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The counterintuitive case for smartwatches: More screens may equal less distraction

Sony’s smartwatch lets users reject and mute calls, predefined texts, take call and use headset. However, even though its based on Android, the “take-call functionality is not supported for phones listed under other brands.”

If you've ever caught someone poking at their gigantic smartphone, glazed eyes lost in that blue glow, you might think yet another piece of technology is the last thing anyone needs. Actually wearing another screen on your body may seem even more unnecessary.

But the smartwatch just might be the rare tech example of where less is more. Rather than being yet another standalone gadget, forthcoming devices from Samsung, Apple and others will likely be an accessory for smartphones, providing at-a-glance access to messages, the weather and similarly simple functions. And instead of adding clutter and more information into our lives, it's possible the smartwatch might actually help us cut down on the time we spend staring at screens.

Right now, there are at least two major problem with our smartphones. Firstly, they've become big and unwieldy as, thanks to their unending list of functions, consumers want extra screen space to do and see more. Secondly, that same multi-functionality means they're constantly beeping and buzzing with messages, calls, and notifications for the numerous apps we have installed on our phones. If your contacts and alerts are managed poorly it feels like you have to pull your enormous phone out of a pocket or purse every few minutes just to stay on top of things. It's almost as if what a phone can do has somehow outgrown the form of the technology.

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A smartwatch might work to solve both of those issues. By connecting to your smartphone, a smartwatch would essentially be a notification centre for your wrist. At a glance, you could quickly tell whether an incoming call, message or notification is worth pulling y our phone out. Reading short, inconsequential messages – like those we use to co-ordinate meeting up with our friends, for example – would be much more convenient than staring at a phone while walking down the street. Quick, canned responses like "busy, can't talk" are also easy to imagine, as is contextual information like traffic and transit, or location-based reminders.

Although the term has been used to refer to both smartphones and tablets, a smartwatch seems to truly deserve the label "consumption device." Instead of a phone's many temptations of apps, games and one's friends and family, a small screen on the wrist could really only feasibly be used to read and view, not create. What's more, the miniscule screen would make even browsing Facebook or Twitter less than ideal. But rather than the lack of functionality being a flaw, it's actually a benefit: by reducing what a piece of technology is capable of, it focuses and reduces distraction. For quick bites of information there's the thing on your wrist; for everything else, there's your smartphone.

It is, however, always sensible to be wary of using technology to solve technological problems. It's quite possible that if phones are too intrusive and cumbersome, part of the solution entails a change in behaviour or design. After all, the reasons companies are pursuing this new category extends beyond simple consumer appeal.

The latest rumours regarding Samsung's upcoming Galaxy Gear watch suggest it will be designed to work with other Samsung products. It's almost certain that Apple will do the same, maintaining their policy of having their stuff work with their stuff. Just as with the competing app stores for Android, iOS, Windows Phone and Blackberry, what consumers will be left with is closed off ecosystems of hardware where each smartwatch will be proprietary to not only operating systems, but likely brands, too. It will essentially be an attempt by tech companies to lock consumers into one "brand silo."

If that does end up being the case, it would be a shame. Overloaded with alerts and incoming communiqués, the smartphone certainly could use a "secretary" in the form of a smartwatch, sifting through and organizing the mess to simplify and narrow down what we deal with on a day-to-day basis. Paradoxically, wearing one more screen upon our bodies may surprisingly end up helping to reduce the amount of time we spend looking at one.

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