Posted by Ashleigh Allsopp 20 February 2014
The future of smartwatch apps
Smartwatches are expected to be the next big thing in the world of technology. They dominated the 2014 Consumer Electronic Show, with many companies launching new wrist-worn gadgets during the event, and it's rumoured that Samsung and Apple will be unveiling new smartwatches this year.
As technology advances and becomes even more integral to our day-to-day lives, we strive to own gadgets that can help out with more and more of our daily tasks. It looks like wearable technology is going to be the answer, bringing something completely new to our lives that could soon become commonplace, and change our relationship with technology completely.
Currently, smartwatches from the likes of Samsung, Sony, Pebble and more act as a middleman between you and your smartphone or tablet, saving you the trouble of getting your mobile device out of your pocket or bag.
In addition to acting as a traditional watch, they can also display information such as text messages, missed calls and other notifications including Twitter and Facebook.
Some smartwatches can also allow you to carry out simple tasks like remotely controlling your music playback or even making and receiving phone calls.
Last year, smartwatch apps were quite limited, in turn limiting the functionality of the devices themselves. However, during CES this year, smartwatch maker Pebble revealed that it would be launching the first ever app store for wearable tech. Pebble's app store opened on 3 February with more then 1,000 apps and watchfaces to choose from.
This is sure to spark an influx of new smartwatch apps, and will certainly get app developers thinking about how they need to adapt their apps to keep up with the growing smartwatch trend. Plus, Apple is rumoured to be working on an iWatch that's expected launch this year, and, if it does, it's bound to be a game-changer.
What apps are available for smartwatches?
Pebble has opened the first ever smartwatch app store (above), ahead of an expected smartwatch app "explosion" this year.
At the moment, each smartwatch app is built for a specific smartwatch, so not every device will be able to run every smartwatch app, but are a few examples of the apps available for Pebble, Samsung Galaxy Gear and Sony SmartWatch so you can get an idea of what a smartwatch can do for you.
So far, popular apps including Yelp, Foursquare and Pandora are available for the Pebble smartwatch. For other big-name apps like Twitter and Facebook, third-party developers have come up with apps such as Twebble. For maps, there's the PebbleGPS app, and there are weather apps, too.
Owners of the Nest Learning Thermostat can use the Leaf Pebble app to control the temperature in there home, while those with Philips Hue lighting can turn lights on and off simply by tapping their watch.
There's even an online banking app called Interact that allows users to view their bank balance and recent transactions and will vibrate if the user nears their overdraft limit.
Sony's SmartWatch also has a reasonable range of apps available, including the SmartWatch Universal IM app that lets you receive notifications from the likes of Facebook Messenger, Skype, WhatsApp, Google Voice and more on your wrist.
There are a variety of apps available for Sony's SmartWatch 2 (above).
There's SmartWatch app that helps you find your phone, one that allows you to record audio simply by swiping to the right (it's called A007 Spy, and will make you feel rather Bond-like). There are also games such as Soduku and a Tetris-like game called Blocks.
Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch can run apps including Evernote, eBay, the Path social networking app, Pocket – which lets you listen to articles you've saves in the app, TripIt for flight information, Zite, Feedly and more.
That's not to mention the fitness and health apps available for all of the smartwatches, enabling you to collect data such as the distance you've traveled, how many calories you've burned and more.
While there are many useful apps already available, we should expect to begin seeing new, more adventurous and innovative apps being developed to help streamline and improve our relationship with mobile in all areas of our lives.
Plus, new beacon technology, which can offer you information based on your location as detected by a small proximity device placed a relevant place, could take smartwatches even further.
In a gallery, for example, a beacon could be hidden behind a painting so that, as you approach it, your smartwatch will automatically display relevant information. Alternatively, if a beacon has detected you've been browsing the cheese isle while in a supermarket, it could automatically recommend a wine that pairs nicely with cheese when you get to the alcohol isle.
Imagining future smartwatch apps
To find out what the future could hold for apps designed for smartwatches, we spoke to leading app developers from Fjord, Ustwo and 5K.
"Where the Nike Fuelband on its own provides a mere counter of steps, the ecosystem surrounding fuel points, and all that enables, taps into human nature in a way that changes behaviour," said Abbie Walsh, group director at Fjord, the Accenture Interactive design company behind the Adidas miCoach smartwatch.
"This is the true potential of the 'wearable' device. Something close to our skin, an expression of ourselves, and yet external to us, can truly lead to the next big leap in our relationship with technology," she told us. "But it needs to have a meaningful and ongoing dialogue with everyone that dons one. That means thinking beyond the device itself and understanding deeply the motivations and needs of the people who will wear it." That's where apps come in.
Samsung is rumoured to be about to launch a follow up to its Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch (above).
"Wearable tech feels like the mobile market about seven years ago," added Matt Pollitt from 5K, a digital design company that is about to launch its own Pebble watchface and has created a clever smartglasses app called Vela. "It's early days. The tech is still quite clunky, but people are starting to get excited about the possibilities attached to it."
Ustwo visual designer Shaun Tollerton said: "Wearable is going to take off. In fact, it already did, but it reminds me of when 3D took off. Once the gimmick and hype wears off we can focus on creating functionality that can truly benefit our lives."
"We are limited to some extent by social expectation, but therein lies the next big challenge for interaction design," said Abbie. "What are the gestures, actions, inputs that we will use when the device we're communicating with doesn't have a screen or is buried inside our clothes?"
Additionally, it's too early to know exactly what apps will be popular for smartwatch owners. It's a whole new way of interacting with technology, so it's ripe for exploration but also, inevitably, many failures.
"I believe many smartwatch app opportunities lie in those that directly affect us, such as our health, lifestyle, and even fashion," explained Abbie. "But talking to our wrist, obsessively checking our watch for notifications, messages, emails? What's the social etiquette around that?"
So what sorts of apps can we expect to see emerging, and, more importantly, succeeding? Most of the experts we spoke to believe health and fitness will continue to be the main uses for smartwatches, but as designers and developers get more comfortable and experiment with new ways of implementing smartwatches, we'll begin to see apps emerging outside of that field.
"Smartwatches still feel like an extension of other devices you would have on your person," said Matt. "But, as we see them mature, I would like to see them as an alternative to carrying a large phone or as a second screen offering discretion where required. Initially, we expect there might be the usual quick to market phone and tablet app ports of big name apps and services which should give way to some more interesting ideas later on as the adoption curve peaks."
"It's very easy to think of a smartwatch as a smartphone on your wrist, but what's the point, especially if you already own a smartphone?" said Shaun. "If we can reduce the amount of time that we currently spend glued to our phone screens I think we'd all be a lot happier and more efficient."
"That could be achieved by surfacing information you want directly to your wrist, before you even think about it (think Google Now)," he continued. "Then there's the rise of health and fitness apps that will continue to gain traction with a huge potential to revolutionise healthcare systems around the world as they tap into the data captured by such apps (with our permission of course)."
Will Apple's iWatch be a game-changer?
The rumoured iWatch has been imagined by concept artists including Martin Hajek, who based this concept (above) on the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c designs.
With so many companies already venturing into the wearable tech market, there's one glaringly obvious tech giant that has yet to take the plunge: Apple. Speculation points to an iWatch for 2014, and it's likely that Apple will put a big emphasis on apps for the device, as it has done for its other products.
"Apple is once again at the crest of the next technology wave. The big difference this time is that the world has already caught up," Abbie told us. "The question should be: what can they do that will accelerate and open up this new world of possibility to everyone? The answer might be a very different Apple approach. One informed by external design disciplines not aimed at their fan base at all, but finding a place where fashion and service design meet."
So what can we expect to see from Apple's iWatch and the apps that arrive alongside it?
"I'd love something like Google Now, or in Apple's case, Siri," said Shaun, referring to the voice-activated personal assistant currently found on iOS devices. "The right information would be displayed on my wrist at just the right time. Train times, flight updates, whether to take an umbrella as I leave home etc."
"I can also see potential for iOS apps to have extensions of themselves present on such an iWatch, which would be in constant communication via Bluetooth LTE for example. A range of interactions could be reduced to just a single tap or two, such as making payments, checking in, RSVPing to meetings etc. This would be achieved because all of the heavy lifting would be made on the iPhone."
"We would like to see it being something self-charging and non-intrusive; with reliable integration across the other devices that people would use," added Matt. "It would ideally fill the gap for when people want to discreetly view messages or get bite sized pieces of information delivered to them. Subtle haptic feedback would also be cool."