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Making wearables more useful and smart homes less of a chore

Wearables might be set to get a whole lot more useful in future if research being conducted by Carnegie Mellon University’s Future Interfaces Group is indicative of the direction of travel.

While many companies, big and small, have been jumping into the wearables space in recent years, the use-cases for these devices often feels superficial — with fitness perhaps the most compelling scenario at this nascent stage. Yet smartwatches have far richer potential than merely performing a spot of sweat tracking.

The other problem with the current crop of smartwatches is the experience of using apps on wrist-mounted devices does not always live up to the promise of getting stuff done faster or more efficiently. Just having to load an app on this type of supplementary device can feel like an imposition.

If the primary selling point of a smartwatch is really convenience/glanceability the watch wearer really does not want to have to be squinting at lots of tiny icons and manually loading data to get the function they need in a given moment. A wearable needs to be a whole lot smarter to make it worth the wearing vs just using a smartphone.

At the same time, other connected devices populating the growing Internet of Things can feel pretty dumb right now — given the interface demands they also place on users. Such as, for example, connected lightbulbs like Philips Hue that require the user to open an app on their phone just in order to turn a lightbulb on or off, or change the colour of the light.

Which is pretty much the opposite of convenient, and why we’ve already seen startups trying to fix the problems IoT devices are creating via sensor-powered automation.

“The fact that I’m sitting in my livingroom and I have to go into my smartphone and find the right application and then open up the Hue app and then set it to whatever, blue, if that’s the future smart home it’s really dystopian, “ argues Chris Harrison, an assistant professor of Human-Computer Interaction at CMU’s School of Computer Science, discussing some of the interface challenges connected device designers are grappling with in an interview with TechCrunch.

But nor would it be good design to put a screen on every connected object in your home. That would be ugly and irritating in equal measure. Really there needs to be a far smarter way for connected devices to make themselves useful. And smartwatches could hold the key to this, reckons Harrison.

A sensing wearable

He describes one project researchers at the lab are working on, called EM-Sense, which could kill two birds with one stone: provide smartwatches with a killer app by enabling them to act as a shortcut companion app/control interface for other connected devices. And (thereby) also make IoT devices more useful — given their functionality would be automatically surfaced by the watch.

The EM-Sense prototype smartwatch is able to identify other electronic objects via their electromagnetic signals when paired with human touch. A user only has to pick up/touch or switch on another electronic device for the watch to identify what it is — enabling a related app to be automatically loaded onto their wrist. So the core idea here is to make smartwatches more context aware.