Are smartwatches the next big thing in app design?

Pebble has opened the first ever smartwatch app store (above), ahead of an expected smartwatch app "explosion" this year.

Leading app design companies and interactive design experts tell us about creating apps for Pebble, Samsung Galaxy Gear, Sony SmartWatch and more.

Wearable tech dominated the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas this year, and it's looking like smartwatches and smartglasses are going to be the next big thing in the world of technology.

In particular, smartwatches seemed to steal most of the CES spotlight, with many companies launching new wrist-worn gadgets. Currently, most smartwatches act as a middleman between you and your smartphone or tablet, saving you the trouble of getting your mobile device out of your pocket or bag. In addition to acting as a traditional watch, they can also display information such as text messages, missed calls and other notifications including Twitter and Facebook.

Some smartwatches can also allow you to carry out simple tasks like remotely controlling your music playback or even making and receiving phone calls.

Last year, smartwatch apps were quite limited, in turn limiting the functionality of the devices themselves. However, during CES this year, smartwatch maker Pebble revealed that it would be launching the first ever app store for wearable tech. Pebble's app store opened on 3 February with more then 1,000 apps and watchfaces to choose from.

Apps currently available include Foursquare, Yelp, ESPN, PebbleGPS, fitness apps, games and more. There's even an online banking app called Interact that allows users to view their bank balance and recent transactions and will vibrate if the user nears their overdraft limit.

Analysts have forecast that the smartwatch app market will 'explode' in 2014, so it could open up a whole new world of opportunity for app designers and developers. Plus, Apple is rumoured to be working on an iWatch that's expected launch this year, and, if it does, it's bound to be a game-changer.

Growing demand

As technology advances and becomes even more integral to our day-to-day lives, we strive to own gadgets that can help out with more and more of our daily tasks. It looks like wearable technology is going to be the answer, bringing something completely new to our lives that could soon become commonplace, and change our relationship with technology completely.

We spoke to interactive design experts from Fjord, Ustwo and digital design company 5K to find out how they think smartwatches could impact consumers' lives, and in turn the lives of designers and developers as the smartwatch market grows.

"Where the Nike Fuelband on its own provides a mere counter of steps, the ecosystem surrounding fuel points, and all that enables, taps into human nature in a way that changes behaviour," said Abbie Walsh, group director at Fjord, the Accenture Interactive design company behind the adidas miCoach smartwatch.

"This is the true potential of the 'wearable' device. Something close to our skin, an expression of ourselves, and yet external to us, can truly lead to the next big leap in our relationship with technology," she told us. "But it needs to have a meaningful and ongoing dialogue with everyone that dons one. That means thinking beyond the device itself and understanding deeply the motivations and needs of the people who will wear it."

The Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch (above) allows users to make phone calles, recieve notifications, interact using voice control and even take photos using the built-in camera.

That's where apps come in, and it's the designers and developers that'll be tasked with meeting many of those consumer needs.

"Wearable tech feels like the mobile market about seven years ago," added Matt Pollitt from 5K, a digital design company that is about to launch its own Pebble watchface and has created a clever smartglasses app called Vela. "It's early days. The tech is still quite clunky, but people are starting to get excited about the possibilities attached to it, so designers and developers should absolutely begin investigating wearable tech."

Ustwo visual designer Shaun Tollerton said: "Wearable is going to take off. In fact, it already did, but it reminds me of when 3D took off. Once the gimmick and hype wears off we can focus on creating functionality that can truly benefit our lives."

The future of smartwatch apps

If wearable tech does indeed become a huge new market, it's likely to mean that apps for such devices are going to become sought after too, in similar way to the app market for smartphones.

Pebble's smartwatch app store is the first of its kind, and includes categories such as fitness, games and tools & utilities.

Leading wearable tech makers like Pebble and Razer Nabu are already offering SDKs for developers to take advantage of, and it seems likely that other smartwatch makers will open up SDKs soon too, as having a wider range of compatible apps can only help increase the benefits of owning the product.

However, the current market means there are some limitations, including small screens, battery life, power and style for example, but it's possible that this could all change should big players like Apple take a leap into the market too.

"We are excited about the possibilities for the development and design communities," said 5K's Matt when discussing the future of smartwatch apps. "However, due to the limitations imposed by having a small screen - or potentially no traditional screen at all - there isn’t currently enough variety in content, products and market to sustain a successful large scale app store eco-system to the level of Apple or Android."

"We are limited to some extent by social expectation, but therein lies the next big challenge for interaction design," said Abbie. "What are the gestures, actions, inputs that we will use when the device we're communicating with doesn't have a screen or is buried inside our clothes?"

There are more than 1,000 apps and watchfaces available for Pebble's smartwatch range (above).

"If smartwatch apps try to behave like smartphone apps there will be massive performance issues. But, if the apps become super focused I see no problems in performance, especially if the apps can leverage the smartphone's resources (such as GPS)," added Shaun.

Additionally, it's too early to know exactly what apps will be popular for smartwatch owners. It's a whole new way of interacting with technology, so it's ripe for exploration but also, inevitably, many failures.

"I believe many smartwatch app opportunities lie in those that directly affect us, such as our health, lifestyle, and even fashion," explained Abbie. "But talking to our wrist, obsessively checking our watch for notifications, messages, emails? What's the social etiquette around that?"

So what sorts of apps can we expect to see emerging, and, more importantly, succeeding? Most of the experts we spoke to believe health and fitness will continue to be the main uses for smartwatches, but as designers and developers get more comfortable and experiment with new ways of implementing smartwatches, we'll begin to see apps emerging outside of that field.

"Smartwatches still feel like an extension of other devices you would have on your person," said Matt. "But, as we see them mature, I would like to see them as an alternative to carrying a large phone or as a second screen offering discretion where required. Initially, we expect there might be the usual quick to market phone and tablet app ports of big name apps and services which should give way to some more interesting ideas later on as the adoption curve peaks."

"It's very easy to think of a smartwatch as a smartphone on your wrist, but what's the point, especially if you already own a smartphone?" said Shaun. "If we can reduce the amount of time that we currently spend glued to our phone screens I think we'd all be a lot happier and more efficient."

"That could be achieved by surfacing information you want directly to your wrist, before you even think about it (think Google Now)," he continued. "Then there's the rise of health and fitness apps that will continue to gain traction with a huge potential to revolutionise healthcare systems around the world as they tap into the data captured by such apps (with our permission of course)."

Will the iWatch be a game-changer?

With so many companies already venturing into the wearable tech market, there's one glaringly obvious tech giant that has yet to take the plunge: Apple. Speculation points to an iWatch for 2014, and it's likely that Apple will put a big emphasis on apps for the device, as it has done for its other products.

"Apple is once again at the crest of the next technology wave. The big difference this time is that the world has already caught up," Abbie told us. "The question should be: what can they do that will accelerate and open up this new world of possibility to everyone? The answer might be a very different Apple approach. One informed by external design disciplines not aimed at their fan base at all, but finding a place where fashion and service design meet."

So what can we expect to see from Apple's iWatch and the apps that arrive alongside it?

An iWatch concept design based on the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c. Created by Martin Hajek.

"I'd love something like Google Now, or in Apple's case, Siri," said Shaun, referring to the voice activated personal assistant currently found on iOS devices. "The right information would be displayed on my wrist at just the right time. Train times, flight updates, whether to take an umbrella as I leave home etc."

"I can also see potential for iOS apps to have extensions of themselves present on such an iWatch, which would be in constant communication via Bluetooth LTE for example. A range of interactions could be reduced to just a single tap or two, such as making payments, checking in, RSVP'ing to meetings etc. This would be achieved because all of the heavy lifting would be made on the iPhone."

"We would like to see it being something self-charging and non-intrusive; with reliable integration across the other devices that people would use," added Matt. "It would ideally fill the gap for when people want to discreetly view messages or get bite sized pieces of information delivered to them. Subtle haptic feedback would also be cool."

How do you design and develop a smartwatch app?

As the smartwatch market grows and demand for apps increases, designers and developers are likely to begin coming across opportunities and requests to help build smartwatch apps. But how do you actually go about creating one?

"The best apps start from scratch with a solid user need and evolve from there," explained Matt. "The user case for a smart watch is going to be completely different to that of a phone or tablet because it's on your body, therefore you are always 'on' and available."

"When it comes to actually building and coding, companies like Pebble give developers a good set of tools and tutorials to get them started," he continued. "The question then becomes is it a market that will have enough momentum and uptake to make a return on the investment? We certainly hope so."

"Existing Android and iOS apps can be migrated to Pebble's platform by utilizing PebbleKit's native libraries," added Shaun. "Pebble apps also work on C, which is common ground for app developers."

Overall, the designers we spoke to are keen to explore the smartwatch app market, and expect that designers and developers currently used to working on smartphone or tablet apps will soon find themselves extending those to be compatible with smartwatches, and also creating independent smartwatch apps.

The key is going to be the concept – it needs to be practical and useful to the consumer – and the way that concept is applied to the new type of interface that will be required for the smaller, wrist-worn screen.

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