The exciting thing about smartwatches is that most smartwatch operating systems now available offer users the ability to not only change their watch faces, but to also upload customized ones. A website called FaceRepo.com (Face Repository) is one of several places where people can browse free watch dial faces (and later paid ones, I am sure) for Android Wear-based smartwatches like the Moto 360, Samsung Gear, LG G, and many other upcoming Android Wear operating system-based devices. While the operating system does come with a few watch dials, the beauty for wearers is the amazing customization features that they offer.
Even though smartwatch adoption is still very limited among consumers, I was thrilled to see the incredible variety as well as creativity that you’ll find on FaceRepo when it comes to the user-generated watch Android Wear smartwatch dials available for free download. What immediately came to mind was a time, perhaps a decade or more ago, when mobile phones began to really allow for user customization. In addition to basic things like ring tones, people began to wildly personalize their mobile phones with unique backgrounds and other “skins” based on a range of things that they liked. The practice has become far less common these days, even though people do often set custom smartphone backgrounds. Though, tinkering enthusiasts will always find ways of making their devices their own. What makes things particularly interesting about customizing the look of the dial on a smartwatch is that you enter an area of both artistic and functional creativity.
Several years ago, a company called Slyde (hands-on review here) was a bit ahead of its time in offering a luxury digital watch designed to have swappable “engines.” These were essentially skins that allowed you to have a custom look to the various available screens which offers functionality like the time, calendars, world time indicators, etc… The promise by Slyde was that in a single device, you could have a rich assortment of variety in the way time was displayed, but not be bogged down by traditional considerations of the limitations of a mechanical watch. With the advent of the smartwatch era, the promise of Slyde will now become much more mainstream. People can explore the wonderful diversity of watch dials on an inexpensive device and switch at will without any major complexity or cost.
What has made watch dials unique over the last 200 years or so is that, while there are tried and true ways of indicating the time and other corollary information on a watch dial, designers, for whatever reason, desire to explore new ways of indicating information. This creative drive has helped us experience a wonderfully diverse universe of watch designs – most of which are designed to do the exact same thing. With user-customizable smartwatches now increasingly available, the democratization of watch dial variety is here.
Many of the most popular watch faces on FaceRepo are actually reproductions of existing mechanical watches from both popular, and sometimes niche brands. That latter element is particularly interesting to me, and it is an indication of how deeply mechanical watches have been able to penetrate the “nerd culture” (which I am a proud member of). Therefore, in addition to all the Rolex, Omega, Patek Philippe, TAG Heuer, Bell & Ross, Bulova, and other mainstream brands who have dials made in their “honor,” you see dials based on brands like Xemex, Bremont, MIH, A. Lange & Sohne, and many more. It is truly inspiring to see that technically proficient mechanical watch lovers have translated their passion into a hobby for creating their favorite dials for use on smartwatches.
Let’s be clear that none of these watch brand dials are official. Some might even technically be infringements of IP rights, but brands would be unwise to pursue legal action against fans who’ve taken the time to digitize their favorite Omega or other dial for use on their Android Wear smartwatch. The smart Swiss watch brands know that this is more or less free advertising, and in the future, I am sure many will offer official apps that allow fans to experiment with the look of their watch dials before making purchase decisions.
Some watch brands, however, might feel differently, and there are bound to be some conflicts between rights holders and smartwatch dial makers. There are two legitimate complaints that I can foresee a major watch brand having in regard to creating smartwatch versions of their watch dials – whether they create it or someone else does in an unofficial manner. In fact, I’ve spoken to several brands about this, and while some are bullish about the idea of having their dials on digital screens, others feel that doing so might diminish the value of their brands. Their concern, first and foremost, is that a flat digital version of their dials will never come close to looking like the “real thing,” and that consumer might never understand what they are missing. More practically, I think their second concern is a bit more valid. It is that unofficial “replicas” of their dials in digital form might not be “perfect,” and will confuse people when it comes to knowing what their dials actually look like or how their watches perform.
True enough, a survey of the many watch faces on FaceRepo finds many homages to actual watches that are just plain wrong. Sometimes, the design has included various enhancements to build upon the ability for a smartwatch to indicate lots of useful information, such as calendar and weather data. Other times, these homage Android Wear smartwatch dials aren’t even of “real” watches but of fakes. Yes, you can find Android Wear watch faces inspired by fake versions of real watches. However, I think the value to the watch industry of participating in the smartwatch watch face game outweights the potential risks. First of all, no one will mistake a smartwatch for a real mechanical watch. Second, the positive name recognition and branding benefits of having limitless consumers “try before they buy” is potentially priceless.
What is perhaps even more interesting than all the “actual” watch dials people transform into faces for Android Wear devices are all the original ones. Dials come in both round and square variants (because smartwatches come with both round and square dials) and are either fantasy creations or unique dials which showcase the creative approach by a new generation of information display designers. This approach to creating a display meant to offer both information as well as emotion or lifestyle is nothing new, but being able to do so specifically for a watch face is still pretty novel. What I find interesting is how people adapt familiar things into displays for the time (and other data) borrowed from popular science fiction franchises, consumer products, sports teams, movies, and other items of importance in pop culture.
For every 20 watch faces an eager young designer produces, there there are perhaps one or two good ones, but that is OK. You must value the heedless experimentation inevitable in a new segment. What a lot of designers actually do is take existing pictures of watches and carefully cut out components like the hands in order to produce individual elements that live over software meant to display the time, etc… It is both an artistic and scientific task, and it isn’t always done perfectly. We are still in the wild west when it comes to the independent design of dials for smartwatches.
Perhaps the most thrilling element of all is that smartwatch may very well usher in a new golden age for the wrist watch. Timepiece enthusiasts who frequent places like aBlogtoWatch aren’t who I am referring to, but rather, the masses who have abandoned the wrist watch as soon as it was no longer as useful and practical as it once was, starting about 15 to 20 years ago. The proliferation of the smartwatch has the potential to change that, as useful connected devices on our wrists prove more than mere toys, but bona fide necessities that many people agree they don’t want to live without; very much like they did with the mobile phone back in the 1990s.
I am quite excited to see more and more quality Android Wear and other smartwatch devices such as the Apple Watch enter the market and offer consumers a variety of choice when it comes to what they want to see when the screens of their smartwatches are activated. It will also be a huge business opportunity for those who are able to produce the best watch faces as well as traditional watch brands that want to make their distinctive designs as popular as possible. Perhaps just as interesting is the promise of automated variety in your smartwatch dials. For instance a new Android Wear app called “FaceLift” (still in beta testing at the time of writing) automatically changes the watch face on your smartwatch device without having to go in there and change the settings. With apps like FaceLift – and the rest that will follow – many people will have the ability to enjoy a great variety of styles on their wrist without having to do anything extra.