Uno's speed-reading wristband feels like a work in progress

A gimmicky conceit and unrefined implementation take the sheen off an otherwise interesting device.

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Daniel Cooper / Engadget
Daniel Cooper / Engadget

Wearing the Uno Noteband makes me feel as if I'm in an '80s spy movie. Whenever I receive a message on my smartphone, the device on my wrist vibrates. One swipe later and words are being flashed at my eyes, eight per second, 505 per minute. Perhaps it's a coded, subliminal message that'll activate the dormant part of my brain that was conditioned by that rogue Soviet general. It's not, of course; it's my friend Sarah telling me that she busted her ankle at the gym. Perhaps it's better if some things remain in the fantasy world, where the dour practicalities of life can't tarnish them.

Uno's big gimmick is that it makes use of Spritz's speed-reading technology. (If you have a long memory, you'll recall that Spritz was previously touted as an app you could download for Samsung's Galaxy S5.) Each word flashes up for a split second across the band's 128 x 32 touch-enabled OLED display. This was enough of a draw for the company to raise $137,000 on Indiegogo last year to bring the "speed notifier" to the masses.

How the Uno Noteband works.

When we read a word, our eyes don't simply run from the first letter to the last. Instead, adult brains get used to reading the thing in its entirety, subconsciously matching the pattern and shapes to what's stored in our memory. The fastest way to do this is to find the Optimal Recognition Point -- an anchor that helps your brain take shortcuts. So, the OPR for the word "reading" is the a, and your eyes will find that one character and work outward from there.*

If we want to read faster, we need to reduce the amount of time and effort that our eyes spend looking for the OPR in each word. Spritz's solution is to put each word in a fixed position with the OPRs all matching up so your eyes don't have to move. In addition, lines above and below the OPR point your brain straight to it, so you'll have no reason to avert your gaze from that position. Spritz claims that this helps you read faster.

The central conceit here is that a device with Spritz's speed-reading technology will have you staring at your wrist for less time. If you're just checking a notification as it comes in, then sure, it's pretty quick, although was that really a problem before? It's also a lot more brain intensive because rather than a casual glance downward, the band demands that you pay close attention to whatever's being sent your way. The idea of giving you information quickly and efficiently is a good one, but to do at the expensive of glanceability seems misguided.

The Uno band itself is a chunky black rectangle that follows the same form as devices like the Microsoft Band. Whenever you wish to read the display, you'll have to contort your wrist so that it's correctly oriented in front of your eyes. But whereas the Microsoft Band goes all the way around your wrist, Uno is more like a rigid candy bar that just happens to have a rubber strap attached at both ends. Though a stylish magnetic clasp on the other makes for easy removal and hides the charging port, a rectangular brick strapped to your wrist is as cumbersome as it sounds.

The whole screen is touch-enabled, with a blue LED nestled beside the panel to alert you to pending notifications. Blank when not in use, the display requires you to give it a gentle tap to wake up should you wish to view the time. The first thing you'll be tempted to do when viewing the clock is to swipe up/down to take you to the notifications. Except that doesn't work. Instead, that action lets you switch from the 12-hour clock to a 24-hour version.

You may be wondering why you'd need instant access to change the clock format, and the answer is: You don't. This feature should be buried in a menu within the settings on the companion app, and yet here it is, front-and-center. It's the first of many issues that made themselves apparent early on in my time with this device. Swipes, the key component of the user interface, are frequently ignored or misunderstood.

Swipe left to right from the time screen and you'll be taken to your list of as-yet unread notifications. These mirror whatever's sitting in the notification pane of your smartphone and are subject to the same size constraints. So, you'll get the first 2KB worth of text if you're on an iOS device, for instance, which boils down to 20 or so words for a WhatsApp, Twitter DM or e-mail.

The notifications list will show you how many pending alerts you have, starting with the most recent. You'll then swipe upwards to cycle back to the previous notification and downwards to read the current one available on screen. It's not a particularly elegant system and there's no way to go back one item if you scroll too zealously. Then again, it's hard to imagine a better way this could have been done with such a limited gesture system.

There are plenty of niggling issues with Uno's hardware but nonetheless, it does what it's meant to do with a minimum of fuss. The same can't be said for the companion app. Trial and error is the name of the game as you're presented with a list of other apps without any context or information. The list itself covers all of the software that's able to push notifications to the Uno. Tap one of them and you'll be given the option of muting it, but the symbol makes it look as if you're deleting it forever. The only other available icon on the screen is the standard hamburger menu icon, which takes you through to the rest of the app, which is also sparsely designed.

An example of when things don't go so well.

When you access the full menu, you'll get options including "Setup," "Help," "Spritz Speed" and "Reset." The first two don't actually do anything beyond take you to a how-to page on Uno website's for the former and the Zendesk page for the latter. The only meaningful thing you can do from the app is set the speed of the notifications as they flash on the band, from 600 words per minute down to 50 wpm for beginners.

Uno also does activity tracking, including basic step counting. Accuracy seems on par with other wearables I've tested, although it doesn't seem capable of picking up other forms of movement. For instance, a session at the gym was met with stony indifference from the device despite the sweat pouring from my back. Put it this way, then: You won't be buying this for its fitness features.

The Uno Noteband isn't a bad device by any means, but there are so many niggling faults that it's hard to praise it. You'd excuse some of its flaws if it were a prototype, but it seems as if its creators forgot to consider how real people might use it. It's not comfortable to wear or stylish enough to make people put up with the discomfort. The touchscreen's inadequate gesture sensing would have been forgiven a couple of years ago, but this is 2016 and the stakes are higher.

There are a whole host of things that Uno can do in order to rescue this device from the jaws of defeat, and none of them are too resource intensive. The company certainly needs to spend some time cleaning up its software, with the amateurish companion app being the top priority. Secondly, the device's firmware could do with some tweaking to make it easier to use.

For instance, there's a motion sensor in there, so why not wake the display if it thinks it's being brought up to reading height? Plenty of other devices do that already, even power-saving devices with dot matrix displays. Same goes for notifications: If the device senses movement just after it vibrates to tell you you've got a message, it should play it.

Also, there should be an option to bypass your smartphone's notification pane and push longer pieces of text to the device. Imagine the potential, for instance, of being able to pump the text of an article to your wrist for the morning commute. By limiting itself to just notifications, which are already short enough to digest quickly, it hobbles the key benefit of Spritz's technology. You don't bring a guitar to a party and then simply spend it tuning when everyone's waiting for you to belt out "Wonderwall," do you?

* This is a supremely basic explanation. If you're a neuroscientist, please don't write in.

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