Samsung is under fire for a recent ad showing a woman with a Galaxy Watch 4 and Galaxy Buds running alone in the middle of a city at 2 a.m. Critics have called the ad both “unrealistic” and “deaf” as a result of the murder of ashling murphy, a 23-year-old who died while running in January in Dublin, Ireland. The ad ignores the dangers of running at night, but that makes sense as many smartwatch makers don’t seem to understand how their limited safety features can let runners down.
Samsung has since apologized for the announcement, saying BBC Radio 1 that it was not intended to “be insensitive to ongoing conversations about women’s safety” and that “the ‘Night Owls’ campaign was designed with a positive message in mind: to celebrate individuality and the freedom to exercise for all hours”.
Samsung’s intention is understandable. The ad is intended to highlight how easy it is to use Galaxy devices together and “empower” users to leave their phones at home. For many people, especially runners, that’s a huge draw for an LTE-enabled smartwatch. Many high-end devices, including Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 4 and Apple Watch, also increasingly include fall detection and emergency calling features. In the case of Samsung, users can set SOS alerts to notify designated contacts of your location and how to track them down in “unthinkable” situations.
The thing is that these functions are not automatic and have their own technical requirements. Fall detection, for example, is something you should choose to enable. If you don’t do this during setup, you may never get it done as you mistakenly think it’s enabled. Even if it is enabled, it may not be considered “on” all the time. The Apple Watch, for example, offers users the option to only enable fall detection during workouts. It’s easy to forget how you configured these settings after a long time.
In some cases, emergency SOS alerts require an LTE-enabled version of a smartwatch. Garmin’s version it typically requires users to have their phones on their person. Other watches require you to be connected to a known Wi-Fi network with Wi-Fi Calling enabled. You’ll also need to take the time to designate your emergency contacts beforehand. In addition to setting up these features beforehand, you’ll also need to know how to activate them on your specific smartwatch model. (While fall detection is automatic, SOS calls are often user-activated.) If any of these things are not done correctly or you don’t have a good signal, you may not be as sure as you think.
Regardless of how smartwatches are marketed, they’re not true phone replacements, and you can’t always rely on their emergency features. Sure, it’s convenient to use NFC payments to buy a Gatorade at a local deli after your run. And it’s handy that you can stream your music right to your wrist or not have to miss important calls while running a quick errand. But it’s a completely different situation when your safety is in question. Unfortunately, I’ve had my fair share of close calls, and when you fear for your safety, it can be hard to remember how to activate a smartwatch SOS alert among a myriad of other controls, especially if it’s not a feature you update on from time to time. .
For many people, outdoor running safety is a real concern. A 2019 world of runners poll found that 84 percent of women had been harassed during a race, while 70 percent of men had not. A disturbing 94 percent of women also said no one helped them while they were harassed. And yet, technology-based solutions to alleviate this problem are still fragmentary. Some apps like Strava will allow you to edit your routes so potential stalkers can’t see where you start or finish a race. Other wearable devices, such as ADT’s Invisawear, create fitness bands that can connect you to emergency services if you feel unsafe but don’t actually track your activity. Garmin recently introduced a promising Non-contact LED flashlight for night runners on its 51mm Fenix 7X, a gigantic watch size that excludes most women.
So while Samsung’s intent with this announcement probably wasn’t malicious, it is a sobering reminder that smartwatches and wearable technology haven’t gotten to the point where anyone has the “freedom to exercise all the time.”