Touch screens in cars: a lesson for wearable tech

I read a very interesting post on TechCrunch yesterday that made me think about wearable tech. It’s short and sweet, and brought up old thoughts I’ve had about some of the biggest issues I believe the growing wearable tech movement will need to overcome as it matures. The funny thing is, this article wasn’t about wearables- it was about cars.

The article (by Greg Kumparak) goes on a bit of a rant about the user interfaces of new cars and why they’re so terrible. One particular offence is how non-functional and even dangerous the ubiquitous use of touchscreens has become for driver control:

“Over the last few years, touchscreens have become fairly standard in many new, mid-range lines. Which is great! The problem? Manufacturers didn’t really go about it right. Rather than seizing the opportunity to design something entirely new around touch, they just took all the physical, oh-so-pressable buttons they once splayed across the dash and crammed them onto a touchscreen. Haptics? Sensible, spatial design? Whatever, we’ve got a touchscreen! Shiny!

As a result, actions that once required but a pinch of muscle memory (like, say, changing the station) now require you to take your eyes off the road entirely, les you blindly jam your finger into the wrong button in that flat sea of glass.”

What happened here? Over the past decade, as car manufacturers observed the rise of touch screens as controls for many other aspects of every day life, they saw a great deal of examples where touch screens are value-adding. Initially, specific task items like cash registers got better, then phones got much better (sorry, Blackberry), tablets started to make sense, and so forth. However, in each case where touch screens really improve a product, it’s because they allowed the user to do something they wanted to do but couldn’t before. VariPOS715Think about the terminals that servers use at restaurants: touch screens allow for dynamically responsive menus that can adapt, on a second-to-second basis, to the specific situations that any given table or order requires (out of thousands of potential combinations or situations). Without touch screens, you’re either stuck with a traditional keyboard-and-mouse input (which is far too slow for the restaurant environment) or limited to a narrow set of options. If the job-to-be-done here is to keep the food service machine up and running at speed, then touch screens are powerful enablers of that job being carried out.

touchscreen660Now let’s go back to cars. Here, as Greg points out, the touch screen interfaces in most modern cars don’t actually let you to do anything you couldn’t already do- they’re just ‘a touch screen version’. In this case, not only do they not add much value, they may actually be worse, given the dangers of distracted driving. I’m not saying everyone wants to go back to the days of the lone cassette deck, but it certainly seems that the touch screens we’re currently driving with don’t serve much of a value-adding purpose.

So what does this have to do with wearables? I’m worried that amidst all of the hype going into new wearable devices and technologies, a lot of them are going to be wearable versions of existing products that already worked just fine. We’ve already gone through what I think of as ‘the first wave’ of wearables, which was essentially FitBit and then a hundred imitators. (Do we really need that many different activity monitors?) But overall, these products have been fairly successful- because their wearable nature allowed them to do things you couldn’t do before, like track your heart rate. But now, we’re seeing a new breed of products that seem more like wearable versions of existing devices that already work just fine. Consider the smartwatch explosion over the past year- it’s no longer enough to have a watch that augments your phone (like Galaxy Gear or the Sony Smart Watch), we need standalone phone replacements like the Omate Truesmart, Qualcomm Toq and Neptune Pine. I’m hardly convinced that a great deal of people actually need their smartphone’s functionality to be on their wrist. Or phrased another way, that they have jobs-to-be-done that require a smart device on their wrist, and not in their pocket.  This explosion of new wearable products might be like the sudden appearance of touch screens in minivans- echoing their rise to prevalence in consumer electronics, but not actually fulfilling a useful purpose.

The Neptune Pine. Great tech? Absolutely. But does it solve an unmet need? I'm not sure.
The Neptune Pine. Great tech? Absolutely. But does it solve an unmet need? I’m not sure.

I’m betting that the next useful generation of wearable technology will be devices that solve problems that require wearable solutions. We’re already seeing some great examples here in the medical space, where wearable tech is already providing some innovative solutions to problems we’ve had for a long time. When the focus is on the problem first, not the technology, you’ll be more likely to find product-market fit for a wearable device that solves a job which urgently needs to be done. We’re hoping Backtrack will be one of those wearables- one that emerged out of a problem in search of a solution, and where wearable technology enabled a new kind of solution to be built.

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