A Unicycle for the Mind

Steve Jobs famously said that computers are like bicycles for the mind:

I love this humanist vision of what computers can be: tools to help us learn faster, manage more information, think more tangibly, and communicate more richly. The idea that these devices can help us think farther and faster is central to the personal computer revolution. It is the vision that has driven Apple (and Microsoft, among others) to generate incredible wealth, both financial and cognitive. It’s one of the things I’ve loved about these machines for the past 30 years.

Apple introduced a new type of “personal” computer on Tuesday: the Apple Watch. This is not a new category of device (I’m disappointed at how similar the Apple Watch is—conceptually, if not in execution—to competing devices from Samsung and LG), but now one that Apple has deemed worthy of its extraordinary design, marketing, and production resources. This saddens me because these small screen-on-a-strap computers are not bicycles for the mind, they are unicycles.

Unicycles share a few features with bikes, so you’d be forgiven for thinking they are similar. They are both human-powered and use similar components—wheels, pedals, saddles, etc. However, they serve very different purposes. Bicycles amplify human energy to allow the rider to travel farther and faster. Unicycles, on the other hand, are not transportation. They are entertainment. We stare in bemusement at unicyclists not because of the distance they cover and the speed they sustain, but because they can remain upright in a tottering one-wheeled metal pole with a seat on top. (Sometimes while juggling knifes!)

Incredible energy, capital, and talent is being channeled into this category of devices. This new Apple Watch is an amazing achievement of engineering and design. As is usual with Apple, this seems like the first of these smartwatches that is thought-out from a UX perspective. But to what end? I can’t imagine these devices (in their current incarnation, at least) as viewports to the Web, as better communication channels, or as tools to create and share in rich, new, unprecedented ways. Their primary purposes seem to be:

  1. capturing biometric data from the wearer,
  2. serving ambient notifications (from another device, which must also be charged, networked, and carried with you), and
  3. simplifying payment in physical retail stores.

None of these features solve problems I currently have. (And I dread the prospect of always-on notifications on my wrist.) I don’t understand the point of having yet another screen with sensors, processors, and a battery a mere inches away from a smartphone that already does so much more than this new device. It just doesn’t seem like a tool that would improve my experience of the world in a meaningful way. Quite the opposite: I suspect it’d bring into my life more distractions from my family, another yearly upgrade cycle, and the stress of having to worry about another battery level as the day wanes.

I think there are interesting avenues for exploration in the “wearable” device space. For example, as primitive as Google Glass is today, the idea of augmenting our visual field with a contextual information layer is genuinely valuable, since it would allow us to interact with information and do things that we are currently unable to do in the real world. I don’t get the same sense of possibility from a wrist-worn device. It only seems like another little screen buzzing for my attention, my data plan, my personal information, and another charging cable. A fun, frivolous, expensive trifle.