Smartwatches have long been a staple of science fiction – the sight of fearless heroes barking orders at their wrists or touch typing onto their forearms should be familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with Hollywood – but as computer chips become ever smaller in keeping with Moore's Law, some of these functions are becoming a reality.
Smartwatch specifications are starting to take the devices beyond being a wrist-based notification centre for a partnered smartphone and more towards being independent computers themselves.
Capabilities for producing news
Tim Pool, a producer for Vice media who experiments with mobile technology in journalism, is particularly excited about the Omate TrueSmart and Neptune Pine, both currently available to pre-order having reached, and exceeded, their Kickstarter funding goals.
Both are fully-functioning Android devices, ready for use with a micro SIM card and equipped with cameras, 3G, Bluetooth, touchscreens, accelerometers and other movement and location sensors, and a full set of computing specs normally seen in smartphones or larger computers.
"Imagine an android cellphone but just small and on your wrist," Pool told Journalism.co.uk. "We've heard a lot about smartwatches – the Galaxy Gear came out, there were rumours of the iWatch.
"But the big problem is that they're often Bluetooth accessories and not actually standalone devices. These two are going to have a big impact because they are fully standalone cellphones."
The Neptune Pine is slightly bigger and is detachable from the wrist strap, making the five megapixel camera a much more portable option around the size of a GoPro.The watch has got a camera built into it, you hold your fist up to your chest and the camera is facing out so you can do photos, video, tweets, anything a cellphone can do, just on your wristTim Pool, Vice
For Pool, who has been experimenting with the pros and cons of Google Glass in journalism, the 3G capabilities are attractive in linking the watch with Glass to enable livestreaming from his headset.
"Let's say I'm using Google Glass," he said, "I can tether the data connection to my watch because it's going to run off 3G, so I can get broadcast quality speeds from a watch."
And the data connection to combine the two capabilities of smartwatches and a headmounted device like Glass serves to double up on both capabilities, he said.
"The thing about Google Glass is it's using the Glass skin over the Android operating system that's really really stripped down," said Pool, "so a lot of applications don't work on Glass. You have to hack them and figure out how to make it go, but the watches are just like a normal cellphone and can run anything."
The Kickstarter video for the Omate TrueSmart
The more conspicuous nature of the TrueSmart could make it more useful for journalists in the field, said Pool, because it may not be recognised as a device capable of the same functions as a smartphone.
"Journalists are often in dangerous places and at risk from people who don't want them to tell the stories," he said, "and for a little while they're going to have the advantage that no one is going to know that the watch is actually a fully functioning data device that can transmit news, can take photos.
"The watch has got a camera built into it, you hold your fist up to your chest and the camera is facing out so you can do photos, video, tweets, anything a cellphone can do, just on your wrist."
The Guardian's Alex Hern, a technology reporter who admits he is slightly sceptical on the practical application of some wearable technologies, sees how smartwatches may be attractive but does not believe they will be a "game changer" for journalists.
"In terms of actual covert recordings a smartwatch is obviously better in that it's smaller," Hern told Journalism.co.uk. "The ones on the market so far are easier to use without looking, you're not pulling a phone out of your pocket, pressing a button and putting it back in your pocket.
"At the same time, right now, if you're fiddling with your smartwatch right before you speak to someone they're going to notice. If you're fiddling with your smartphone right before you speak to someone, they're not."
The BBC's Richard Taylor gives his views on the Neptune Pine at CES 2014
Furthermore, when it comes to covert recording, Hern said that most dictaphones on the market are good enough to pick up a conversation the user is having when placed in a jacket pocket, which may be better positioned for audio and less suspicious than a watch.
A device which may be more innocuous for audio recording is the Kapture, another wrist-based device that is always on and always recording, but only stores audio when it is instructed to. By tapping the Kapture, the last minute of audio is saved to a smartphone, thereby recording candid moments that may otherwise have been missed.
Although in the same category as notification centres and other wearables dependent on partnering with a smartphone, the prototype specifications of the Kapture could give journalists an edge in some situations, providing the use is legal and ethical.
Possibilities for consuming news
Jeff Sonderman, deputy director of the American Press Institute, was one of the earliest adopters of the Pebble smartwatch, a wrist-based notification for a phone, having contributed to the Kickstarter campaign in its infancy. After a year with the device, it has blended into the background of his day and given him food for though as to how the new technology may be used in the future.
"Where they stop being a gadget and fade into the background, when it just becomes this thing that is central to your life, that's when all the really powerful stuff starts to happen in taking over the way that we live," Sonderman told Journalism.co.uk.
Rather than have a direct effect on the production of news, Sonderman believes smartwatches will be play an important role in how the wider public consumes information.Everyone is going to want something different, you don't want one editor deciding one big news story is worth sending to everyone because there are some people who just won't careJeff Sonderman, American Press Institute
"Watches are a really good notification system," he said. "It's a good way to get buzzed with a short message that alerts you to something going on right now that is important to you. When it comes to the watch you know it's important and you can glance and see the headline."
That element of personalisation is the crux of the matter, he said, and allowing the reader to choose what information they want to receive – be it personal or news-based – is what will end up drawing people to the devices.
Certain platforms already exist for the personalisation of news consumption – Circa, News 360 and Breaking News are all apps that allow the reader to to choose which topics they receive push notifications for – and Sonderman believes the same practice will be important for smartwatches.
"Everyone is going to want something different," he said, "you don't want one editor deciding one big news story is worth sending to everyone because there are some people who just won't care.
"It could be the biggest breaking sports news story of the year and there are some people in the audience who just don't care about sports. The same for politics or business news."
When smartwatches make notifications an immediate and pervasive interruption to the everyday life of the user, those interruptions must be personal, he said, or risk the user ignoring the notifications or stop using the device.
There is also potential for the direct consumption of news content on smartwatches, although the precise nature of the content is yet to be explored. Organisations have recently been experimenting with bite-size chunks of video news to be consumed on mobile, and Sonderman agreed that smartwatches could potentially provide a similar platform for video.
"If it's short, if it's pretty quickly digestible," he said. "You're likely to be in some stage of distraction when you consume some kind of information on a smart watch."
The recent experiments in short-form video – such as The New York Times Minute and the BBC's latest foray into the medium with the introduction of the Instagram-based Instafax last week – are transferrable media that "could make a lot of sense", said Sonderman, in giving the audience a quick, bite-size insight into the stories of the day.
The ephemeral nature of breaking news and the context in which people could consume it on a watch may mean the devices would act more as a supplementary device rather than a replacement though, he said.
As an emerging platform for both the production and consumption of news, the truth will out as their use widens.
"I would expect, from what we've learned from mobile and tablets that continues to be true, that you don't actually see people abandoning other platforms in exchange for a smart watch," Sonderman said. "You'll see people incorporate that in new ways and fill new gaps in their lives but they'll still probably use they other things in other ways."
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