million Pebble raised in its Kickstarter campaign funded the development and production of the current design, which works wirelessly tethered to both iOS and Android devices.


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