Hold The Phone, I Want My Dick Tracy Watch

A few days ago, I read Nilay Patel’s review of the Pebble smartwatch for The Verge. Like many others, I bought a Pebble on Kickstarter, and I can’t wait to try it out myself. But one part of Patel’s review stuck out at me in particular:

Any incoming notification will quietly buzz the Pebble and light up the screen. Frankly, it’s great — being able to see who’s texting, emailing, or calling you without looking at your phone changes the entire dynamic of being connected. The upside is obvious: only reaching for your phone when it’s something important means you reach for your phone much less often. (I particularly enjoy screening calls from my wrist.)

This. This is what I’ve been waiting for. Well, it’s close.

The entire world is enamored with smartphones right now. And rightfully so — they’re reshaping almost everything we do on a daily basis. It’s a computer, in your pocket, with internet power.

But wait. Go back. Did you catch it? “In your pocket.”

I don’t know how many times a day I now reach into my pocket to pull out my phone. If I had to guess, I’d guess a hundred. Maybe it’s a lot more. That’s a lot of the same motion over and over and over again. And for what? Usually, nothing important. My phone vibrates, I pull out the phone. Nothing important. I put it away. Five seconds later, I repeat the process.

In aggregate, I probably waste at least 30 minutes each day doing this. But again, some days it’s probably more. That’s insane.

I know that I’m going to experience the same feeling of bliss that Patel did when I use the Pebble for notifications and stop pulling out my phone every minute. But I also know that I’ll immediately want more. I’ll want what I’ve always wanted. A Dick Tracy watch.

For those of you under 70 years old (and honestly, I probably only know about Dick Tracy because of the 1990 Warren Beatty/Madonna man-in-the-banana-suit oddity), Tracy was a police detective with the coolest gadget ever: a wristwatch phone. And while that was extremely forward-thinking in the 1940s, a wristwatch that’s just a phone (they’ve obviously existed in various forms for years) seems narrow-minded now. Even on smartphones, the phone aspect itself is arguably the least interesting feature. And amongst the younger demographics, probably one of the least-used.

I want a Dick Tracy watch that can do all kinds of things beyond just making calls. Call/SMS notifications are a great first step. Third-party app notifications will be even better. But the next step will be something like Siri on the device, that allows you to talk to your watch to actually do things.

If you think about it, a watch makes more sense for Siri-type technology than a smartphone does. With a smartphone, it’s still very easy to type commands. Many people avoid talking to their phones when they’re not on a call so they don’t look like asshats who are talking to their phones. It’s still awkward and it will be for a while. But with a watch, you have no other choice. There’s no room for a keyboard (well, unless you get something like this). Voice is the only thing that makes sense. It will force a paradigm shift. And Siri (or another similar technology) will be there to take advantage of our suddenly chatty society.

“Siri, take this note:…” “Siri, send this message to dad:…” “Siri, what was the score of the game today?” These are all things we can do right now. But it’s usually still faster to simply take those actions by typing them into a smartphone. Again, on a watch, the voice commands will be the only option.

Obvious, right? We all know that’s coming. I’d be shocked if both Apple and Google are not working on wristwatch-type devices right now. Apple must have seen how many different iPod nano watch projects emerged over the past few years on Kickstarter. And I have to believe they wouldn’t have changed the form factor of the nano unless they knew they’d address this desire themselves one day. Now everyone is looking at the Pebble and the various other wrist devices and seeing dollar signs. Someone is going to nail this space. Maybe a few people will.

But even a Siri wrist device is just step two towards what I really want. The ultimate wrist device would be about push and not just pull. That is, such a device should know your location and serve you up information beyond explicit message notifications or information you’re actively looking for. Think: Google Now. Or perhaps even better, Google FieldTrip.

Maybe you’re walking through a city for the first time, your watch should know that and serve you up interesting tidbits about the area. Maybe its Foursquare venues your friends have been to and liked. Maybe it’s historical data you’ve searched for on Wikipedia in the past. Maybe it’s an Instagram that a friend took. Maybe it’s a place to get toothpaste that you were searching for on Google earlier. Maybe it’s a warning that it’s about to start pouring rain.

This obviously doesn’t have to be audible information, the watch would still have a screen to serve this information up. And if you wanted more than a standard, quick overview, maybe you could “send it to your phone” to dive deeper with more screen real estate.

But wouldn’t all that get annoying very quick? Yes. Patel brings this up as well even with the limited notifications the Pebble provides:

The downside is that it’s harder to simply ignore your phone and let messages stack up while you focus on something else; having the Pebble buzz your wrist for every email and text means you’re hyper-aware of your inbox at all times. Some filters and priority settings would go a long way — having a Pebble changes the contours of distraction, but doesn’t reduce it. But once you’re used to having notifications on your wrist, it’s hard to live without them.

In other words, the good outweighs the bad. And Patel is right, smart filters would go a long way here (don’t buzz me at certain times, only show important information, etc). Even more simple would be a do-not-disturb toggle. If you’re walking around and want the notifications coming your way, flip it on. If you just want to enjoy a walk the old-fashioned way and remain oblivious to the river of information flowing all around you, turn it off.

At first, these Dick Tracy watches are undoubtedly going to rely heavily on your smartphone, just as the Pebble does. Eventually, though, the tech can and will reside on your wrist. Maybe then the smartphone is the thing people carry around mainly to take pictures with. Crazy to think about now, perhaps. But why are we all walking around with a computer in our pockets?

Google Glass is a fascinating bit of technology. But I say there’s no way that sees any sort of mainstream adoption before my Dick Tracy watch does. Baby steps. And we’re getting very close to that particular step. I can’t wait.