Technology’s Disappearing Act: Apple Watch and the Next Big Tech Era

A curious thing is happening in the technology sphere. As we crave mobile devices with larger screens, a consequence of the ever-deferring nature of content to the smartphone that our hands are seemingly glued to, the very nature of technology is becoming… invisible.

As a long-time admirer and fan of Apple’s work, you might expect me to be raving about the new Apple Watch CEO Tim Cook unveiled this week. Here’s the thing, though: I’m still skeptical about this category. Apple has successfully redefined several categories in the past, but the problem with smartwatches – with wearables, in fact – is that we don’t exactly know what it is we want from them just yet. This product type is still largely in its infancy. And thus, can Apple truly change the game when its rules are still being debated?

But with Apple Watch we see this idea of “technology’s disappearing act” come alive. Here is a device that, unlike its competitors (Samsung Gear and Moto 360), actually seeks to address the nature of a watch in this connected age. Apple hasn’t merely taken what works at one scale (the UX of iPhone) and resized it; rather, they’ve first decided to probe the sociocultural implications of what timekeeping means. This, in essence, is what design is all about: understanding a move, critically examining your position and its effect, before executing it.

Our technology is increasingly becoming invisible, permeating almost every facet of our lives – not just for entertainment, but work, play, health, fitness. Thus moves like Apple Watch, the entire smartwatch category, wearable tech: this is an exercise in disrupting a logical path. It’s about re-imagining the way technology fuses with how humans have been living for centuries, because these devices are inherently intimate. They will be more connected to your physical being than any bit of tech before. Following a logical trajectory of design will only result in technology that is trying to solve problems that don’t actually exist: this is the conundrum I’ve been facing when thinking about this next paradigmatic shift in tech.

Wearable technology, in order to justify its raison d’être, will need to tackle this very issue: how can it enhance human life, rather than try and solve unnecessary, non-existent problems? This is where I think Apple Watch excels. Whilst I am not entirely blown-away by its industrial design, I think that particular design decisions made by Jony Ive and his crew set this device apart. The digital crown, deep connection to the art of timekeeping through fun digital watch faces, and the tactic engine that gently pulses on one’s wrist, providing a distinctive tactile dimension, are elements that will significantly add to the user experience. I understand the digital crown as a new interaction model that will define the smartwatch, just as the click wheel defined iPod. And, of course, wearable tech is intimate; it’s personal. Watches are a reflection of one’s taste, style, and fashion sense. How can digital technology, ephemeral in nature, with an ability to rapidly skin new themes and change experiences through the dynamic essence of software, be used as a conduit to channel this idea of enabling personality to surface?

The Apple Watch is pretty, and it tackles some serious issues that others have lacked to do so in favour of getting their products out first. But justification for its actual existence is what bothers me, and what I found lacking in Tim Cook’s delivery of his first significant product as CEO. The thing is, unlike iPod, iPhone and iPad before it, this device faces a critical challenge: that of actual necessity. Why would I want a tiny screen strapped to my wrist when a larger iPhone (which I have to carry with me anyway, since Apple Watch is highly dependent on this) can provide a less-frustrating experience when doing things like showing photos or sending messages? I think that where a device like this will truly excel is in the fitness category, and that itself is a fledgling arena.

When Steve Jobs introduced iPad, he spent a significant amount of the keynote before the unveil to explain the iPad’s purpose: as a device to fit a gap between smartphones and notebooks; Apple’s response to the then-burgeoning “netbook” craze. But with Apple Watch, Tim Cook launched straight into it after an ode to his predecessor (“one more thing”). After the slick video intro, he returned to stage, arms held up in triumph. No explanation of the watch’s purpose, its reason – it felt like he was relieved to finally release his first defining product as new CEO. It’s a problem, I think, if we cannot understand the Apple Watch’s significance: what makes it unique and not just a response to the strong competition from Samsung, LG, Motorola and the others? What purpose does it serve that will define it, apart from its innovative user interface design and complexity of customization options?

So, invisible tech…

Today, software defines our mobile experience. When the hype around new hardware dies, it is the software that remains as the defining experiential aspect of a device. And this is where technology is beginning to shrink its physical appearance and maximize a more intimate, invisible force. A device that is as personal as a wearable offers the opportunity to craft products around experiences that augment daily life, where the physical object moves to the background, providing subtle feedback on various operations. Apple Watch’s tactile engine and digital crown are two elements that come to mind here.

Wearables are going to be the next decade’s smartphone: as content gets bigger and more mobile, the opportunity for daily tasks to be augmented or replaced by digital variants will be great. It is in this sphere that wearable tech and the permeability of software into daily objects will enable technology to effectively disappear as it transcends from objects that exude “tech”, to more mundane guises that are powered by clever engineering and sleek industrial design.

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