A Dimmed Start for Wear: Untapped Style Potential
There are some fundamental problems with Android Wear, and smartwatches as a whole. We’ve discussed some of these on our feature about its slow adoption. What many enthusiasts think holds Wear back is the lack of a decent app ecosystem, and the fact that it has not gained the functionality it needs. Meanwhile, market analysts place the poor penetration on the relatively high prices, many complaining that $200 is too much for a secondary gadget that does just what your phone does better. Than there are those that care about practicality, and complain about how the hardware just isn’t there when it comes to having a reliable assistant to one’s life – particularly the awful battery life we see today. Finally, designers blame this mitigated boom on the hardware design of Wear, as it initially had very lame options and has only gotten better recently, now that we have a couple round watches with a more traditional look and feel.
I think that, fundamentally, all of these issues are indeed holding Wear back. They are all core aspects of what a smartwatch gives and what a smartwatch takes. An expensive, ugly phone with poor battery and little functionality is not going to sell. However, all of these fronts are being improved to an extent: Price goes down on older devices as well as newer ones like the Asus ZenWatch, the designs are getting prettier, battery life is improving with software updates, and we’ve seen some new apps and features being added… albeit slowly. But there is one thing that I think is holding it back severely, something that the mainstream consumer really cares about – even if unknowingly – and that has to do with all the previous items (software, hardware, design, price), to an extent: Watchfaces.
Wait a minute! There’s hundreds of beautiful watchfaces in the Google Playstore! What are you talking about?!
There are, indeed! I’ve downloaded and tried hundreds of watchfaces over the course of a few months, trying to find the style that fits my personality and outfit. And I found some real gems that are very useful for certain contexts. In fact, I switch my watchface all the time! If I have a casual look, I’ll put a digital one with big numbers. If I am wearing something formal, I’ll load up a classy analog one. If I feel trendy, you’ll see me with more experimental (and rather unreadable!) goodness. All of these are colorful and beautiful… for a few seconds.
You probably know what I’m getting at by now, so I’ll just say it: dimmed screens and ambient mode suck.
New gadget, new love
The day I first bought my smartwatch I felt that new-gadget-joy that you are probably familiar with. I just couldn’t wait to get home and rip the box open, turn it on, get the obligatory software update (Google doesn’t care if it’s the first day on the market, you will see a software update), and get engrossed for a couple of hours exploring every nook and cranny of the device.
So that I did: me and my girlfriend arrived at her place, we unboxed it and we turned it on. Beautiful bootanimation ensued; I had never expected such vibrant colors moving around like ink on my wrist. After a while I finally got it set up and I was greeted with a colorful and beautiful watchface. We were impressed at the crispness of it. I pressed the power button to see the dimmed state… now the watchface was black and white, dull, and way more pixelated than before.
“That sucks”, we commented in unison.
The problem is that, because your smartwatch has to be in a dimmed state for most of the day, you never even really get to show off all the different beautiful watchfaces. What’s the point of being able to customize your watchface if no one will get to see it due to an ambient mode?
You are probably either informed or smart enough to realize why your smartwatch’s screen can’t be pretty all the time. If you haven’t yet, just look at your phone and think of why you turn off its screen.
Smartwatches are no different in that regard: their screens suck up tons of battery. In fact, they probably do so more than smartphones do, as they typically need a higher standard brightness for sunlight legibility. So just like your phone can last days on standby but about 10 hours turned on, smartwatches don’t have the battery capabilities to have their screen on all the time. Android Wear is all about short interactions, and it’s safe to say you’ll only spend an hour with your watch’s screen on every day, at the most. If smartwatches are dissed for their crappy battery when the screen is on for such a minuscule percentage of the day, imagine how much they’d suck with an always-on screen.
Some watches can’t even handle the dimmed screen properly, like the Moto 360 because of its sub-par battery. Then those that do can take two paths: IPS LCD panels drain more battery than their OLED counterparts in this regard, because the backlight has to be on as if it was displaying a regular picture anyway. The AMOLED screen in the Gear live, for example, has a rather good standby battery as it only lights up the few pixels it needs to make the dimmed watchface. You’d think that this is the tech to go with for these devices, or that they were designed around this technology. Well, it isn’t the case, because AMOLED screens suffer from a very irritating fault on Wear, that falls completely inline with topic of style we are discussing: to prevent the common burn-in of LED screens, the dimmed watch-face moves a pixel or two every 30 seconds or so. Nobody seems to talk about this, and having have known this, I might have opted for another watch, because it leads to completely asymmetrical and misaligned watchfaces.
Than there’s the other culprit, which is the battery. You typically see around 300mAh batteries for smartwatches, because of their reduced size. At this point, there’s not all that much one can do about that. Battery density can be taken further through different technologies, be it through electro-chemical batteries or the more futuristic kinds that are promised to come soon. But as of now, these batteries don’t last us enough because of their current densities in their limited space.
You’ve also got bluetooth and now GPS modems taking up small chunks of battery. Bluetooth has dramatically improved in the past decade, which is why we even have an always-on bluetooth smartwatch at all. A GPS could potentially wreck a smartwatch’s battery life, but luckily there’s no need to have it on all the time, especially when you’ve got a smartphone in your pocket.
As it is, it seems that one of the easiest ways of getting better battery life out of smartwatches is through software. Google knows this, and the latest Android Wear updates have dramatically improved battery life for some users. But even then, the theoretical bounds are firstly restricted by the hardware, and that’s where most R&D should go to if we want pretty all-week smartwatches.
E-paper, like seen in the Pebble, was once destined to a colorful future. Many prototypes were exhibited about a decade ago, but then there were nowhere to be seen. This was because of how costly it was to develop – enough to drive Samsung ( yes, even Samsung) out of R&D for it. Than there’s the fact that consumers mostly stopped caring about the technology once they saw the bright and beautiful displays of iPads and the like. Conformism, eh?
Nevertheless, such a display would use little power, could look very pretty and, best of all, it would look a lot more matte and non-reflective than current LCD and AMOLED displays. This last bit is also important, because it simply isn’t the same to have an entirely light-based screen like those we see today in a smartwatch that will see a lot of sunlight. Not only does it make it so that the battery takes a hit due to the needed increase in brightness, but it also means that the design on your wrist would look worse, and not material-looking as in actual watches, even if we get to the point where it is on all the time.
There are other display technologies that could be explored, however, like E-ink (a particular type of E-paper). This is hard to believe, as E-ink is typically black-and-white because of the way it fundamentally works: white ink has one charge, black ink another, and instead of powering up light-bulbs, these screens move this matter around with electrically charged arrays that magnetically attract the ink and morph them into the images to be displayed. Since there’s two possible charges, don’t expect colored e-ink anytime soon… but it is possible.
There are color ones achievable already, like three-color-ink displays – the simplest and most common – that work by exploiting differences in the speeds that the molecules move through in a solution. Red particles would, for example, move faster than black ones, and then they’d share a charge. If the array turns off and on quickly, red ink would get to the target surface faster and you’d have color on your Kindle. If you leave the display on for longer, though, black particles can reach the display and bloat the red out of existence. If this technique is perfected, you could see many colors… But most certainly not the 16-bit scheme of current smartwatches, not anytime soon and possibly never with such a technique.
Finally there’s Graphene. This is a very “futuristic” material that I’m sure some of the science literate around here are well versed in. Graphene is now very well-publicized and rather famous, as it is being developed by many big-name manufacturers and research companies out there. It is a two-dimensional carbon allotrope; basically a sheet of carbon, that is one atom thick (and thus, 2D). The electronic properties we care about are based around the fact that the electrons in it are highly mobile, so mobile that they are comparable to photons (light, the fastest moving thing the universe can hold). Graphene is also extremely durable with high mechanical strength.
So graphene can be used for all sorts of things: energy storage is one of them. Standard energy storage has been developing at a slow rate. Lithium-ion batteries can probably have graphene incorporated as an anode, to offer much higher storage capacities, better longevity and a faster charge rate. Micro-supercapacitors made of graphene can also be developed to charge smartphones quickly while still retaining a high energy storage – and these could be commercially available just 5 years from now if we are lucky. Especially with Samsung’s latest breakthrough in graphene manufacturing. This would be the boost in battery-life, and thus screen-on-time, that we all want so much.
Sadly, these technologies won’t be commercially available next year, or the next. Technology has ramped up in speed in many fronts, with chipsets following Moore’s Law to the letter for decades, and software having evolved like it has in the past few years. Yet the science and industry behind power efficiency in displays and batteries hasn’t seen the same exponential growth. The fact that we can carry this sort of computing power in our pockets, and have it do all these miraculous things for us in a snap of a finger is more than fascinating to us power-users, however, even if we can’t do it for a week on a single charge.
But smartwatches aren’t just about functionality, no matter how hard the tech-focused could get to believe it is. While a smartphone mostly rests hidden from people’s view, a watch is part of an outfit, and in some cases it can make or break it. This is not to say smartphones aren’t fashionable, or fashion status icons, too – just look at iPhones and the part of the following they have over just that fact. But a smartwatch can compliment your self-expression through your outfit in a way a smartphone can’t – because through software watchfaces, the permutations and thus possibilities are almost endless. And the best part is, they are easy enough to do and thus there’s a wide variety available. Or better yet – you can make your own.
Yet the black and white options we have now aren’t enough. If you remove color from your watch, you remove a whole cardinal dimension of possibilities. It doesn’t matter if you are a fashion student or someone that loves clothes from the 1800’s, you can still enjoy a fully imaged smartwatch display, as you can emulate just about whatever you want. Yes, you can even rip-off a Rolex if you want.
And because of this, I think that smartwatches have lagged in adoption. They simply aren’t that great looking when they are dimmed. Manufacturers know that – you will not see many promotional photos of their watches being on a B&W dimmed state. Some consumers might fall for this at first, but eventually everyone notices that the screen will either be off, or black and white most of the time. That’s simply not cool. The software functions aren’t enticing enough, and the software watchfaces get limited by the hardware, which leads to a less fashionable device that doesn’t justify the price As with most technology, many factors are connected and together they can enhance or detract from the user-experience. Smartwatches go full circle in this regard, and as long as we can’t have watches as colorful as dumb watches for weeks at a time, I can’t see the former begin completely overtaking the latter (like smartphones are)… not just sooner or later, but at all.