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Context Makes Our Devices

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A few weeks ago, Josh Dzieza of The Verge had this to say about the Apple Watch, and really smartwatches as a whole:

That seems nice but doesn’t really answer the question of why you’d spend a few hundred dollars (or more) for a device that does the same things as the device in your pocket.

When smartphones were first gaining popularity, I could’ve expressed the exact same concern, swapping the word “pocket” for “backpack.” Why would I spend so much money on a phone when my laptop can already manage email, calendars, and notes?

Statements like that overlook the reason why certain device categories become successful: context. Smartphones gained popularity because they proved so useful in contexts where laptops or larger devices weren’t feasible.

New device categories often start out by doing the same tasks as existing devices, but history has shown that successful categories are those that bring an entirely new context and fundamentally change the way we use technology.

Those new contexts provide opportunities for applications, services, and experiences that wouldn’t have been possible in previous generations of technology. Instagram grew so quickly because phones with high-quality cameras and always-on internet connections became a commonplace in pockets across the world.

Podcasts came into their own because devices with large hard drives became portable enough to take anywhere. Highly-localized weather forecasting applications like Dark Sky, reading list services like Instapaper, and the entire industry of mobile gaming came into existence because of the contexts opened up by new device categories.

What will be this new, always-on-you context’s star? Healthcare seems like an early leader to answer that question—the upcoming generation of wearables are finally pushing the category beyond the “fancy pedometer” stage.

The Microsoft Band, Samsung Gear lineup, and Apple Watch all pack a heart rate sensor, which can help measure calorie burn, activity levels, and overall health through continuous monitoring. The upcoming Samsung Simband contains six sensors to monitor heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, oxygen levels, and displays a real-time electrocardiogram. Even though the strap looks like something out of Tron, it’s an impressive piece of technology.

Beyond fitness, this type of monitoring can improve the lives of many people living with certain health conditions today. From early warnings for those with asthma and respiratory illnesses, to glucose monitoring for those living with diabetes, there is a ton of potential for technology to assist people in truly meaningful ways.

Apple’s HealthKit and (recently-open sourced) ResearchKit are especially exciting when paired with these new devices. HealthKit enables the collation of a user’s data into a private, secure location, providing both high-level and detailed views of health statistics. ResearchKit is a way to use collected data to contribute to health studies around the world, and has already been making great progress.

Stanford University had more than 11,000 people sign up for a cardiovascular study using ResearchKit less than 24 hours after the framework was announced. Alan Yeung, the medical director of Stanford Cardiovascular Health, said, “To get 10,000 people enrolled in a medical study normally, it would take a year and 50 medical centers around the country. That’s the power of the phone.”

His last point is key—all of the current ResearchKit work has been done with iPhones—devices that sit in pockets, purses, and backpacks. Imagine what is possible when a non-trivial number of people involved in these studies have a device filled with sensors strapped to their wrist all day long. Participants around the world can wear these new devices to provide researchers a constant, holistic view of their health with precise and reliable data, enabling more accurate results.

The progress made in these studies won’t just benefit those fortunate enough to afford the devices in the first place—healthcare providers anywhere can take advantage of new discoveries.

Healthcare isn’t the only area with potential in this new context. If wearables are to be successful, communication patterns will change around them, the way we interact with services and tools in our lives will adapt to their use, and new things we haven’t yet experienced will be created.

It’s important to remember that new device categories rarely replace existing ones. They are merely one more device type on the web, waiting to be used to their fullest potential—and that’s where our fun begins.

 

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