A New Smart-Watch Design Space?

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote about my first impressions of Pebble and concluded that “I have to wonder if smart-watches even need a display“. As a smart-watch, I found Pebble most useful for remotely controlling my phone (through its physical buttons) and for promoting awareness of notifications on my phone (through its vibration alerts); its “clunky and awkward user interface” was even detrimental to its other, more important, function as an ordinary watch.

With that in mind, I was excited by Yahoo! Labs recent paper at Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction (or TEI): Shimmering Smartwatches. In it, they present two prototype smart-watches which don’t have a screen, instead using less sophisticated (but just as expressive and informative) LEDs.

One of their prototypes, Circle, used a circular arrangement of twelve LEDs, each in place of an hour mark on the watch-face. By changing the brightness and hue of the LEDs, the watch was able to communicate information from smart-watch applications, like activity trackers and countdown timers. Their other prototype used four LEDs placed behind icons on the watch-face. Again, brightness and hue could be modulated to allow greater information to be communicated about each of the icons.

I really like the ideas in this paper and its prototypes. High resolution displays are more expensive than simple LED layouts, require more power and are not necessarily more expressive. Hopefully someone builds on the new design space presented by Shimmering Smartwatches, which can certainly be expressive but also lower cost. Also, everything is better with coloured LEDs.

First Impressions of Pebble



Smart-watches seem to be quite trendy at the moment, no doubt thanks to the Kickstarter success of Pebble showing that there’s growing interest in wearable computers. I’m quite interested in wearable technology and have thrown together really low-fidelity prototypes of wearables in the past for research projects, using elastic bands, velcro and old watch straps. To bring my research back to the twenty-first century we picked up a Pebble, mostly just to see what it can do. In this post I ramble about my first impressions of Pebble and talk about what I want from a “smart”-watch.

I’ve been wearing it for the past few days now – pretty much from when I wake up to when I go to sleep. My initial impression is that the watch needn’t even have a display – the things I find it most useful for (and the things it does the best) are all non-visual.

I find Pebble to be of limited use as an input device; however, the hardware buttons are a nice size and are easy to use without looking at the watch. I use my phone for music whilst driving and have never been able to skip tracks, although Pebble now makes this possible. It’s easy to keep one hand on the steering wheel and use the other to press the “next track” button on the watch, without taking my eyes off the road.

The other thing I find Pebble useful for is knowing when I have notifications on my phone to attend to. This is largely thanks to the vibrotactile alerts – the display itself is of limited use because of its small size. While the vibrotactile notifications are useful, they lack customisation (although I hope this is something which changes in future iterations of the Pebble software). All notifications seem to have the same vibrotactile pattern, so it’s impossible to tell the difference between a text and an email without looking at the display.

With these two uses – hardware buttons to control another device and vibrotactile notifications – in mind I have to wonder if smart-watches even need a display. I’m completely unconvinced by the clunky and awkward user interface the watch provides and would much prefer a “normal” watch which connects to my phone (or other devices) so I can remotely control them and receive notifications from them.


Which brings me to Citizen’s Proximity watch (above). This is the first “smart-watch” I’ve seen which still looks like a normal watch. It connects to smartphones and delivers notifications using vibrotactile feedback and simple visual feedback on the watch-face. When a notification is delivered, one of the watch-hands jumps to a text label on the display, showing the notification type. If only those two chunky buttons could also be put to good use!