Welcome to the awkward future of the open office

I have seen the future — in fact, I have worn it. It’s big and awkward kind of digs into the top of your head with little metal bars designed to hold it in place.

I was like 95 percent sure Wear Space was some viral bit of social commentary the first time it popped up online. And yet, here I am at a TechCrunch event in Tokyo and the horse blinder-style wearable was right there for all the world to see and try on. So try it on, I did.

The device is still very much in prototype mode, so the uncomfortable bit is something that will likely be resolved before the device starts shipping. The awkwardness of actually wearing the thing, on the other hand, is the sort of thing that takes time to dissipate.

The product is light weight — a good quality for something designed to be work on the head for hours at a time. It’s really just a wireframe with a cloth covering that blots out your peripheral vision, while still giving you plenty to look at in front of you. It somehow felt dystopian and weirdly comforting all at once. At very least, I feel like I have a new-found respect for horses.

Inside are a pair of on-ear headphones. They’re not noise canceling, so they won’t block out everything, but maybe having read on ambient noise is a net positive on something like this.

I will say this: having seen the bizarre things people will put on their heads for the 14 hour plane ride it took to get to Japan, nothing about the Wear Space feels out of the realm of possibility. I mean, if this can be a thing, why not, right?

Keep in mind, too, that we’ve done this to ourselves. Open offices were going to the be the great workplace revolution of the early 21st century, and all we got were these strange horse blinders for people.

Spotify officially releases first version of its Apple Watch app

The Apple Watch Series 4 on a wooden table.

After rolling out wearables apps across other platforms over the past few weeks, Spotify just released the first iteration of its Apple Watch app. The watchOS app will be rolling out to Apple Watch users over the next week, and you must have the latest version of the Spotify iOS app on your iPhone to download the app.

Much like Spotify’s other wearable device apps, the program for the Apple Watch focuses on controlling playback on your iPhone from the watch. Users can pause, play, skip, and rewind their music, podcasts, and other tracks. They can also tap a heart icon to add new music that they stumble upon to their libraries. Most of these features, aside from adding music to your library, are available in Apple’s native Now Playing app that lets users control playback from nearly any audio source on their connected iPhone.

The Apple Watch app also has Spotify Connect support, which lets users manage connections and playback with Bluetooth devices. Directly from the watch, you can choose which devices—like laptops, speakers, headphones, and others—you want to play music.

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TWIICE One Exoskeleton furthers the promise of robotic mobility aids

Few things in the world of technology can really ever be said to be “done,” and certainly exoskeletons are not among their number. They exist, but they are all works in progress, expensive, heavy, and limited. So it’s great to see this team working continuously on their TWIICE robotic wearable, improving it immensely with the guidance of motivated users.

TWIICE made its debut in 2016, and like all exoskeletons it was more promise made than promise kept. It’s a lower-half exoskeleton that supports and moves the legs of someone with limited mobility, while they support themselves on crutches. It’s far from ideal, and the rigidity and weight of systems like this make them too risky to deploy at scale for now.

But two years of refinement have made a world of difference. The exoskeleton weighs the same (which doesn’t matter since it carries its own weight), but supports heavier users while imparting more force with its motors, which have been integrated into the body itself to make it far less bulky.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the whole apparatus can now be donned and activated by the user all by herself, as Swiss former acrobat and now handcycling champion Silke Pan demonstrated in a video. She levers herself from her wheelchair into the sitting exoskeleton, attaches the fasteners on her legs and trunk, then activates the device and stands right up.

She then proceeds to climb more stairs than I’d rather attempt. She is an athlete, after all.

That kind of independence is often crucially important for the physically disabled for a multitude of reasons, and clearly achieving the capability has been a focus for the TWIICE team.

Although the exoskeleton has been worked on as a research project within the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), the plan is to spin off a startup to commercialize the tech as it approaches viability. The more they make and the more people use these devices — despite their limitations — the better future versions will be.

Tencent is launching its own version of Snap Spectacles

Some were surprised to see Snap release a second version of its ‘face-camera’ Spectacles gadget, since the original version failed to convert hype into sales.

But those lackluster sales — which dropped as low as 42,000 per quarter — didn’t only fail to dissuade the U.S. social firm from making more specs, because now Tencent, the Chinese internet giant and Snap investor, has launched its own take on the genre.

Tencent this week unveiled its answer to the video-recording sunglasses, which, you’ll notice, bear a striking resemblance to Snap’s Spectacles.

Called the Weishi smart glasses, Tencent’s wearable camera sports a lens in the front corner that allows users to film from a first-person perspective. Thankfully, the Chinese gaming and social giant has not made the mistake of Snap’s first-generation Spectacles, which highlighted the camera with a conspicuous yellow ring.

Tencent, which is best known for operating China’s massively popular WeChat messenger, has been an investor in Snap for some time after backing it long before it went public. But, when others have criticized the company and its share price struggled, Tencent doubled down. It snapped up an additional 12 percent stake one year ago and it is said to have offered counsel to Snap CEO Evan Spiegel on product strategy. We don’t know, however, if the two sides’ discussions have ever covered Spectacles and thus inspired this new Tencent take on then.

The purpose behind Tencent’s new gadget is implicit in its name. Weishi, which means “micro videos” in Chinese, is also the name of the short-video sharing app that Tencent has been aggressively promoting in recent months to catch up with market dominators TikTok and Kuaishou .

TikTok, known as Douyin in China, is part of the entertainment ecosystem that Beijing-based ByteDance is building. ByteDance also runs the popular Chinese news aggregator Toutiao and is poised to overtake Uber as the world’s most-valued tech startup when it closes its mega $3 billion funding round.

Weishi’s other potential rival Kuaishou is, interestingly, backed by Tencent. Kuaishou launched its own video-taking sunglasses in July.

Alongside the smart sunglasses, Tencent has also rolled out a Go Pro-like action camera that links to the Weishi app. Time will tell whether the gadgets will catch on and get more people to post on Weishi.

Snap Spectacles V1 (top) and V2

The spectacles will go on sale November 11, a date that coincides with Singles Day, the annual shopping spree that Tencent’s close rival Alibaba runs. Tencent does not make the gadget itself and instead has teamed up with Shenzhen-based Tonot, a manufacturer that claims to make “trendy” video-taking glasses. Tonot has also worked with Japan’s Line chat app on camera glasses.

“There isn’t really a demand for video-recording glasses,” says Mi Zou, a Beijing-based entrepreneur working on an AI selfie app. That’s because smart glasses are “not offering that much more to consumers than smartphones do,” she argues. Plus, a lot of people on apps like Douyin and Kuaishou love to take selfies, a need that smart glasses fail to fulfil.

“Tencent will have to work on its marketing. It could perhaps learn a few things from the Apple Watch, which successfully touts a geeky product as a fashionable accessory,” suggests Mi, who points out Snap Spectacles’ so-far dim reception.

Weishi had not responded to TechCrunch’s request for comment at the time of writing, but we’ll update this story with an additional information should the company provide it.

Fitbit earnings beat expectations on strength of smartwatch sales

Fitbit is slowly righting its financial ship, courtesy of a successful push into the smartwatch category. The wearable company reported a profit (when adjusted for items such as stock-based compensation) thanks to growing sales in the new category.   

Total revenues rose slightly to $393.6 million in the third quarter compared with the same period last year. The company did report a loss this quarter under generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). But it was rosier than in previous quarters and showed that Fitbit is moving in the right direction. Net losses narrowed considerably to $2.1 million from $113.4 million this time last year. A good deal of the company’s revenue is being driven by the shift to smartwatches, which now comprise around half of Fitbit’s total revenue.

It’s a gamble that’s finally starting to pay off for the company. Fitbit launched its first smartwatch in August of last year. The Ionic was the result of three high-profile acquisitions: Pebble, Coin and Vector. It was an ambitious product that found the company embracing the one bright spot in an otherwise stagnant wearables market.

What felt like an extremely expensive Hail Mary for the company was ultimately bogged down by poor reviews (including one on this site), thanks to poor industrial design, among other issues. In an interview with TechCrunch earlier this year, CEO James Park admitted that the Ionic ultimately wasn’t a mainstream device. “It was a performance-oriented product,” Park said at the time. “That audience is much smaller than a mass appeal device.”

Its followup, the Versa, however, address many of the biggest complaints plaguing the Ionic, and has clearly proven a hit for Fitbit.

This is the first time the company has posted adjusted profitability since Q3 of 2016. Forty-nine percent of the revenue on the  3.5 million wearables it sold this quarter came courtesy of its smartwatches. Fitbit’s combined smartwatch sales currently put it in the No. 2 position in the U.S., behind only Apple. It seems the company’s gamble is beginning to pay off.

Motiv’s new fitness ring does two-factor authentication

If nothing else, Motiv’s fitness ring was a welcome reprieve from the umpteenth wrist-worn tracker. And it worked surprisingly well. The followup essentially looks the same as the original (save for some new finishes), but features a couple of new tricks, including two-factor authentication.

The new hardware is available today, bringing with it the ability to log into supported accounts using a gesture. The ring is also offering up something called WalkID in beta, which essentially measures the wearer’s gait to further verify identity. It’s not nearly as distinct as, say, a fingerprint, but the way we walk is distinct enough to further distinguish fakers.

In the near future, the product will support passwords in Google Chrome and Windows Edge, courtesy of the FIDO2 and WebAuthn standards. The company says the ring will soon add support for fingerprint and facial recognition in-app, adding another layer of protection for users.

It’s a bit of a strange addition for what is primarily a fitness device, and probably not enough in and of itself to convince users to pick up a ring — though it does further distinguish a product that, quite frankly, is probably already distinguished enough.

Apple Watch Series 4 is the most accessible watch yet

Every time I ponder the impact Apple Watch has had on my life, my mind always goes to Matthew Panzarino’s piece published prior to the device’s launch in 2015. In it, Panzarino writes about how using Apple Watch saves time; as a “satellite” to your iPhone, the Watch can discreetly deliver messages without you having to disengage from moments to attend to your phone.

In the three years I’ve worn an Apple Watch, I’ve found this to be true. Like anyone nowadays, my iPhone is the foremost computing device in my life, but the addition of the Watch has somewhat deadened the reflex to check my phone so often. What’s more, the advent of Apple Watch turned me into a regular watch-wearer again, period, be it analog or digital. I went without one for several years, instead relying on my cell phone to tell me the time.

To piggyback on Panzarino’s thesis that Apple Watch saves you time, from my perspective as a disabled person, Apple’s smartwatch makes receiving notifications and the like a more accessible experience. As someone with multiple disabilities, Apple Watch not only promotes pro-social behavior, the device’s glanceable nature alleviates the friction of pulling my phone out of my pocket a thousand times an hour. For people with certain physical motor delays, the seemingly unremarkable act of even getting your phone can be quite an adventure. Apple Watch on my wrist eliminates that work, because all my iMessages and VIP emails are right there.

The fourth-generation Apple Watch, “Series 4” in Apple’s parlance, is the best, most accessible Apple Watch to date. The original value proposition for accessibility, to save on physical wear and tear, remains. Yet Series 4’s headlining features — the larger display, haptic-enabled Digital Crown and fall detection — all have enormous ramifications for accessibility. In my testing of a Series 4 model, a review unit provided to me by Apple, I have found it to be delightful to wear and use. This new version has made staying connected more efficient and accessible than ever before.

Big screen, small space

If there were but one banner feature of this year’s Apple Watch, it would indisputably be the bigger screen. I’ve been testing Series 4 for a few weeks and what I tweeted early on holds true: for accessibility, the Series 4’s larger display is today what Retina meant to iPhone 4 eight years ago. Which is to say, it is a highly significant development for the product; a milestone. If you are visually impaired, this should be as exciting as having a 6.5-inch iPhone. Again, the adage that bigger is better is entirely apropos — especially on such a small device as Apple Watch.

What makes Series 4’s larger screen so compelling in practice is just how expansive it is. As with the iPhone XS Max, the watch’s large display makes seeing content easier. As I wrote last month, once I saw the bigger model in the hands-on area following Apple’s presentation, my heart knew it was the size I wanted. The difference between my 42mm Series 3 and my 44mm Series 4 is stark. I’ve never complained about my previous watches being small, screen-wise, but after using the 44mm version for an extended time, the former feels downright minuscule by comparison. It’s funny how quickly and drastically one’s perception can change.

Series 4’s bigger display affects more than just text. Its bigger canvas allows for bigger icons and touch targets for user interface controls. The keypad for entering your passcode and the buttons for replying to iMessages are two standout examples. watchOS 5 has been updated in such a way that buttons have even more definition. They’re more pill-shaped to accommodate the curves of the new display; the Cancel/Pause buttons in the Timer app shows this off well. It aids in tapping, but it also gives them a visual boost that makes it easy to identify them as actionable buttons.

This is one area where watchOS excels over iOS, since Apple Watch’s relatively small display necessitates a more explicit design language. In other words, where iOS leans heavily on buttons that resemble ordinary text, watchOS sits at the polar end of the spectrum. A good rule of thumb for accessible design is that it’s generally better designers aim for concreteness with iconography and the like, rather than be cutesy and abstract because it’s en vogue and “looks cool” (the idea being a visually impaired person can more easily distinguish something that looks like a button as opposed to something that is technically a button but which looks like text).

Apple has course-corrected a lot in the five years since the iOS 7 overhaul; I hope further refinement is something that is addressed with the iOS 13 refresh that Axios’s Ina Fried first reported earlier this year was pushed back until 2019.

Of Series 4’s improvements, the bigger screen is by far my favorite. Apple Watch still isn’t a device you don’t want to interact with more than a minute, but the bigger display allows for another few milliseconds of comfort. As someone with low vision, that little bit of extra time is nice because I can take in more important information; the bigger screen mitigates my concerns over excessive eye strain and fatigue.

The Infograph and Infograph Modular faces

As I wrote in the previous section, the Series 4’s larger display allowed Apple to redesign watchOS such that it would look right given the bigger space. Another way Apple has taken advantage of Series 4’s big screens is the company has created two all-new watch faces that are exclusive to the new hardware: Infograph and Infograph Modular. (There are other cool ones — Breathe, Fire & Water, Liquid Metal and Vapor — that are all available on older Apple Watches that run watchOS 5.)

It’s not hard to understand why Apple chose to showcase Infograph in their marketing images for Series 4; it (and Infograph Modular) look fantastic with all the bright colors and bold San Francisco font. From an accessibility standpoint, however, my experience has been Infograph Modular is far more visually accessible than Infograph. While I appreciate the latter’s beauty (and bevy of complications), the functional downsides boil down to two things: contrast and telling time.

Contrast-wise, it’s disappointing you can’t change the dial to be another color but white and black. White is better here, but it is difficult to read the minute and second markers because they’re in a fainter grayish-black hue. If you choose the black dial, contrast is worse because it blends into the black background of the watch’s OLED display. You can change the color of the minute and second markers, but unless they’re neon yellow or green, readability is compromised.

Which brings us to the major problem with Infograph: it’s really difficult to tell time. This ties into the contrast issue — there are no numerals, and the hands are low contrast, so you have to have memorized the clock in order to see what time it is. Marco Arment articulates the problem well, and I can attest the issue is only made worse if you are visually impaired as I am. It’s a shame because Infograph is pretty and useful overall, but you have to be able to tell time. It makes absolutely no sense to add a digital time complication to what’s effectively an analog watch face. Perhaps Apple will add more customization options for Infograph in the future.

Infograph Modular, which I personally prefer, is not nearly as aesthetically pleasing as Infograph, but it’s far better functionally. Because it’s a digital face, the time is right there for you, and the colorful complications set against the black background is a triumph of high contrast. It is much easier on my eyes, and the face I recommend to anyone interested in trying out Series 4’s new watch faces.

Lastly, a note about the information density of these new faces. Especially on Infograph, it’s plausible that all the complications, in all their color, present an issue for some visually impaired people. This is because there’s a lot of “clutter” on screen and it may be difficult for some to pinpoint, say, the current temperature. Similarly, all the color may look like one washed-out rainbow to some who may have trouble distinguishing colors. It’d be nice if Apple added an option for monochromatic complications with the new faces.

In my usage, neither have been issues for me. I quite like how the colors boost contrast, particularly on Infograph Modular.

Haptics come to the crown

Given Apple’s push in recent years to integrate its so-called Taptic Engine technology — first introduced with the original Watch — across its product lines, it makes perfect sense that the Digital Crown gets it now. Haptics makes it better.

Before Apple Watch launched three years ago, I wrote a story in which I explained why haptic feedback (or “Force Touch,” as Apple coined it then) matters for accessibility. What I wrote then is just as relevant now: the addition of haptic feedback enhances the user experience, particularly for people with disabilities. The key factor is sensory input — as a user, you’re no longer simply watching a list go by. In my usage, the fact that I feel a “tick” as I’m scrolling through a list on the Watch in addition to seeing it move makes it more accessible.

The bi-modal sensory experience is helpful insofar as the secondary cue (the ticks) is another marker that I’m manipulating the device and something is happening. If I only rely on my poor eyesight, there’s a chance I could miss certain movements or animations, so the haptic feedback acts as a “backup,” so to speak. Likewise, I prefer my iPhone to ring and vibrate whenever a call comes in because I suffer from congenital hearing loss (due to my parents being deaf) and could conceivably miss important calls from loved ones or whomever. Thus, that my phone also vibrates while it’s ringing is another signal that someone is trying to reach me and I probably should answer.

Tim Cook made a point during the original Watch’s unveiling to liken the Digital Crown as equally innovative and revolutionary as what the mouse was to the Mac in 1984 and what multi-touch was to the iPhone in 2007. I won’t argue his assertion here, but I will say the Series 4’s crown is the best version of the “dial,” as Cook described it, to date. It’s because of the haptic feedback. It gives the crown even more precision and tactility, making it more of a compelling navigational tool.

Considering fall detection

As I watched from the audience as Apple COO Jeff Williams announced Series 4’s new fall detection feature, I immediately knew it was going to be a big deal. It’s something you hope to never use, as Williams said on stage, but the fact it exists at all is telling for a few reasons — the most important to me being accessibility.

I’ve long maintained accessibility, conceptually, isn’t limited to people with medically recognized disabilities. Accessibility can mean lots of different things, from mundane things like where you put the paper towel dispenser on the kitchen counter to more critical ones like building disabled parking spaces and wheelchair ramps for the general public. Accessibility also is applicable to the elderly who, in the case of fall detection, could benefit immensely from such a feature.

Instead of relying on a dedicated lifeline device, someone who’s even remotely interested in Apple Watch, and who’s also a fall risk, could look at Series 4 and decide the fall detection feature alone is worth the money. That’s exactly what happened to my girlfriend’s mother. She is an epileptic and is a high-risk individual for catastrophic falls. After seeing Ellen DeGeneres talk up the device on a recent episode of her show, she was gung-ho about Series 4 solely for fall detection. She’d considered a lifeline button prior, but after hearing how fall detection works, decided Apple Watch would be the better choice. As of this writing, she’s had her Apple Watch for a week, and can confirm the new software works as advertised.

Personally, my cerebral palsy makes it such that I can be unsteady on my feet at times and could potentially fall. Fortunately, I haven’t needed to test fall detection myself, but I trust the reports from my girlfriend’s mom and The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern, who got a professional stunt woman’s approval.

Problematic packaging

Apple Watch Series 4 is pretty great all around, but there is a problem. One that has nothing to do with the product itself. How Apple has chosen to package Apple Watch Series 4 is bad.

Series 4’s unboxing experience is a regression from all previous models, in my opinion. The issue is Apple’s decision to pack everything “piecemeal” — the Watch case itself comes in an (admittedly cute) pouch that’s reminiscent of iPod Socks, while the band is in its own box. Not to mention the AC adapter and charging puck are located in their own compartment. I understand the operational logistics of changing the packaging this way, but for accessibility, it’s hardly efficient. In many ways, it’s chaotic. There are two reasons for this.

First, the discrete approach adds a lot in terms of cognitive load. While certainly not a dealbreaker for me, unboxing my review unit was jarring at first. Everything felt disjointed until I considered the logic behind doing it this way. But while I can manage to put everything together as if it were a jigsaw puzzle, many people with certain cognitive delays could have real trouble. They would first need to determine where everything is in the box before then determining how to put it all together; this can be frustrating for many. Conversely, the advantage of the “all-in-one” approach of Series past (where the case and band was one entity) meant there was far less mental processing needed to unbox the product. Aside from figuring out how the band works, the old setup was essentially a “grab and go” solution.

Second, the Series 4 packaging is more fiddly than before, quite literally. Instead of the Watch already being put together, now you have to fasten the band to the Watch in order to wear it. I acknowledge the built-in lesson for fastening and removing bands, but it can be inaccessible too. If you have visual and/or fine-motor impairments, you could spend several minutes trying to get your watch together so you can pair it with your iPhone. That time can be taxing, physically and emotionally, which in turn worsens the overall experience. Again, Apple’s previous packaging design alleviated much of this potential stress — whereas Series 4 exacerbates it.

I’ve long admired Apple’s product packaging for its elegance and simplicity, which is why the alarm bells went off as I’ve unboxed a few Series 4 models now. As I said, this year’s design definitely feels regressive, and I hope Apple reconsiders their old ways come Series 5. In fact, they could stand to take notes from Microsoft, which has gone to great lengths to ensure their packaging is as accessible as possible.

The bottom line

Three years in, I can confidently say I could live without my Apple Watch. But I also can confidently say I wouldn’t want to. Apple Watch has made my life better, and that’s not taking into account how it has raised my awareness for my overall health.

My gripes about the packaging and Infograph face aside, Series 4 is an exceptional update. The larger display is worth the price of admission, even from my year-old Series 3. The haptic Digital Crown and fall detection is the proverbial icing on the cake. I believe the arrival of Series 4 is a seminal moment for the product, and it’s the best, most accessible Apple Watch Apple has made yet.

Spotify comes to Wear OS with stand-alone app, Spotify Connect support

Spotify standalone Wear OS app on three Fossil smartwatch screens.

Wear OS gains a popular new app today that many have been waiting for, as Spotify announced that it’s bringing a stand-alone wearable app to Google’s smartwatch platform.

Spotify’s stand-alone app lets you browse and control music from your wrist. It seems to be a lighter version of Spotify’s mobile app, allowing you to browse your tracks and playlists and quickly save songs to your library. You can also control playback from your wrist—it appears similar to Wear OS’ native music controls, just built into a dedicated Spotify app.

The Wear OS app also integrates with Spotify Connect, the company’s method of connecting and controlling playback on Bluetooth devices. Now from your wrist, you can manage connections between Bluetooth speakers, laptops, and other devices and quickly change the playback source.

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