Pebble

If you have followed this blog for any amount of time, you know that I am a big believer in wearable technology. I’m actually kinda bummed out that I mostly missed the boat on Google Glass beta program by not being an Android developer and all. Can’t wait till smart glasses become available to the general public and augmented reality becomes something the mainstream can take for granted. But we still have a few hoops we have to jump through before that happens.

Aside of smart glasses, which are still very experimental technology, the other wearable area that is getting a lot of attention lately is your wrist. Smart watches are a big gamble, but one that at least has a potential to pay off. Google is aiming high with their Glass project, and quite a few fashion conscious individuals will have to grow into the idea of wearing a computing device on their head. Watches are an easier sell. People used to wear watches all the time before smart phones eliminated the need for wrist-bound time measuring device. Nowadays they are mostly worn as fashion statements (or “bling” if you will) but bringing back utility watches should not be extremely difficult. Especially since the precedent of wearing watches that do more than keep time has already been set by all kinds of stop-watch and calculator-watch devices in the past. I believe it is easier to get someone jumping on the smart-watch bandwagon than on the G-Glass train.

That said, I am already sold. I was waiting for wearable tech to start popping up on the market since Rainbow’s End. And it’s finally here. I am now a proud owner of a Pebble Smart Watch:

Pebble Smart Watch

Pebble Smart Watch

So how is Pebble? It’s great, but it is not necessarily smart enough to warrant the “smart watch” tag. Without a smart phone to bind with, it is just a neat electronic watch with adjustable faces. Which in itself is really cool. Pebble comes with several nicely designed faces, and you can download many more from the interwebs or even create your own. That in itself is almost worth the price of the device itself. But other than that, the watch does very little else on its own.

By design the Pebble is a wrist mounted extension of your smart phone. Much like a Bluetooth headset which is supposed to give you hands-free auditory access to the device, the watch gives you almost “hands-free” access to visual cues generated by your phone: things like notifications, reminders and messages. This is the problem Pebble aims to solve:

Let’s say you are at a party or enjoying a meal with someone special and your phone suddenly blings, buzzes or makes some other unexpected noise that you think may indicate an important text message just came in. Without a Pebble on your wrist you may be tempted to immediately dive into your pocket to retrieve the phone, or start shuffling through the stuff in your purse to find it. Pebble allows you to just discretely glance at your wrist to see the message. While this may not be incredibly impressive, it is very convenient. The watch vibrates whenever it gets triggered so you will never miss that important communication even your phone is safely tucked away an out of your reach.

Pebble Menu Screen

Pebble Menu Screen

That’s about the extent of functionality you get out of the box: custom watch faces, and phone notifications pushed to your wrist. Oh, and you can control the music player app with it. Pebble does have an API that allows developers to create apps that work with the device, but for now there are very few of them out there. Android users are actually much better off in this department since there are quite a few apps in the Google Play store. The iOS users do have access to some neat apps like Smartwatch+ but pretty much anything that isn’t advertised on the main Pebble website requires a jailbreak to work.

But I guess this is one of the downsides of owning an Apple phone: shit is locked down tight unless you are one of “special friends” with privileged backdoor access via unpublished API’s. For the time being stock iOS users have to set their expectations low when it comes to utility apps for Pebble which is rather unfortunate. I hear that iOS 7 is a little bit better about supporting complex third party Bluetooth devices but I’m not holding my breath.

Still, for the amount of utility it provides I’d say it is worth it. The e-ink display is great, the wrist-flick activated back light works amazing and the battery life is pretty decent. The Pebble website claims you can go about 7 days without charging, but it seems that number is closer to around 4-5 in real life settings. Still, this is rather impressive considering the fact it has an always-on Bluetooth transmitter in there. Anyone who used to strap an iPod mini to their wrist will probably be very happy with the device. While it doesn’t have the vibrant color display, you won’t have to charge it every night and it never goes to deep sleep mode when idle.

Would I recommend it? Yes, it is neat. I actually like having a time telling device on my wrist that also gets emails and text messages. Will it change your life? No, not really. Pebble is nowhere near revolutionary, but it is a small step towards true wearable technology. Consider it a training bra for the mainstream audience that aims to make them comfortable with the idea of strapping actual computer to their wrist one day. And as such it does a really great job.

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5 Responses to Pebble

  1. Kim Johnsson SWEDEN Internet Explorer Windows Terminalist says:

    Without a smart phone to bind with, it is just a neat electronic watch with adjustable faces.

    Not sure I’d agree with you there. I mean, it does have a fully capable microprocessor and (a little bit of) memory. Sure, without a smartphone it can’t communicate with the outside world, but is that really the defining quality of a smartwatch? I read recently about some big company making a smartwatch of their own. Not only could it connect to a smartphone, it could also work independently and even allow you to make calls and send texts. And it ran Android. Surely that’s just a smartphone with a wriststrap…

    I backed the project back in April (?) last year right when it got on Kickstarter, and I’ve now had my watch since February. Pretty damn sweet, and I’ve done a fair bit of development for it (nothing public, sorry). Without a smartphone connection I can still use it for OTP authentication (Google, Microsoft), dice rolling and various stopwatch applications. I’d say that’s pretty smart on its own. And with a phone connection I’ve also hooked it up to my home automation stuff =)

    Oh and it can tell time! I’ve never been much of a wristwatch guy, but really, it’s actually pretty nice not having to grab your phone for that. And the callerid feature (along with a bluetooth headset) is awesome when I’m at work.

    Regarding battery life it obviously depends on what you do with it. I can sometimes get 7 days with moderate usage.

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  2. I’m trying to get my hands onto one of these for about half a year now…
    Not only do i really like the concept of those smartwatches (example: why have a different device on my bike that just tells me how fast i am, if my smartphone knows it anyway? Further: looking to my arm is even better then looking to the handles, because i won’t need to remove it if i leave my bike somewhere), i’m too allready sold to the concept of e-ink-displays for watches. I tried 2-3 “cheap” (as in: same amount of euros as pebble, but built much cheaper) watches with e-ink and the display always was a great deal better then everything you get by using lcd and the likes. What those did wrong was pretty much everything else: no connection to other devices whatsoever, poor quality, no chance to switch the displayed data to something sane (even worse: 2 of 3 of those devices didn’t even let me watch my time in 24h-mode)

    Sadly there is a “slight” problem with pebble in germany:

    Out of 159 countries that we’ve shipped to, Germany has proven to be the most difficult. Half-way through shipping Black Pebbles to Germany, the customs and technology bureaus banned backers from picking up their Pebble from the post office. Unfortunately, the bureaus did not contact Pebble directly, which caused quite a bit of confusion on our side because we saw thousands of Pebbles successfully ship through to backers in Germany, even while some backers were running into issues. Eventually, we were able to work with German backers and lawyers to figure out what was going wrong.

    Well… that’s the last i heard of them, this “getting closer to a solution” now is the status for 2 more months and german bureaus state that they don’t see much of a problem, have allready supported the pebble-producers with a list of information that would have to be supplied to ship it here, but no response from pebble so far. :-/

    More generally to watches:
    I really _need_ a watch at my arm to spare me this 2-3sec delay while i grab for my phone, switch it on and read what time it is. It’s simply a matter of comfort.
    For the same reason i can’t stand analog watches, am/pm-mode (why the hell should i do decoding in my head?), poorly readable displays or even worse: LED-Watches where i have to press a button to read the time.
    Sadly: for appearance- and durability-reasons i don’t like plastic-watches either, so i’m pretty much out of possible choices here. Currently i still look for a bearable watch and probably will have to buy a different strap than it comes with. I love how capitalism produces everything what you want to buy [/sarcasm]

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Kim Johnsson wrote:

    Not sure I’d agree with you there. I mean, it does have a fully capable microprocessor and (a little bit of) memory. Sure, without a smartphone it can’t communicate with the outside world, but is that really the defining quality of a smartwatch?

    Good point. I guess what I was trying to say was that the adjustable watch-faces are basically the main feature that gets exposed “out of the box”. The phone doesn’t really ship with any other apps, even though it is clearly capable of running more. Also there doesn’t seem to be an easy app delivery method… Or at least it isn’t immediately obvious on iOS.

    Kim Johnsson wrote:

    I’ve now had my watch since February. Pretty damn sweet, and I’ve done a fair bit of development for it (nothing public, sorry). Without a smartphone connection I can still use it for OTP authentication (Google, Microsoft), dice rolling and various stopwatch applications.

    I haven’t really looked into the developer API side of things, but how do you deploy native apps to it? Is there a way? I know you can hook into it from iOS via the BlueTooth API which is done by some of the official iOS apps like the golf range finder, the running app, or the PebbleSnap thing. But how about running native code on the device itself?

    Also, how do you to Google OTP from the watch? Is it something provided natively by the Android app?

    @ Dr. Azrael Tod:

    Wow, that sucks. What exactly was the problem they had with Pebbles that they banned them? I mean, it’s watches, no? :P

    Oh, and Pebble is unfortunately plastic. I believe this is how they are keeping the prices down. I think we’ll have to wait few more years till we have nice chrome and glass style smart watches. If Apple gets into fancy watch market, then it will become very competitive quickly with lots of high end Android based models being churned out to close the gap. But I’m not holding my breath since it seems that Apple has been somewhat reluctant to shake things up too much in the recent years, Google is heavily investing in Glass and no major players out there is actually able to produce non-derivative mobile device that doesn’t suck.

    But I think Pebble is pretty good foray into the smart watch market. The wrist strap can be replaced by the way so you can probably get something nicer. The watch itself is all plastic. It doesn’t really look cheep – the display has that iPhone glass look to it. Once you get it in your hands though it seems very light (which in a way is good, comfort wise) but people get surprised. It feels cheaper than it looks I guess.

    Also, it is pretty big – at least on my hand. But then again, I have shamefully tiny lady-like wrists so probably won’t be problem for everyone. :P

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  4. Kim Johnsson SWEDEN Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    Luke Maciak wrote:

    I haven’t really looked into the developer API side of things, but how do you deploy native apps to it? Is there a way? I know you can hook into it from iOS via the BlueTooth API which is done by some of the official iOS apps like the golf range finder, the running app, or the PebbleSnap thing. But how about running native code on the device itself?

    There’s a really neat SDK with an easy-to-use build system (using waf) you can download. Won’t take you more than 10-15 minutes to set it up in Linux. Apps are written in plain C (minus some stuff, notably dynamic memory allocation at least for the time being) and built into a file for the watch. Now I can only speak for Android, but easiest way to get it onto the watch is to simply serve it from a webserver on the dev box and open it with a browser on the phone. The Pebble phone app will happily open and transfer it.

    And if you want to do something that communicates with the phone (and, by extension, the outside world) there’s an SDK for that too, called PebbleKit I believe. Dunno how it works on iOS, but it’s pretty easy to use on Android.

    Also, how do you to Google OTP from the watch? Is it something provided natively by the Android app?

    No, it’s an app written by some person on the interwebs, just search the Pebble forum for Authenticator (there’s lots of apps on the forum). You’ll have to compile it yourself though because you need to hardcode your secrets. It doesn’t communicate with anything on the phone, just calculates OTPs on its own.

    I highly recommend you get into developing for the Pebble. It’s like 70% of the fun of owning one =)

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  5. Pingback: The State of Wearable Technology | Terminally Incoherent UNITED STATES WordPress

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