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.

What is innovation, really?

innovate [verb]

make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.

In today’s fast-paced world, the question of innovation arises frequently whenever a tech company releases a new product. It’s discussed more often when that tech company is none other than Apple, once considered the “most innovative company” under the leadership of Steve Jobs.

When Apple announced the iPhone 5s, the argument for their lack of innovation and simply just releasing iterative products was at its strongest. The parallel was drawn between 1 Infinite Loop and their fiercest new competitor, Samsung. In the case of Samsung, it’s argued that their products seem more innovative because of all the new features packed into their latest devices. In other words, more is better – not an altogether incorrect assumption, but in terms of innovation… that remains to be understood.

This reasoning has got me thinking about what we consider “innovation” to mean in a world saturated by new products, a world where discourse is accelerated by the power of the World Wide Web, a world where the exponential increase in technology drives economies and mass-desire for the next big thing.

When Steve Jobs shepherded Apple out of their dark ages with the colourful iMac, he was regarded amongst the great businessmen and inventors of recent history – Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Henry Ford. That original iMac brought something truly unexpected to the computing world: fun. It brought computers to life; its bold design decisions – made by the formidable designer Jony Ive – diverged from the existing conceptions of what computer design constituted. It was innovative in the field of industrial design by its very nature of being different, of being bold and new.

When John F. Kennedy chose to “go to the moon […] and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” thousands of NASA engineers embarked upon one of the most daring projects ever – to design a spacecraft that could safely land man on the moon, and fulfil our unending quest to explore, to go beyond, to seek new frontiers. They innovated in the field of science, discovering countless new things that have spilled-over into general use.

Nikola Tesla is perhaps history’s unluckiest innovator – under the shadow of Edison, his inventions went largely unseen or appreciated. For example, he’s the father of radio, yet many consider Guglielmo Marconi to be the actual inventor.

“I don’t care that they stole my idea . . I care that they don’t have any of their own.”
― Nikola Tesla

Yet Tesla persevered, because he was so invested in his ideas, so driven by his passion to create and discover and test new ideas, rather than be forced to succumb to the whim of the general public and abandon his work.

His name has inspired Elon Musk’s innovative attempts, namely Tesla Motors. His work there is changing the way we understand something intrinsic to modern living: the car. Musk is daring to make the electric motor car a viable and stylish alternative to the environmentally damaging internal-combustion engine vehicle. Musk isn’t worried about social convention; he’s going against it to create something new, something daring.

I could list a hundred more examples of innovators daring to change the world with significantly new ways of thinking, but I think you get the point: to innovate means to diverge from what is the established path, it’s to explore, to test, to try new things and go beyond what everyone else feels is the convention. And in doing so, it results in the creation of something meaningful. This doesn’t mean piling more features onto an existing product – that is actually iterative design, not innovative design.

The word “innovation” has become saturated over the years with our misconception of it meaning “more features.” It’s driven by our desire to want more, because more is supposedly better. It’s a mass-consumerist ideology that has permeated today’s societies. The true nature of innovation has been lost. It’s lucky that we have people like Elon Musk who still believe in its original intention.

Instead of focussing on wanting more, we should become more discerning about what it is we desire. Are more features packed into a product – many of which you probably won’t want to use more than once – really what you want? Or is it the attention to every facet of a product’s design, every little detail, whilst adding just those features that will add value and meaning to your interaction with the product, a more compelling alternative?

This is indeed a compelling age to be living in, as the very idea of what it means to innovate is being challenged by both bold ideas and new steps forward, and the marketing-driven feature-piling approach of many tech companies. Perhaps there will never be a final definition, as our desire to explore and create will constantly force this notion in new directions.

Infographic: “Movin’ on Up” – The World’s Tallest Buildings

A few months ago I wrote about my travels to Dubai, and my thoughts on the architecture of that multifaceted and intriguing city.

This post is a visual follow-up to that, focussing on the engineering and design of a typological resurgence in the built environment: skyscrapers. I was approached by a reader of Pixelated Thinking with this compelling infographic that succinctly captures how tall buildings are becoming an important part in our society, especially as cities become more dense, and urbanisation becomes a force to be reckoned with.

Dubai, of course, leads the pack in most cases. That city of superlatives boasts most of the world’s tallest buildings, and there’s still many more being planned and constructed in that Emirate. Just recently, SOM announced their latest tower, the 90˚ twisted tower that resembles Santiago Calatrava’s “Turning Torso” design, Cayan Tower (previously Infinity Tower), now the world’s tallest twisted tower.

I recommend you follow the link on this infographic to find out some more interesting facts about the world of tall buildings.

Movin' On Up
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