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Watching smartwatches

April 26, 2016 13 comments

Smartwatches provide easy access to personal data in a wearable device. Modern devices sparking the latest wave of use include Pebble, Android Wear, Apple Watch. An important aspect of the popularity of these platforms is their open programming and app distribution platforms. For little or no cost, anyone with programming knowledge can develop and distribute an app. However, excitement about the platform and availability of a programming platform does not necessarily translate to useful and usable apps.

Two big hurdles exist that are particularly relevant for app designers: domains of use and continued use. First, it’s not yet clear what the domain for the smartwatch “killer app” will be—the apps that are so necessary and desired that people will pay for the technology necessary to use them.  Candidate areas for the killer app include health and fitness, highly accessible notifications for email and messaging, and social media. Second, an unanswered question is whether people will use them long term–there’s lots of attrition for even the most popular hardware.

We set out to understand these questions in my CS 3714 mobile software design class. An assignment asked that students perform an analytic evaluation of a smartwatch over the course of at least 5 days. Pebble, Android Wear, and Apple Watch smartwatches were available for checkout. Students were asked to identify at least three smartwatch apps to use prior to the 5-day period, then use the smartwatch and apps over the course of the 5 days for several hours each day. It was asked that at least one of the apps be a health- or fitness-related app, and at least one of the apps (perhaps the same one) was to have a companion app for the smartphone.

Students completed a form indicating whether they generally wore a watch (standard or smartwatch), which smartwatch they chose to wear for the assignment, how long they wore the smartwatch for the assignment, and which apps they used. The students were asked to craft a narrative to describe the experience with your selected hardware. The narrative covered display and interaction experiences as well as experiences with each of at least three different apps. It is expected that the narrative cover about 800-1000 words.

Students tended to complete this assignment with a higher completion rate than the other (programming) assignments for the class–68 out of 71 students submitted it. 24 students used the Pebble, 38 used an Android Wear watch, and 6 used the Apple Watch. Most used the smartwatch for longer than the requested 5 days; the median usage time was 7 days and the average was 8.9 days. Only 40% of students reported that they regularly wear any sort of watch, and only 10% reported having worn a smartwatch regularly.

Students tended to use more than the 3 apps that the assignment asked them to use. Most students used fitness apps that came with the smartwatch (e.g., Android Fit, Apple Activity). Others used run tracking apps, and a few tracked other diet or exercise. Map alerts and other notifications were popular, as were games. Surprisingly, only a few people reported using social media in a meaningful way (i.e., beyond receiving text messages); perhaps that is because of the short usage time.

Comments from student narratives reflected a general interest in the technology. They found the smartwatch “pleasant”, “nice and convenient”, and “very handy”.  Notifications seemed to be an advantage, with the smartwatch “a great way to read and dismiss notifications” (though others found notifications annoying or “glorified”). However, few people seemed poised to purchase or use the technology based on their experiences. The most common complaints were that the hardware was “ugly”, “awkward”, “incredibly silly”, and “not aesthetically pleasing”. Others found the technology hard to use, with comments like “my finger takes up half the screen”, “small buttons”, and “no way for users to type”. Lots of students admitted that they were “just not a watch person” or that they “disliked watches”, and there was nothing about the smartwatch that they wore to change their minds.

An important side effect of the smartwatch watching assignment is that students better understood the capabilities of smartwatches. In prior semesters when students did not have the experience of wearing a smartwatch, designs tended to be unrealistic or impossible to implement. Students in this semester seemed to have a better understanding of how a smartwatch would be used, and as such their homeworks and projects were targeted more appropriately for the smartwatch. There’s a danger that their experiences may stifle their creativity by highlighting what has been done, but that seemed outweighed by a realistic understanding of capabilities and scenarios of use.

There’s an interesting history for smartwatches, from the Dick Tracy vision to the poorly-received models from Seiko, IBM, and others through the 1980s and 1990s. The new wave of smartwatches seems to be booming, but it’s unclear whether that boom is here to stay. My research group has been exploring smartwatch use in the classroom as reported in a SIGCSE paper, demo, and poster in 2015.  And we put together an app set to look at reactions to smartwatches in an elementary school outreach experience.  A previous in-class activity comparing games across platforms (smartwatch, smartphone, and laptop/web). It seems likely that young people will help define whether and how smartwatches will be used (or whether the movement will fizzle, or appeal only to niche groups) in upcoming years.

SIGCSE 2016

April 6, 2016 Leave a comment
2016-03-05 14.04.23

Virginia Tech students and alums at SIGCSE 2016

SIGCSE 2016, the flagship conference on computer science education, took place in Memphis TN in March, with a big collection of Virginia Tech students, faculty, and alumni taking on a variety of important roles. My grad student Mohammed Seyam and I presented a paper on teaching mobile software development with Pair Programming. Cliff Shaffer and his students and alums had multiple papers and exhibits. Greg Kulczycki served on a panel.  And, most notably, Steve Edwards was program co-chair this year!

Mohammed Seyam’s paper and talk focused on Teaching Mobile Development with Pair Programming. It explored his investigation of Pair Programming (PP) when teaching mobile software design in an upper level CS course. PP has been shown to be useful in some teaching situations, but Mohammed is the first to look at it in teaching mobile. He also had an entry in the graduate Student Research Competition that took a broader look at the balance between PP, hands-on activities, and traditional lectures when teaching mobile software design, for which he was named a finalist.

As always, SIGCSE featured interesting and engaging keynotes. John Sweller talked about the impacts of cognitive load theory on CS education. Barbara Boucher Owens and Jan Cuny received service awards from SIGCSE and gave keynotes that reflected their life experiences. It was particularly good to see Jan Cuny receive an award given her contributions to diversity in leading broadening participation in computing programs at the NSF. Karen Lee Ashcraft talked about breaking the glass slipper, and how organizations historically (and continually) have crafted jobs and workplaces that encourage stereotypes. This was a bolder and more developed version of a talk she gave at NCWIT 2015.

One of my favorite emerging things at SIGCSE is the Common Reads initiative, which returned for its second year. It’s an effort to encourage SIGCSE attendees to read a common set of CS-related materials. There are stickers for conference badges that are handed out at registration to highlight who’s read what, thus providing another avenue to start conversations. And there’s a conference session one evening to discuss the readings, how they relate to CS, and how they can be used with students. This year’s books were all science fiction: The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, A Logic Named Joe by Will F. Jenkins, and Seven Years from Home by Naomi Novik. These books and stories touch on core CS themes like AI, parallel computing, fault tolerance. While thee themes are certainly relevant to CS, it seems important to me to promote topics other than just science fiction to support a breadth of interests.  As such, for SIGCSE 2017the most intriguing common read to me is The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace & Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua. It’s a comic-style reimagining of CS heroes Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, exploring a world in which they collaborated closely to build and use a computer. There are a couple of other sci-fi entries included as well, Andy Weir’s The Martian (yes, the book that the movie is based on) and Isaac Asimov’s The Last Question short story.

It was fun to connect with the VT crowd on the LONG van ride across Tennessee to Memphis. The Memphis area is a little depressed, but there seem to be efforts at renovation, and the food and music were a great indulgence. It was fun to be just a few feet from the Mississippi River during the conference, and we were able to duck across the border to neighboring Arkansas and Mississippi on our drive.  We also had quick visits to Nashville and Kingston going to and from the conference. Next year’s SIGCSE will be in Seattle, so it’s unlikely we’ll drive to that venue!

Several others put together writeups about this event as well. CS@VT blogged about VT’s participation in SIGCSE (excerpts from this post), and Georgia Tech put forth a press release about the event. Mark Guzdial from Georgia Tech has several blog posts about Jan Cuny’s SIGCSE Outstanding Contribution award and a description of one of his posters replicating his earlier work. It was enlightening to read about the frustrations in publishing replicated work. There’s real value there but so many venues put much more value on innovation rather than replication. Janet Davis blogged about her experiences at SIGCSE from her perspective as a faculty member starting a new CS department. Georgia Tech and NCWIT had groups there too, and it was great to connect with them. And I’m sure there’s much more writeups about SIGCSE that I missed–feel free to include other relevant links in the comments.