Smartwatches usually treat notifications with blunt-force indiscretion. It's an all or nothing affair. You either turn off notifications entirely, letting your wrist wear go quiet, or you leave notifications on, and let the watch respond to all incoming signals with a buzz or a chime.
The first option defeats everything we want in a smartwatch--these gadgets are supposed to save us the trouble of checking our phones for critical communiques. But the second option is annoying--once those emails, text messages, and call notifications pile on in rapid succession, you want to throw your watch down the sewer.
But perhaps help is on the way. A company called reQall has just ported its reqallable smartphone app to Sony's Smartwatch platform, promising algorithmic relief for notifications overload. Available now on Google Play, the app hooks directly into your calendar, contacts list and even geolocation to determine where you are, what you're doing, and who's important to you--and then it decides whether to elevate that next notification to something you need to know about right now.
If you've ever suffered the pain and embarrassment of an overactive smartwatch, you can see reqallable's utility. But one of the things that's most noteworthy about reqallable's Friday app launch is that it's a smartwatch app launch. You know the developer community is taking these gadgets seriously when someone makes a big to-do about a piece of software that only works on a device that, quite frankly, very few people use.
"Wearables are an important market to be in," says Sunil Vemuri, reQall co-founder and chief product officer. "People are asking, What are we going to use smartwatches for?' and we think we have an answer for that. This is the beginning of a story, and we want to be part of that beginning."
Just how important' are you?
For reqallable to work, you have to let it penetrate the nooks and crannies of all the personal information you store on your handset. But once you grant those permissions, the system becomes aware of your personal relationships and daily activities to make its decisions on which notifications you receive on your watch, and which notifications it keeps quietly confined on your phone.
The concept of a person's "importance" is key to reqallable's logic. For example, if your husband or wife sends you an email or text, that communication will pass reqallable's threshold, and you'll get a notification on your smartwatch. Why? Because the system might have seen you flag your spouse as a favorite in your contact's list. Or because it recognizes you email each other all the time. Or even because you share the same street address.
But then there's also the concept of "temporary importance." During his demo of the smartwatch app, Vemuri showed me how I, a virtual stranger, was briefly elevated to VIP status.
"Because you're on my calendar for this meeting, your importance is elevated. That's relevant because if you were to message me today, I'd want that to come to my attention," Vemuri says. "But your importance will decrease tomorrow unless we have a continuing email exchange. We're looking at the calendar, the contact list. We're looking at the call log. All that gives an indication of who is important and who is not."
The system is also sensitive to your location and daily activities. It can determine that you're driving by sensing rapidly changing geolocation, and then suppress distracting notifications accordingly. Likewise, it can determine when you're sleeping by looking at your phone's idle times, as well as the time of day.
And then there's sensitivity to social etiquette. The reqallable system can dip into your calendar, and suppress notifications from all but the most "important" people so you're not bothered during a critical business meeting. Says Vemuri: "The ultimate goal is to help modulate what we have in these devices, so that phone knows, Right now, this is not a good time for an interruption.' It knows that I'm busy. But when I leave here, it might buzz me and tell me, These are the things that happened while I was busy.'"
Why read 500 words when 50 words will do?
Even if perfectly filtered notifications don't realize your smartwatch dreams, you might still appreciate reqallable's ability to parse long email messages, and then push heavily edited versions that surface only the most attention-worthy details to your smartwatch. "We have an algorithm that goes through the message sentence by sentence, looking for typical phrases that indicate some type of response is needed, or that there's some type of important communication going on," Vemuri says.
During his app demo, Vemuri showed me a long, multi-paragraph message on his phone, and then pivoted to the smartwatch app, which reduced that very same email to three critical action points: "Please let me know if the above description is OK," "Are you available to meet?" and, "Please let me know some days that work for you."
Based on what I saw, the machine intelligence looks pretty incredible. And the reqallable smartwatch app even lets you quickly reply to these email snippets with pre-formatted responses like "This is fine," "Please call," or "Let's meet." It's a convenience feature that would be useful in a lot of Sony Smartwatch apps.
Now, about Sony's smartwatch platform, which graduated to Smartwatch 2 hardware late last year: Why did reQall choose Sony's technology instead of the much more ballyhooed (though not necessarily deserving) Samsung Galaxy Gear? "To be frank, Sony's APIs are most mature," Vemuri says.
That's not a ringing endorsement of Sony's hardware, and during our meeting, I had to grill Vemuri on why his company is releasing an app into an ecosystem with such a small installed base. The app appears to be more of a fully-functioning proof-of-concept than anything people will actually use--if only because so few people actually use smartwatches, let alone Sony's.
I poked and prodded, but Vemuri wasn't having it. "There's a lot that can be improved in what we're seeing in smartwatches today. It's eventually going to happen, and it's unclear who will be the winner, and we're not trying to bet on which horse is going to be the winner. But our technology will help elevate those who sell smartwatches--and those who have them to make better use of them."