The Apple Watch: Towards a New Era in Human-Computer Interaction

I was born in 1988, and by the time it became important for me to manage my own schedule (when I was about 11), I had a cell phone to tell me the time. Watches have always seemed like a matter of personal preference rather than one of incontrovertible utility. After all, why would I want some clunky wrist thing? Now I’m changing my mind.

What sold me was the unstated implication at the end of the Apple Watch’s product video. Jony Ive, the senior vice president of design at Apple, observes that “We’re now at a compelling beginning: actually designing technology to be worn, to be truly personal.”

This is a very big deal. The Apple Watch is the first device that lives on a user’s body and has the potential to deliver technological interactions without separating the wearer from their environment. Accordingly, it represents a bright line: technology is no longer something you necessarily stop interacting with the world to use. It’s just something that exists.

This post will not conduct the analysis you might expect. I will not discuss the addressable market for Apple Watches, sales estimates, or share prices. I’m more focused on what a wearable device with the potential for commercial success means for human-computer interaction than with any particular device. Accordingly, let’s consider the only question that matters.

What Is Actually Being Sold?

This thing is not just a watch. But it’s not the physical product that I am excited about. I am excited because hardware companies are recognizing that I want to use technologybetween screens rather than on them.

Consider a way that you might actually use the Apple Watch. The intuitive thing to focus on is querying a service or retrieving email, but that is a use case that occurs only because it’s the way we use technology now. What if it augmented our experience in another way, by giving us a new window to other people?

One of the features I have not heard enough buzz about are the Snapchat-style sketches that we will be able to share at the flick of a wrist. These sketches — like notes passed in class or cave paintings — are the essence of communication. I can share drawings (which will wind up looking fundamentally like cave paintings) with others, and we can communicate using those sketches, just like we did thousands of years ago. We have developed immeasurably complex technology which will allow us to interact with our surroundings as intuitively as we did in the Stone Age.

Much of the technology that we use in our daily lives is something that we consider separate from non-technological artifacts. As I write this on my iPhone in the subway, I am consciously using technology. I’ve made a choice to engage with my surroundings only in order not to bump into anyone in the spirit of getting work done.

But that can and will change. Apple Watches are designed to exist with us, not to be awkwardly fondled. They are a piece of technology that lives with us in reality rather than transferring us into a virtual one. A charred twig used to make a cave painting didn’t feel like technology to a caveman, and in the same way the descendant of an Apple Watch might not necessarily feel like technology to my grandchildren. After all, do you consider an analog watch to be technology?

This is one significant evolution in a trend that my colleague Jason Voss, CFA, and I classify as the rise of human technology. It’s a big trend with a lot of implications, but its ultimate implication is that tech products will come to feel more like our limbic systems than something that we consciously interact with.

This phone’s features fulfill that trend in several key ways:

  • It’s a tech product that’s differentiating itself with fashion. If you look at the watch’s product page, you may notice something interesting: the different lines of the product stress fashion features, not technical ones. Have you ever seen a laptop marketed as a fashion accessory? I haven’t even heard how fast the processor of the Apple Watch is or how much RAM it has.
  • Human health is one of its killer apps. The Apple Watch will gather the same data that a Fitbit or FuelBand does, but it will also offer other functionality. This means that one of the key ways we’ll use these devices will be to improve our well-being. In a very real sense, health will be one of its killer apps.
  • Finally, human security is assured. If you heard about Apple Pay, you might naturally wonder how they intend to keep your data secure. After all, somebody might pick up and use your watch without you present and just spend your money. Ingeniously, this watch will use contact with your skin to verify your identity. Imagine a world where such an iterated version of a system like this replaces passwords as a means of verifying your identity. In that world, technology looks a lot more human.

If Not This One, Then the Next

Whether the Apple Watch or a competing product ultimately delivers a more human interaction with technology, it seems clear that an important trend is being born: technology that doesn’t separate you from your environment.

Wearables have existed for a while (notably the Pebble Smartwatch and the large collection offered by Samsung), but the debut of the Apple Watch suggests that wearable devices will gain a large audience among both consumers and software developers inside of the next two years.

I might be being too enthusiastic, but I’m biased here. As I said, I’m excited to buy a watch. Watch geeks are excited too, so I feel like my excitement is substantiated. But what do you think? Let me know in the comments section below.

This was conducted for the CFA Institute and originally posted on the Enterprising Investor