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Wearable tech creeps into the mainstream

“Smart journalists should experiment now, because at least one of these devices will move out of the geeks-only realm before we know it.”

For some time, we’ve been waiting for the “Internet of Things” to arrive in full force. We’re told it’s really happening this year. Connected refrigerators that know if it’s snowing outside have always sounded interesting, I guess, but it was never clear to me what problem they were solving.

fiona-spruillSome of the people and companies working on wearable technology, however, are tackling interesting problems, and I predict we’ll see at least one of these products move into the mainstream in 2014. As that happens, there will be opportunities for news organizations to be a part of this movement. They can do so by thinking creatively about how to deliver highly personalized news and information and by experimenting with new and perhaps more intimate ways to tell stories using these devices.

I’m not suggesting that every newsroom start 2014 by prioritizing the development of a Galaxy Gear app. It is still early days, and there is no denying that Google Glass and the current crop of smart watches still appeal to a small audience — mainly tech-savvy men with a fair amount of disposable income.

But if you think about how dependent everyone has become on their smartphones — and the habits and behaviors that have developed as a result of this addiction — there are things about the way we interact with our phones and one another that are ripe for improvement. The fact that you can’t walk down the sidewalk without bumping into people looking at their phones, or go to a restaurant without seeing people on their phones all around you, is not necessarily an awesome byproduct of technological innovation. (I plead guilty to both offenses.)

Our dependence on these devices for everything from news to social interaction to shopping to directions is so powerful that there is a need to distill the most vital information and bring it closer to the body, reducing the need to look at our phones all the time. That’s how I think about smartwatches and the problem they’re solving. It’s not that everyone has a burning desire for their watches to be smarter. And reading long articles on your wrist or through Google Glass doesn’t seem appealing either. That’s not what this is about. It’s the merging of the wearable devices with the phone that offers exciting possibilities.

For example, the latest version of the Fitbit, the Force, has a screen for tracking fitness stats in real time so you don’t have to look at your phone for that information. The wristband is also integrated with iOS 7 so that it vibrates when you get a phone call. The Pebble watch takes this further. This review of how iOS 7 notifications work on the Pebble does a good job of explaining how it is solving the problem of information and alert overload on the phone.

So as functions of the phone shift to the wrist or to eyewear, that opens up the possibility for news organizations to deliver customizable nuggets of information to these devices. The new alerts in the Breaking News app, and the way you have a sense of both how frequent and how invasive the alerts are likely to be, offer a hint of the possibilities of this level of customization. In the realm of video, a startup called Watchup is experimenting with personalized newscasts for Google Glass. You can begin to imagine the possibilities, especially for media companies with giant databases of information. The key will be personalization that is super-simple.

And then there are cool possibilities for innovative storytelling. I recently saw Project 2×1, a Kickstarter-funded short documentary film that was shot in part using Google Glass. Could the filmmakers have achieved almost the same effect without using wearable technology? Sure. But there was a nice intimacy to some of the shots. You have to think there is potential there for some interesting storytelling and user-generated projects, as taking video becomes as easy as saying “OK glass, record a video.

Smart journalists should experiment now, because at least one of these devices will move out of the geeks-only realm before we know it.

Fiona Spruill is the former editor of emerging platforms at The New York Times.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20