Coupling & Crosstalk: Over Connected?

Apple-Watch-Shinya_Suzuki_flickr17078894786_ec2467b9e6_o_crop_600x551Coupling & Crosstalk is my column in the MEPTEC Report. This column appears in the Summer 2015 edition on pages 11-12.

Electronic coupling is the transfer of energy from one circuit or medium to another. Sometimes it is intentional and sometimes not (crosstalk). I hope that this column, by mixing technology and general observations, is thought provoking and “couples” with your thinking. Most of the time I will stick to technology but occasional crosstalk diversions may deliver a message closer to home.

Over Connected?

I’m torn. Should I buy an Apple Watch? Is this an ego trip or clearly a left versus right brain decision? Regular readers of my column know how much I appreciate Jony Ive’s designs and that Apple generally does an excellent job of both engineering and marketing. However, those who are familiar with my work and personality know how focused I can be on “requirements”. As I often remind my children, there is a very large difference between wants and needs.

Some have wanted a Dick Tracy watch for years. Others familiar with the 1960’s television series Get Smart have wanted Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone. The Apple Watch should satisfy the first craving and feature phones have long ago eclipsed Max’s phone. However, some people’s ringtones are just as obnoxious as Agent 86’s phone.

I always wanted a Mickey Mouse automatic watch with the cool retro look. Yes, a quartz watch offers far more precision but there is something classic about an automatic (self-winding mechanical) watch. With my microfabrication experience in building micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) devices and structures with tolerances measured in a micrometer (micron) or less, a quality mechanical watch is a marvel of precision technology and craftsmanship that I appreciate.

In particular, I spent several years marketing microfabrication technology to the watch industry for advanced mechanisms and anti-counterfeiting applications. After visiting and working with a number of Swiss watchmakers, I am still looking for just the right mechanical watch. Since I am not a watchmaker nor rabid watch collector, I do not wear multiple watches on both wrists when I cannot decide which one to favor on a given day. For me, it has to be just the one right watch in function, mechanical precision, and aesthetics.

Unlike the manufacturer-fixed “applications” of a mechanical watch there are several thousand applications already created for the Apple Watch. The built-in applications that are the most interesting to me – activity monitoring and caller identification – I currently have on my Fitbit Charge. The Fitbit also tells time but, as many non-watch wearers have demonstrated, that isn’t an essential function in today’s world. Convenient, but not essential, with the pervasive availability of clocks starting with the ever-present smartphones.

At the moment, none of the other applications appear to be “must haves” or particularly compelling to me. Nor have I heard of the “killer app” yet for a smart watch. Perhaps selecting an Apple Watch or other “smart watch” is an even greater “First World Problem” than the “agony” of deciding one’s next smartphone. Hence further fuel for indecision.

Carefully withdrawing and reading a pocket watch was a hallmark of train engineers and conductors due to the potential loss of life if they got the time wrong. This may in fact have been the original “killer app”. Others in early society made a “show” of reading their watches to display status. Similarly many in the early days of mobile phones and some smartphone owners, even to this day, make a habit of placing them on the table. If your jeans are too tight to contain your phone, perhaps you have other problems? Once the novelty of smartwatches wears off, will people continue to flash them like jewelry?

Right now, fishing my iPhone out of my pocket is sufficiently convenient for any application I wish to use. However, perhaps I really need to experience the Apple Watch and its applications to really understand the use case? I know how addicted I have become to my car’s keyless (wireless) system when I get behind the wheel in my spouse’s car and grumble while having to extract the keys from my pocket. This and car’s seat heaters moved from “why the heck would one pay for that” to my minimum requirements list for any future car. The right technology can become both invasive and pervasive in our lives to the point where we are unwilling to do without.

From an engineering standpoint, the Apple Watch is a clear triumph. Recent teardowns have identified thirty (30!) different integrated circuits within the system-in-package (SiP) module. Not quite the same feat found in a multi-function (each known as a “complication”) watch that indicates the lunar cycle, provides an alarm or two, and perpetual calendar all through mechanical means; but still, quite an achievement.

With multiple MEMS sensors including a six-axis inertial sensor and a microphone, the Apple Watch contains its own mechanical marvels. Albeit at an even smaller scale than at which typical watchmakers operate. As those who attended the recent MEPTEC MEMS Technology Symposiums will know, there are plenty of challenges in designing, fabricating, and testing MEMS technology. As the moderator of the session on advanced packaging technology, I know that there is no end to the challenges of how to protect and interface to these very accurate but delicate MEMS structures.

The TSensors Summits (www.tsensorssummit.org) continue to examine not only the technical challenges of MEMS sensors that need solving but the commercial challenges too. To address the global challenges of hunger, healthcare, energy, environment, and education, many more innovative types of sensors are required. But if these sensors cannot scale on the orders of billions of units at the proper cost we are unlikely to achieve “Abundance”. Selecting the appropriate applications and technology has made our work as an organizing committee challenging based upon the breadth of possible solutions. Like the Apple Watch, we are still in search of the “killer app” that will rapidly propel our work forward.

Perhaps the biggest concern I have about all technology, including the Apple Watch and future technologies explored at the TSensors Summits, is “invasive connectedness”. Often I feel too connected to my computer and the web. The only time I do not have electronics on my person is while swimming or in the shower. Did I mention my Fitbit tracks my sleep so I wear at it night too? And, I am certain that when wearables solve the challenge of being truly waterproof, these refuges will quickly disappear.

Yes, I want to be connected to people. However, I want to focus on those people I am with or the task at hand. Do you remember the Pavlovian response early BlackBerry users experienced whenever their phone chimed that they had a new email message? I’ve silenced all notifications on all my devices in regards to new email for many years now. The flow of real messages and SPAM is simply too great. Simply put, I don’t want text messages and emails on my wrist: my calendar on my smartphone, in my pocket, is close enough.

The best way to connect with others is live interaction – preferably in the flesh. Some shortsighted managers believe their people can learn everything they need from the web about new technology and products. Hence they feel that conferences and tradeshows are not worth the expense and bother. The basics may be obtainable this way, but the real value is the interactions among people. “Networking” may be the most important part of an event, more so than the actual presentations. Someone you meet today may teach you something or be able to help you in the future. Or, you may be able to return the favor to others.

Technology should help us interact with others and not wall us in. Anything beyond an inexpensive basic watch is both a functional device and an aesthetic item (read: fashionable jewelry). Do you need a smartwatch? It depends on what your real requirements are. Do you want a smartwatch? It depends on your sense of style and love of technology.

Do I have an Apple Watch on order and will I keep it? Say hello and shake my hand at a future event to see for yourself!

As always, I look forward to hearing your comments directly. Please contact me to discuss your thoughts or if I can be of any assistance.

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