Thursday, 23 October 2014

Two Weeks with the Moto 360 - Device Review

I've had my Moto 360 for a couple of weeks now, so I thought I'd share my experiences of using the device so far. The short version is I'm generally happy with the watch and the few minor negatives are greatly outweighed by the general geeky coolness of strapping a voice activated computer to my wrist. If you'd like the slightly longer version, please read on...



The Battery

Battery life on the Moto has not been an issue for me, though my venerable Nexus 4 has shown the strain of doing much of the heavy lifting for the device, even running out of juice mid-evening on one occasion. If your phone already has issues retaining charge for a full day, I'm afraid pairing it with a smartwatch is only going to make things worse.

The watch typically leaves its cradle around 7am and turns in for the night at around 11pm. The lowest remaining charge percentage I've seen so far is 11%, with between 40% and 70% being typical. Pretty much the first thing the watch did after I paired it was update itself, so I'm assuming I'm benefitting from enhancements in the recent software update described on this Reddit thread.

Wireless Charging

I love this feature, and I don't think I'd consider a smartwatch that didn't have it. The Moto's cradle is nicely designed and effectively turns the watch into a bedside clock, as can be seen in the image below. I also invested in a desktop wireless charging pad, which happily charges the watch and on which my Nexus 4 now spends much of the working day.

Image credit - Ryan Whitwam, Android Police

Voice Recognition

I'm impressed with the Moto's voice recognition capability. I can't think of a particular instance of a mistake it has made, with both Google searches and text messages performing as expected (maybe that should be "as hoped" rather than "as expected").

Text messaging in particular works really well, and in my case is a definite time saver over jabbing at a touchscreen - the first time I sent an SMS merely by talking to the watch was a definite sci-fi moment.

Self consciousness has prevented me from making greater use of the voice interface while in public. Maybe we'll soon see crowds of people roaming the streets while talking to their wrists, but I strongly suspect not. Perhaps subvocal control systems hitting the mainstream will put a dent in the touchscreen interface's dominance, but that's a good few years away.

Health and Exercise

The Moto's health and exercise functionality is interesting, with hardware and supporting apps for heart and step monitoring baked in to the device. I don't have data on the accuracy of the heart sensor, but it has sometimes needed a few attempts to get a reading from me and it seems unlikely to be as accurate as a dedicated strap-on sports monitor.

I downloaded Endomondo, to test its Android Wear integration, at the request of one of my Objectivity colleagues and the results were fairly impressive. The app can be voice controlled, and a UI for stopping and starting workouts is displayed on the watch face. When you've finished your punishing hill run (or gentle stroll from the hotel to our Polish office in my case) you can view your workout stats, which include maximum and average heart rate as provided by the Moto.

My workout stats - I was overtaken by two snails and a tortoise.

Minor Issues

Compromises have definitely been made, the most obvious of which is the "flat tyre" at the bottom of the screen that houses the light sensor and screen driver hardware. The degree to which this bothers you will depend largely on your aesthetic sensibilities, but it clearly wasn't a deal breaker for me. I'll be surprised if this feature is present on any future versions of the device.

I've read reports elsewhere of battery capacity and performance being compromised, though neither has proven an issue for me so far YMMV.

The watch face doesn't always illuminate when I rotate my arm to glance at it, which is obviously a little annoying. Clearly my biomechanical profile is not fully supported by the device. Fortunately I can confirm the beer mitt swing (seen at the tail end of this clip from the British sitcom Men Behaving Badly) works every time for me.

Active notifications obscure approximately half of the watch face. To be fair to the Moto, this is an Android Wear feature and is not specific to this device. Depending on the watch face chosen, a visible notification can make it difficult or impossible to see the current time until the notification is dismissed. The current mechanism for dismissing notifications is a swipe, but if I could dismiss them with a quick shake of the device this would probably work better for me.

Conclusion

I'm happy with the watch. I wear it daily and I continue to find it genuinely useful. It's nicely designed, well made, and comfortable to wear. It also tells the time, which is a definite bonus.

As seems to be the norm for technology products it's a little more expensive in the UK than in the US, but £200 seems just about reasonable for this particular device.

I'm now eagerly awaiting the Android Lollipop update, to see if the 5.0 version of Android Wear will feature the ability use the watch as a beacon. :)


Thursday, 9 October 2014

iBeacons in Retail Event, Presented by Academia - The Swan at Shakespeare's Globe, London, September 25th 2014

I attended an event in London recently, along with 50 or so other consultants, technologists and retailers, to explore the subject of iBeacons in Retail. The event was organised by Academia, a leading provider of IT equipment and services to the UK education sector.

Though the ultimate purpose of the event was to allow Academia and Atama to raise awareness of their new joint venture, BeaconSense, Academia also sees value in helping to build a community around the beacon ecosystem. Judging by the degree of networking going on during breaks and over lunch, it seems they've made a good start on this.

The event featured 5 presentations, which I'll attempt to summarise:

1) Welcome, introduction to Academia and BeaconSense: Jesse Westgate - Academia

We opened with an introduction to Academia. We were given an overview of their BeaconSense solution, which they describe as "...a suite of hardware and software solutions delivering location based advertising and information services to key markets such as Retail and Leisure industries using Bluetooth technology and customised mobile apps". The presentation was accompanied by a brochure for the service, and the information shared was at a high level (i.e. no screen shots or detailed use cases).

There was no discussion of existing clients or of reference implementations, but the involvement of Pivotal (more on this later) gives the venture access to serious Big Data capability, and the Atama beacon is shaping up to be a solid product so I will be watching with interest to see how BeaconSense develops.

2) iBeacon technology, insights & development by Eric Ferraz CEO – Atama

Atama's CEO introduced its new iBeacon product, which is at the advanced prototype stage having been up and running in their lab for the last couple of months.

The device runs on 4 AA batteries and has some interesting features, including time based power management and variable advertising intervals.

Commenting on the device's battery profile, Ferraz asked the question "does it matter if beacons are bigger"? Personally I'd say "yes", at least if you want them on a name tag or asset label, but agree that in the majority of use cases increased battery life over a low profile enclosure is likely to be a worthwhile trade off.

I found the device's management capabilities particularity interesting. Atama beacons participate in a mesh network, via a 6lowpan back channel. 6lowpan uses low frequencies at very low power, meaning that signals are not affected as much by environmental obstructions as higher frequency bluetooth transmissions. thereby giving longer effective range. Beacons within the mesh communicate with a bridge which in turn talks to a cloud based management service. Centralised remote management obviously simplifies set up and ongoing maintenance, and this definitely feels like the way to go. Atama are not alone in this space though, Kontakt's cloud beacon being the obvious competitor.

All things considered the Atama beacon seems like a flexible and capable device with a solid list of features, and I look forward to trialling it.

AltBeacon was mentioned in passing and Android support was briefly discussed, though as this was an iBeacon centric event with Apple in attendance there was little appetite to address the subject in detail.

3) Case Study by Jess Stephens CMO – Smart Focus

This presentation was the stand out for me, as Jess Stephens' company Tag Points (recently acquired by Smart Focus, of which Stephens is the Chief Marketing Officer) have real world experience of running a service to which iBeacon technology is integral.

Stephens gave a detailed overview of case studies involving the Swan Centre in Eastleigh, UK and The Meadowhall Shopping Centre in Sheffield, UK. It was apparent in both cases that the engagement of mall ownership was instrumental in building a compelling offering that in turn drove customer engagement. Tag Points' case studies are available on-line, with another from Smart Focus to follow shortly; I strongly recommended checking these out if you're interested in a view from the trenches.

In terms of technology the Tag Points system is beacon agnostic, and supports both iOS and Android clients.

Stephens commented in passing that "Owning your own digital airspace" is likely to become increasingly important, akin to owning your internet domain name. This struck me as an interesting observation, and it's definitely worthy of further consideration.

4) Business Intelligence & Data Analysis by Chris Mills CTO – Pivotal

Pivotal is a provider of Big Data solutions, formed as a joint venture between EMC, VMWare and GE. Given its backers it seems logical to suspect the company is not short of resources and it's clearly able to engage with top-tier clients, so the fact that BeaconSense is able to offer insights derived via Pivotal has the potential to be an important differentiator.

Chris Mills' presentation focussed on a few case studies, including profiling the location of mobile phone calls in real time (for quality of service, not surveillance purposes, you'll be relieved to hear) and analysis of data provided after fitting out a US sports arena with iBeacons. Retail banking was also mentioned as a sector of interest.

Mills remarked that beacons effectively just provide another new data point to Pivotal. I suspect that organisations with an existing investment in Big Data are likely to take a similar view, and would be keen to derive maximum value from their beacon-specific customer engagement data by importing it into their existing solution.

5) Apple in Retail by Tom Grant - Apple Systems Engineer.

We were asked to treat the detail of Tom Grant's presentation as confidential, which I found slightly odd, as I don't recall anything being mentioned that wasn't already in the public domain. The presentation comprised a high level technical discussion and some case studies, which is unfortunately about as much as I can say without getting into specifics.

Grant is an engaging speaker, and I saw his attendance as evidence that Apple remains committed to the technology and to the UK iBeacon community.

After a brief Q&A, during which there was a short discussion of whether Android apps can consume iBeacon advertising packets (they can, if you were in any doubt), delegates retired for a quick tour of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and a networking lunch.

I found the event extremely valuable; I learned from the experiences of others and made new contacts within the wider beacon community. Academia should be congratulated for having the foresight to put the event together, for attracting a strong line up of speakers, and for ensuring it ran so smoothly.

I'm convinced that beacons provide great potential for building novel and compelling interactions, and for building new businesses to deliver them.

It's an exciting time to be a Technologist.