The smartwatch has an etiquette problem and the likes of Apple and Google will have to do battle with a 500-year-old social bugbear.
The watch was the very earliest form of wearable tech. People began to carry watches in the early 1500s, first by hand, then as pendants, in pockets and finally on their wrists.
Before the watch went mainstream, people were used to a more fluid concept of time and the gripes levelled at the earliest watches were similar to those we aimed at our first smartphones.
Take the 1600s' most prolific diarist, Samuel Pepys, who wrote of his first watch in 1665, "I cannot forbear carrying my watch in my hand in the coach all this afternoon, and seeing what o'clock it is one hundred times; and am apt to think with myself, how could I be so long without one; though I remember since, I had one, and found it a trouble, and resolved to carry one no more about me while I lived."
This conversation is over
When we adopt new technologies, we - like Pepys - adjust our behaviour to accommodate them. As the concept of carrying the time around seeped into daily life from the 1500s onwards, the checking of a timepiece became a form of non-verbal communication.
Read more: The history of the smartwatch
To glance at your wrist mid-conversation became - and still is - an indicator that you have somewhere else to be. Whether accompanied by a weak shrug, sheepish grin or a groan, the upshot is always the same: this conversation is about to end.
Over the course of the last two decades smartphones have all but replaced the wristwatch and now it's not our watches but our phones that we cannot forbear carrying in our hands, seeing who has WhatsApped us one hundred times a day.
Strangely enough, there are now very few places where it's frowned upon to slip your phone out of your pocket and glance down at it while continuing to nod and say “uh-huh, uh-huh" - a funeral, perhaps, or dinner with your mother or taking the stand in a court of law.
Against all odds, checking your phone has not quite become the impatient watch-check of the 21st century. It's still a bit rude but it's accepted. Either we've adapted, or we've all become incredibly boring.
The smartphone may have neatly side-stepped this particular
non-verbal cue, on account of us all doing it, but the action of checking your watch is still a universally
rude signal. So what does this mean for the smartwatch? The watch that not only
passively displays the passing of time but also clamours for attention when
there's a call, message, Facebook like or popular tweet to acknowledge.
You might be wholly engrossed in whatever is being said to you, but involuntarily glance down at your watch because it just lit up and you've just told your friend they're a droning bore. Our brains associate that particular glance with wanting to know the time and equate that with wanting to make an escape even if really we're just making sure that email from the boss isn't marked urgent.
This is a problem, because what's the point of a notification-free smartwatch? The social integration of wearable tech is something that manufacturers and developers need to nail if they want wearable tech to take off in a mainstream way. Although smartwatches have managed to bag a lot of column inches, they're not only battling relatively low sales but also a steep drop off in attention from people who have bought them.
The social jury is still out
Emmet Connolly was on the development team for Android Wear, before leaving to join Intercom. He believes that the cultural and social connotations of smartwatch use are still being decided:
“Lots of people seem genuinely interested but perhaps not yet fully sold or quite ready to accept this new thing unequivocally. And that's fair enough, because this whole thing is in no way a fully formed entity yet. It's still finding its legs, its purpose, its cultural role," he said. Could manners have a negative effect on our willingness to buy smartwatches? Connolly told Wareable that by changing the concept of what a watch means, it will in turn change the etiquette of checking it.
“If the nature of what a watch actually is changes, our perception of that is likely to change too. There's a simple formula you can apply here: if value is greater than pain, people will adopt a technology. So I think not being useful enough is a lot more likely to doom the smartwatch than bad etiquette. But if the value they provide exceeds the pain of owning and maintaining use, they're all good."
That's been quite clearly seen in Google's recent decision to put Google Glass out to pasture - the value of these particular smart glasses was not high enough to exceed the pain of being That Guy....at least not in its current goofy guise. Things are a bit more fluid when it comes to smartwatches.
The main problem for smartwatch wearers is that they're really very, very young. Android Wear has been out for around year and the Apple Watch has been on sale for just a number of weeks.
Developing any product in secret means you can't test and learn as you can once it's out in the market. What's more, unlike developing smartphones, tablets or laptops, developing a wearable means engineering for humans and our social foibles like never before – something that Connolly said can't happen overnight.
“A lot of the time I personally spent working on developing smartwatch software needed to be done in private, out of public sight for fear of leaks," he said.
“So we were constantly speculating on what the social impact of our design decisions might be, and as good designers hopefully we made a decent first pass. But we were still only guessing, really. It's only now, as these devices are increasingly used in the wild that there's a real feedback loop that can be used to influence the design."
Now that Wear has been announced, the software teams can see what's working and what's not, and they can work towards a smartwatch interface that steers the user as far from social rudeness as possible.
Manufacturers such as Google are also working to help guide app developers reduce away from socially unacceptable practices. Both Apple and Android's developer guidelines talk about responsible notification use when it comes to wearable tech. Google advises developers: “Don't abuse the user's attention," while Apple's Watch guideline document instructs them to “be sensitive to the frequency with which you send notifications."
Less may be more, but the key concept here is context - contextually aware notifications that tell you what you need to know only when you need to know it. For now these are mostly governed by location or time - do not disturb kicks in at 10pm; your boarding card pops up when you get to the airport - but in the future, it's not inconceivable that your smartwatch could use biometric or microphone data to figure out that you're mid-conversation and determine that this text message from your mum about the weather forecast can wait until you proactively check for it.
Whatever the solution, Connolly is sure it will come. “I'm pretty confident that this problem is at a high level the same problem we had with shitty websites in search results, or spam in our inboxes, and those things are pretty much solved now," he said. “Notifications are a signal-to-noise ratio problem too, and I'm pretty confident it'll get solved, and that the solution will somehow take context into account."
Until the likes of Google can reprogram society then, we'll have to rely on good old-fashioned manners.