Rhodri Marsden: Smartwatches? Some of them don't even tell the time!
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Wednesday 05 February 2014
They said that 2013 was going to be the year of the smartwatch, but it wasn't. I still don't know anyone who wears one, and while I'd hesitate to extrapolate this anecdotal evidence into anything meaningful, it's fair to say that the gadget-buying public have failed to be persuaded that they need one. Samsung had a go with the Galaxy Gear, but failed to set our wrists alight, and while the Kickstarter-funded Pebble watch looks more promising, we remain largely indifferent.
We may believe subconsciously that Apple's iWatch – when it finally arrives – will be sufficiently astonishing to change our attitudes, but despite fevered speculation this week that it might be solar or kinetically powered, the predicted birthdate for the iWatch still oscillates between autumn of this year and some point in 2016.
In the meantime, the thunder of wrist-mounted technology has been stolen this week by a watch so lacking in functionality that it's barely a watch at all. "Durr" (pictured below) is described by its Norwegian designers as a "shivering unisex bracelet", and, while it's shaped like a watch, its only function is to vibrate gently every five minutes, making you aware of the passing of time and, if you want to be philosophical about it, the preciousness of life itself.
It's safe to say that the general reaction to this one-trick pony has been one of bemusement verging on contempt, particularly bearing in mind its €90 price tag. Not helped by the fact that the name of the product is also the noise we make when we're feeling a bit moronic, the Durr has been branded a "glorified egg-timer", and many other things not fit for print. Despite that, the first run has sold out, and they're currently making a load more.
In an age when distraction is rampant and procrastination is endemic, the idea of the Durr is far from "durr", however. Technological solutions to the problem of "hyperbolic discounting" (having fun now while ignoring our longer-term goals) are many and various, but the one I've always favoured is a simple "clang" that sounds every 15 minutes to remind me not to fritter time away. I achieve that on a Mac by using a neat little application called Apimac Timer, but the Durr does precisely the same thing, making you aware of how time flies when you're having fun and how it doesn't when you're watching The Jump on Channel 4.
Aaron Souppouris, a writer for the culture and technology site The Verge, who got his hands on one last month, noted a real boost to his productivity – and to be honest, I'd currently welcome anything that stopped me playing Wordament, a game that you must never install on your phone unless you want your life to disappear into an alphabetical void.
Those who complain that the Durr just doesn't do anything are forgetting that we're reluctant to buy smartwatches because we don't actually need them to do anything. Smartphones do it all. The main reason to wear a watch is still an aesthetic one, and while I wouldn't say the Durr is particularly beautiful, at least its design isn't constrained by the problem of cramming a pedometer, heart rate monitor and sleep analyser inside it.
Meanwhile, British developer James Brooks has just written an app for the Pebble called Purr, which emulates the Durr by switching off the Pebble's screen and buzzing every five minutes. Maybe 2014 will be the year of the dumbwatch.
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