Smartwatches: Coming Soon to a Cosmos Near You

This is a column I did for the BBC World Service, broadcast this week. 

There’s been a lot of talk that the big boys — by which I mean Apple and Samsung — are about to launch so-called smart watches. But how smart does a watch have to be before we start strapping them to our wrists in numbers to make a difference?

First off, a confession. I’ve strapped a few things to my wrist in my time. Back in the 80s and 90s I used to love the Casio calculator watch called the Databank, though I can’t actually recall ever doing a calculation on it or putting more than a few phone numbers in there. About a decade ago I reviewed something called the Fossil Wrist PDA, a wrist-bound personal digital assistant. It didn’t take off. In fact, no smart watch has taken off.

So if the smartwatch isn’t new, maybe the world around them is? We’ve moved a long way in the past couple of years, to the point where every device we have occupies a slightly different spot to the one it was intended for. Our phones, for example, are not phones anymore but data devices. And even that has evolved: the devices have changed direction in size, from shrinking to getting larger, as we realise we want to do more on them.

That in turn has made tablets shrink. When Apple introduced the iPad Steve Jobs famously said that was the smallest the tablet could reasonably go, but Samsung proved him wrong with the phablet, and now we have an iPad Mini. All this has has raised serious questions about the future of the laptop computer and the desktop PC.

But it shouldn’t. For a long time we thought that the perfect device would be something that does everything, but the drive to miniaturise components has actually had the opposite effect: we seem to be quite comfortable moving between devices and carrying a bunch of them around with us.

This all makes sense, given that our data is all stored in the cloud, and every device is connected to it either through WiFi, a phone connection or Bluetooth. We often don’t even know how our device is connecting — we just know it is.

So, the smartwatch optimists say, the time is ripe for a smartwatch. Firstly, we’ve demonstrated that we are able to throw out tired conventions about what a device should do. If our phone isn’t really our phone anymore then why not put our phone on our wrist? Secondly, the cloud solves the annoying problem of getting data in and out of the device.

Then there’s the issue of how we interact with it. It’s clear from the chequered history of the smartwatch that using our digits is not really going to work. We might be able to swipe or touch to silence an alarm or take a call, but we’re not going to be tapping out messages on a screen that size.

So it’s going to have to be voice. GeneratorResearch, a research company, reckons this would involve a small earpiece and decent voice-command software like Apple’s Siri. I’m not convinced we’re quite there yet, but I agree with them that it’s going to take someone of Apple’s heft to make it happen and seed the market.

In short, the smart watch might take off if it fits neatly and imaginatively into a sort of cosmos of devices we’re building around ourselves, where each one performs a few specific functions and overlaps with others on some. If it works out, the watch could act as a sort of central repository of all the things we need to know about — incoming messages, appointments, as well as things the cloud thinks we should know about, based on where we are: rain, traffic jams, delayed flights.

But more crucially it could become something that really exploits the frustratingly unrealised potential of voice: where we could more easily, and less self-consciously, talk to our devices and others without having to hold things to our ear, or be misunderstood.

In time, the smartwatch may replace the smartphone entirely.

I’m not completely convinced we’re as close as some think we are, but I’ve said that before and been proved wrong, so who knows?

Carrier IQ’s Opt-Out Data Collection Patent

ZDNet writes here about an Carrier IQ patent that outlines keylogging and ability to target individual devices . Which is interesting. But Carrier IQ owns a dozen patents, including this one, which to me is much more interesting. This patent indicates what Carrier IQ software could do—not what it does—but it is revealing nonetheless:

A communication device and a data server record and collect events and event-related data to create an activity record. A user of the communication device may request that events and related data be recorded and collected using a configuration option on the communication device or through an interaction with the data server. Data are grouped into data sets and uploaded to the data server either automatically or upon user approval. The data server uses the uploaded data to create an activity record which the user may access through a website. The user uploads additional data which are associated with the activity record. In some instances, the data server embeds a link pointing to the additional data in an entry in the activity record corresponding to an event associated with the additional data.

Basically this patent offers a way for a “user”—which could be either the user of the device or the service—to have a record of everything they do:

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While most of the patent is clearly about a product that would create a ‘lifestream’ for the user—where they can access all the things they’ve done with the device, including photos etc, in one tidy presentation, there’s clearly more to it than that. Buried in the patent are indications that it could do all this without the user asking it to. It’s paragraph 0023 which I think is most interesting:

A user of a mobile device requests that events and event-related data be collected by a data server and data collection begins. Alternately, data collection may be a default setting which is turned off only when the device user requests that data collection not occur. In yet another embodiment, a request from a server can initiate, pause, or stop data collection. The mobile device is configured to record events performed by the mobile device as well as event-related data. Typical events that the mobile device records include making or receiving a phone call; sending or receiving a message, including text, audio, photograph, video, email and multimedia messages; recorded voice data, voice messages, taking a photograph; recording the device’s location; receiving and playing an FM or satellite radio broadcast; connecting to an 802.11 or Bluetooth access point; and using other device applications. The data most often related to an event include at least one of: the time, date and location of an event. However, other event-related data include a filename, a mobile device number (MDN) and a contact name. Commonly, the mobile device records events and provides a time, date and location stamp for each event. The events and event-related data can be recorded in sequence and can be stored on the mobile device.

This seems to suggest that

  • basically all activity on the phone can be logged
  • the software can be turned on by default
  • the software can be turned on and off from the server

All this information would be grouped together and uploaded either with the user’s permission or without it:

[0025] The mobile devices may be configured to store one or more data sets and upload the data sets to the data server. In one embodiment, the data sets are uploaded automatically without user intervention, while in other embodiments the mobile device presents a query to the user beforehand. When the mobile device is ready to upload one or more sessions to the data server, a pop-up screen or dialog may appear and present the user with various options. Three such options include (1) delete session, (2) defer and ask again and (3) upload now. The user interface may present the query every time a session is ready to upload, or the user may be permitted to select multiple sessions for deletion, a later reminder or upload all at once. In another embodiments, the uploading of sessions may occur automatically without user intervention. Uploads may also be configured to occur when the user is less likely to be using the device.

This point—about the option to collect such data without the user’s say-so—is confirmed in [0030]:

Although typically the device and the server do not record, upload and collect data unless the user requests it, in other embodiments the communication device and the server automatically record, upload and collect data until the user affirmatively requests otherwise.

And in [0046]:

In embodiments where participation in the data collection services is the default configuration for a mobile device (e.g., an “opt-out” model), it is not necessary to receive a request from a user prior to recording data.

An ‘opt-out’ model is hard to visualize if this is a product that is a user-centric lifestream.

While patents only tell part of the story, there’s no evidence of any such consumer-facing product on Carrier IQ’s website, so one has to assume these capabilities have been, or could be, wrapped into their carrier-centric services. In that sense, I think there’s plenty of interest in here.

The Third Screen Talks to the Second

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Nokia has finally woken up to the potential of connecting its phones to a computer. I’ve written elsewhere about the PC Suite, but its latest version has made some great strides in allowing you to use the computer to manage and monitor your cellphone.

The vision is a simple, and yet elusive, one. We work on our computers when we’re stationary. And on our phone when we’re mobile. But as far as we’re concerned we’re still doing the same thing: working. We can synchronize our data between those two devices, but operating both in real time is more problematic: there are tools to allow us to access our computer data from a phone, but sending and receiving SMS messages, for example, is still considered a phone activity, not a computer one.

It’s a technical barrier, not a lifestyle one.

Nokia, the biggest cellphone manufacturer in the world, has been slow to wake up to this weak link, but they’ve now seemed to see it. We should be able to send and receive SMS messages just like we can send and receive email messsages. It shouldn’t make any difference to us how people communicate with us; the medium shouldn’t matter.

But anyone thumbing out SMS messages in the office when they’d rather be typing them knows it does.

The PC Suite, once just a way to synchronize data between phone and computer, has now started to move into this space. Now it’s not a suite, so much as a Communication Centre. It’s become the interface for your phone (or phones; Bluetooth lets you connect more than one device simultaneously) when you’re at your desk.

The real improvement, therefore, is in the way the desktop software (Windows only) works with messages and contacts on the phone. Previously it was clunky and slow; it felt like the computer was downloading all your messages and contacts each time you wanted to do something. It was often faster just to tap the message out on the phone.

Now it’s fast and easy to use. Your computer will also let you know when a new message arrived, something the old software didn’t. The software is also good-looking and remarkably rich in features. Indeed, I’d argue that you don’t really need Outlook for your contacts with this kind of software working so well. (And yes, it handles non-Western alphabets well too.)

Some weaknesses: there’s still no way to add a phone number to existing contacts—as opposed to creating a new one. And when I first ran the software it ate up nearly all my processing power, which wasn’t pretty (it’s since settled down.)

Intriguingly, there’s a Firefox extension for synchronising bookmarks between your computer and phone browsers.

This is the closest I’ve seen to making the phone an appendage to your computer, where it seamlessly integrates in terms of data and functionality. Some steps to go, but kudos to Nokia for pushing the envelope. Hopefully soon enough we won’t notice or care what medium—SMS, email, chat–we’re using, because it will all be one simple interface. That day just came closer.

The Predictable Human (and a Privacy Issue)

A study of mobile phone data shows that we are extraordinarily consistent about our movements. Mobile phone data, unsurprisingly, provides rich pickings for researchers since we carry one around with us all the time, and, unlike dollar bills, it’s more likely to stick with one person. But some have questioned the ethics of such a study.

The BBC reports that the study, by Albert-László Barabási and two others, shows we are much more predictable in our movements than we might think:

The whereabouts of more than 100,000 mobile phone users have been tracked in an attempt to build a comprehensive picture of human movements.

The study concludes that humans are creatures of habit, mostly visiting the same few spots time and time again.

Most people also move less than 10km on a regular basis, according to the study published in the journal Nature.

This is fascinating stuff, and perhaps not unexpected. But appended to the Nature news article on the study are two signed comments by readers alleging that the authors of the study didn’t follow correct ethical procedure. Someone calling themselves John McHaffie says

What is particularly disturbing about this study is something that the Nature news article failed to reveal: that Barabasi himself said he did not check with any ethics panel. And this for an action that is, in fact illegal in the United States. Disgusting lack of ethics, I’d say. And the statement from his co-author Hidalgo isn’t much better: “We’re not trying to do evil things. We’re trying to make the world a little better”. The old “trust me, I know better” argument. Maybe this two should take a basic graduate-level ethics course.

I’ve not yet confirmed it, but it’s likely to be John G. McHaffie of the University of Wake Forest. Another commenter, Dan Williams, calls for a federal investigation of the school involved in the study.

I don’t have access to the original Nature article, so I can’t explore this further right now. But the Nature news item itself says that “Barabási and his colleagues teamed up with a mobile-phone company (unidentified to protect customers’ privacy), who provided them with anonymized data on which transmitter towers had handled the calls and texts for 100,000 individuals over the course of 6 months.”

This is clearly gold. The article suggests that others have long sought to get their hands on mobile phone data. It quotes Dirk Brockmann of Northwestern University in Illinois, as saying that he had not been able to expand a study he did using dollar bills because of privacy issues:

Strict data-protection laws prevented Brockmann from carrying out his own version of the mobile-phone study in Germany, where he was based until recently. Mobile-phone data have the potential to reveal information about where individuals live and work. “I’ve been trying to get my hands on mobile-phone data but it isn’t possible,” he says.

Privacy issues aside, the study is fascinating, and could be useful in monitoring disease outbreaks or traffic forecasting. (I wrote about one using Bluetooth a couple of days ago.) And how about riots? Unrest? Shoppers?

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Mobile phones expose human habits

Bluetooth Tracking

morning rush hour

Research from Purdue University shows that Bluetooth would be a very good way to track travel time. Bluetooth devices give off unique IDs which could be used to measure speed and movement of pedestrians and vehicles.

But why stop there? Wouldn’t it be possible to track people via their Bluetooth signal, if you knew one of their device IDs? Anyway, here’s the abstract (thanks, Roland.)

Travel time is one of the most intuitive and widely understood performance measures. However, it is also one of the most difficult performance measures to accurately estimate. Toll tag tracking has demonstrated the utility of tracking electronic fingerprints to estimate link travel time. However, these devices have a small penetration outside of areas served by toll facilities, and the proprietary tag reading equipment is not widely available. This paper reports on tracking of a wide variety of consumer electronics that already contain unique digital fingerprints.

Method uses ‘Bluetooth’ to track travel time for vehicles, pedestrians

Bye Bye, Laptop?

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The day seems to be getting closer when we can do something that would seem to be pretty obvious: access our pocket-sized smartphone via a bigger screen, keyboard and a mouse. Celio Corp says it’s close.

Celio Corp have two products: their Mobile Companion (pictured above), a laptop like thing that includes an 8″ display, a full function keyboard, and a touchpad mouse. At 1 x 6 x 9 inches and weighing 2 lbs, the Mobile Companion promises over 8 hours of battery life and boots instantly. After loading a driver on your smartphone you can then access it via a USB cable or Bluetooth. (You can also charge the smartphone via the same USB connection.)

Uses? Well, you can say goodbye to coach cramp, where you’re unable to use a normal laptop. You can input data more easily than you might if you just had your smartphone with you. And, of course, you don’t need to bring your laptop.

The second product might be even better. The Smartphone Interface System is, from what I can work out, a small Bluetooth device that connects your smartphone, not to the Mobile Companion, but to a desktop computer, public display or a conference room projector  — these devices connect via a cable to the Interface, like this:

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The important bit about both products is that the Redfly software renders the smartphone data so it fits on the new display (this will be quite tricky, and, because it will carried via Bluetooth, would need quite a bit of compression. The maximum size of the output display is VGA, i.e. 800 x 480, so don’t expect stunning visuals, but it’ll be better than having all your colleagues crowding around your smartphone.)

The bad news? Redfly isn’t launched yet, and will for the time being be available only for Windows Mobile Devices. Oh, and according to UberGizmo, it will cost $500. The other thing is that you shouldn’t confuse “full function keyboard” with “full size keyboard”: this vidcap from PodTech.net gives you an idea of the actual size of the thing:

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this is the keyboard size relative to Celio CEO Kirt Bailey’s digits:

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Until I try the thing out and feel sure that the keyboard doesn’t make the same compromises as the Eee PC, I’d rather use my Stowaway keyboard.

For those of you looking for software to view your mobile device on your desktop computer, you might want to check out My Mobiler. It’s free software that purports to do exactly that for Windows Mobile users.

Pocket Lockets

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videocapture from myTreo.net

Here’s something that caught my eye from CES: D.A.V.E. from Seagate. Despite its awful name (it stands for Digital Audio Video Experience) it’s a great idea. It’s basically a small 60 GB external hard drive but it’s small (65 x 90 x 16 mm) and light (106 grams) and connects to a smart phone via WiFi or Bluetooth. The devices contain a USB port for uploading data (and presumably can use a wired connection from smartphones too, should the need arise.)

As Tadd Rosenfeld of myTreo.net puts it:

We believe DAVE is a game changer. With the introduction of 1 gigahertz smartphone processors (check back for our interview with Qualcomm about their new high end processors for Windows Mobile devices), and with the introduction of DAVE, smartphones are going to have have virtually all of the processing and storage capabilities of laptop and desktop computers. Smartphones will become simply one more way of accessing everything you have on your computers at work and home.

True, but it seems to be taking a bit longer to come out of the traps than earlier expected. ZDNet wrote a year agao that the devices should be available in May 2007. There’s no sign of that, and in fact it sounds as if Seagate is not selling them directly, merely selling the technology. And if weight and size are not too much of an issue, Singapore’s EDS Lab Pte Ltd has had a similar sort of product in the market for some time — the wi-Drive, which connects via WiFi (not Bluetooth) measures 112 x 77 x 22 mm, and weighs 230 grams. (I’m trying to get hold of one of these.)

Another option is the BluOnyx from LSI Corporation. Describing itself as a Mobile Content Server, the BluOnyx connects via Bluetooth, SD card, USB and Wifi and allows several people to access content at the same time. The device comes in lots of different colors, is about the size of a credit card and slightly thicker than a Razr (that would be about 85 x 57 mm x 10 mm). Given that the device was announced more than a year ago, and that the BluOnyx was created by Agere Systems, which was bought by LSI last year, the fate of the BluOnyx isn’t clear. Doesn’t look like you can buy one yet.

Most of the buzz seems to be around accessing multimedia content — basically turning your device into a sort of iPod, but with the weight elsewhere. I guess that would be the main usage, though I love the idea of being able to take all my databases with me and then access them from whatever device I want. But I can see why these products don’t necessarily fly: who wants an extra piece of hardware to lose in the bottom of a bag? And while extra storage would be nice, anything with Bluetooth in it is bound to be a hassle. And, surely, the day can’t be far off when our smartphone has 60GB of storage built in?

Love the idea, can see why the reality isn’t in all of our pockets. Yet.

60 GB of Treo Storage – Editorials

Sleeping, Frothing, Typing and Sealing

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 The Wall Street Journal’s holiday gift guide is out. My contributions, some of which would be familiar to regular readers:

Sleeptracker Pro $179. A successor to the Sleeptracker which I wrote about a couple of years ago (Sandman’s Little Helpers, Jan 13, 2006), the Pro is a watch which monitors your sleep patterns — more specifically, your movements while asleep — to wake you up when you’re at the lightest stage of sleep. The Pro improves on its predecessor with a better watch design and the ability to move your sleep data to a PC with a USB cable. Great for sleepyheads.

Aerolatte milk frother (about $30) I must have been through a dozen cappuccino machines, and they usually die slowly and noisily. I even once had a neighbor complain. The aerolatte won’t make you an espresso, but it does away with all the milk frothing side of things: a small, beautifully designed whisk powered by two AA batteries, just insert it in warm milk and the froth is delivered in an instant, sans noise pollution. And you can take it with you on trips or to dinner parties where their froth isn’t good enough for you.

iGo Stowaway Ultra-Slim Bluetooth Keyboard (about $150) Connects via Bluetooth with most gadgets — including a laptop — the Stowaway has the keyboard action, the compact size and the sleek look to merit a spot in your baggage or suit pocket. Makes typing an SMS or email on your smartphone a pleasure. Don’t settle for the cheap imitations; the guys behind these spent a lot of time ensuring the feel of the keyboard is up to snuff.

Clip n Seal (above, from $5) Another gadget I won’t travel without: the Clip n Seal is a tube of plastic clasped by another — a sort of clamp. It’s simple and will keep food fresh, bug free and unspilled, even in the tropics where I live.

WSJ.com

How To Report on the Road

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I’ve always been looking for the perfect way to report on the road — do you write shorthand notes, do you record it all and transcribe it later, do you use digital writing tools like Logitech’s io Pen? Or a combination? Each one I’ve done has fallen down, usually because I get bored transcribing or deciphering my notes. The result is a lot of stuff gets lost along the way.

At a recent conference I ran into a guy who seems to have the answer: Don Sambandaraksa, technology writer for The Bangkok Post, who manages to touch type so fast on a Think Outside Bluetooth keyboard that his fingers are a blur.

image For a big guy it’s impressive display (I’ve got some video I’ll try to upload at some point). He is able to ask questions and keep eye contact with the interviewee (admittedly, with a faraway gaze in his eyes, but that may well be his normal look) the whole time, and when I snuck a peek at what he was typing, it looked good. I tested him out afterwards, and it seems he can do it on most subjects, including obscure Javanese kings.

He then dumps it all in his computer and is able to file quickly back to head office. (He also takes photos and all sorts of stuff on the spot. He’s a citizen journalist in a whirlwind.)

I was sufficiently ashamed to try it out myself. I wish I’d brought a Nokia N800 with me, which would have worked better than the measly notes application on the N95. But I didn’t do too badly — though by no means as fast as The Don. I asked him whether it meant he couldn’t focus so much on what was being said, and ask the right questions, but he said no, he’d been typing since the age of 5 (!) so it was no biggie. And, if his questions were anything to go by, he’s probably right.

Bluetooth’s Missing Suitcase

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Remember when Samsonite launched the Bluetooth suitcase? No, well, that’s not surprising, because they didn’t. This week’s WSJ.com column is (subscription only, I’m afraid) the first in a series about finding stuff in the real world. I started with a hunt for the Bluetooth suitcase, first announced in 2002 (and weirdly, still up on the Samsonite website):

I got all excited five years ago when Samsonite announced a suitcase that used Bluetooth, a wireless technology more commonly used to connect cellphones to headsets, to carry data about the owner and alert him or her if the case was moved. Hooray, I thought: Now we’ll all know where our luggage is. Unfortunately not: The Samsonite Hardlite never saw the light of day for technical reasons, although the company says it’s still looking at other ways to identify and secure luggage.

This is about as close as we came to the idea that the wireless technologies we now take for granted — Bluetooth, WiFi, infrared, cellphones, GPS — would actually help us stay in touch with the important things in life, like our stuff. Which is a shame. I would love to be able to ping all the Bluetooth gadgets in my house via my cellphone and know where they are. One Bluetooth headset has been missing for years.

I then take a look at what’s available. But what intrigued me was: what happened to the Samsonite case? This is what Samsonite PR came up with:

It seems from what I can gather this collection was in the end not launched. The reasons seem to be quite numerous – the cost to the consumer would have been significant, a lot of mobile phones were not compatible with the technology at the time, and today would still require additional memory.

Another person I contacted had this to say:

Basically the project did not make it to the market because of several reasons.

About 10 pieces were made for field testing, but there were issues on the standardisation. At the time Bluetooth technology was still at an early development stage and not yet standardised, so for a product to be able to ‘talk’ to another wasn’t that straight forward and obvious. Therefore after the field testing it was decided that the benefits for the consumer just weren’t sufficient. At the moment there are no plans to resurrect the project.

Which I found interesting. To me, back in 2002, the suitcase made all sorts of sense. Bluetooth, cellphones, missing suitcases: who wouldn’t have gone for something like that? But Bluetooth has always been a bit of a devil when it comes to anything other than really basic connectivity. Even Mac users have been heard to complain of connecting Bluetooth devices to their laptops.

Would today’s Bluetooth be able to cope with with this kind of concept now? Is it already doing so? Or would security concerns — how long would it take before someone puts together software to reprogram the data on a Samsonite suitcase so it gets diverted to Luang Prabang?