The Apple Watch and our cyborg future

Apple's first wearable gives us a look at our always-connected, computer-enhanced future selves

Apple Watch directions

My first week of wearing the Apple Watch has transformed my thinking about the direction of mobile and wearable computing.

It has become clear to me that we're all becoming cyborgs. A cyborg is a person whose normal human abilities are enhanced or magnified by technology. This is different from a person who uses technology as a tool.

While becoming a cyborg sounds unappealing, it's actually going to boost health, happiness and prosperity.

Android fans, Apple-haters and techno-skeptics: Stay with me here. This column is not about how great Apple is. It's about the cultural journey we're all on together.

In my week of wearing the Apple Watch, I have experienced three epiphanies about what the wearable revolution has in store for all of us. Here's what I've realized.

Spontaneous knowledge

The most important feature of the Apple Watch is the Taptics engine -- Taptics is Apple's branding of the version of haptics technology it uses in the Apple Watch (and its newest laptops).

Haptics have been around for years. Anyone who has ever set a phone on "vibrate" or played an Xbox game has experienced haptic buzzing firsthand.

We don't often think deeply about what jobs haptics are actually doing. In the case of mobile phones, they usually act as silent substitutes for an audible ring or ding to inform us that someone is calling or that a text message has arrived. In other words, they don't convey incoming information or communication. They simply tell us: "Look at your phone to find out what's happening."

Vibrating game controllers normally enhance the experience of the simulated onscreen action.

The Apple Watch has by far the most advanced haptics of any mainstream mobile device out there. The haptics on the watch can perform the same functions as haptics on phones and video games. But they also have a third effect: They can help create the experience (the illusion, really) of spontaneous knowledge. In other words, sometimes the haptics actually convey information, rather than alerting you so you can go get the information. And they do it in a way that's so "friction-free" that it can feel like the information appears out of nowhere.

I'll give you two examples.

Apple Watch users will tell you how fun it is to use the turn-by-turn directions feature. Just press and hold the Digital Crown (a dial button on the side of the watch), and tell Siri something like "navigate home." The watch displays your current location on a map. Press the "Start" button and the magic begins.

The watch displays contextual directions on the screen if you turn your wrist to look at it. Each turn is preceded by a "high resolution" haptic event (it feels like someone is sharply tapping you on the wrist) combined with sound. A right turn coming up is communicated via the haptics and an audio signal that rapidly repeats a note that starts low and then goes higher. A left turn starts with a higher note followed by a lower note. In each case, the signal is repeated three times. A different combination of movement and sound indicates that you have arrived at your destination.

The haptics say: "Time to take action." And the simultaneous sound tells you what to do. What's amazing is that you don't have to look at the screen to use the Apple Watch's turn-by-turn directions. You just drive and forget about it. After you get used to the process, you stop mentally thinking about the haptics and sound. Your brain acclimates. The result is that the information about where to drive bypasses your conscious mind to some extent. Information just "comes to you" in a way that feels like accessing your own memory.

The experience is that you simply have what you might call "spontaneous knowledge" of where to drive. It feels like you "just know."

My second example is even more subtle.

The Apple Watch lets you communicate with haptics using a feature called Tap. It's pretty simple: You dial up one of your favorite contacts and press the tap icon. Then, in a second or two, everything you tap on the screen is felt by the other person (assuming, of course, that he or she is wearing an Apple Watch).

Communicating basic information this way is a surprisingly interesting experience.

Let's say a couple is shopping downtown. He's looking for running shoes. She's buying coffee. At some point, she texts him from her watch: "Hey, that Kenyan roast you like is on sale. Do you want one pound or two?" He instantly replies with two taps.

The experience of gaining knowledge through taps feels like telepathy. No one around you can perceive the incoming information. Because it's not something you hear or read, the information appears to emerge into your conscious mind directly. It feels like "spontaneous knowledge" -- knowledge that seems to just occur to you without the process of learning.

I occasionally experienced something similar using some notifications on Google Glass, by the way.

These wearables are not providing full, detailed "knowledge," spontaneous or otherwise. But I believe future wearables will. The current generation gives us a tiny glimpse of what that's going to feel like.

I'm here to tell you that it feels comfortable, efficient and somewhat thrilling.

The personal-area network

My second epiphany is that the Apple Watch is not about the Apple Watch. It's about the Apple Watch and the iPhone together. The two connected devices working together is the new platform, the new medium.

More types of wearable systems are on the way -- elegant, discreet smart glasses; smart shoes and clothes; connected medical stickers; glucose-monitoring contact lenses; smart jewelry; and more. When they come online, they'll join the existing ad hoc network already in operation on your physical person.

All of these devices will evolve with the assumption that the others exist. Functions of the smartphone will be spun out, and the phone itself may shrink as the HD screen in our smart glasses takes over. Just as big phones deflated enthusiasm for tablets, wearables are doing the same for big smartphones. Spending so much time with an Apple Watch makes you want a smaller iPhone. The industry will respond.

It won't take long for our perception to change. Instead of looking at each wearable device as a "tool" that we "use," we'll come to see the totality of devices working together as how we enhance our human selves. They'll be part of who and what we are.

In other words, we'll see that the connected computer is us. (I call it the Internet of Self.)

Some people are afraid of this future, but they shouldn't be. We should be really excited about it.

The joy of becoming a cyborg

My third epiphany is that turning into a cyborg won't be so bad. The process of becoming a cyborg is called nyctalopics. It's named after the world's first fictional superhero and one of literature's early cyborgs, the Nyctalope, created by the French writer Jean de La Hire for a series of books that first appeared in 1911.


The Nyctalope was a cyborg because he wore night-vision goggles and had an artificial heart.

A century ago, those were seen as fantastical powers enabled by almost unimaginable technologies. Today, you can buy high-quality night-vision goggles on and get them delivered tomorrow. Most of us don't bother.

And, of course, artificial hearts are a medical possibility for some patients.

Yesterday's fantasies are today's banalities.

Popular discomfort with the cyborg idea is mostly based on squeamishness over the idea of electronic implants and of becoming assimilated into the "Borg." Resistance is futile, etc. But wearable computing and electronics miniaturization does not lead inexorably to surgical implants simply because science fiction writers and futurists have imagined it.

In the last century, futurists predicted that by the year 2000, we'd all drive nuclear cars, take food in pill form and decorate our homes with plastic furniture you could clean with a hose.

That's all possible now. But those futures don't exist because we don't want radioactive power plants in our garages, we enjoy eating food and we don't like plastic furniture.

People don't want invasive implants and won't accept them. But they won't need them.

We'll be able to take objects we're already familiar with -- watches, glasses, clothing and jewelry -- and make them smart, connected and able to sense what's going on around us and within us.

Just as the Apple Watch and other wearables today bring us relevant, contextual knowledge and enhance our lives in small ways, future wearables will do the same in big and significant ways.

Resistance is futile, but only because the wearable revolution will be far better than we ever imagined.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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