The Problem with Wearable Computing
2013 wrapped up with an interesting explosion in wearable gear: The Smartwatch came back with a vengeance, giving us the Pebble and the Galaxy Gear, Fitbit’s new Force wristband gave a similar option to fitness/Quantified Self adherents, and Google Glass came along and already brought up new concerns about privacy and information overload.
The issue is that most of these products are deeply flawed, and simply aren’t going to work for the average user in their current form. While I’m an avid Pebble owner, and have happily seen the device evolve from an occasionally-useful toy to a functional companion device, it’s still a wristwatch, and wristwatches seem to be vanishing as people rely on their smartphones to tell them the time. I can’t blame them, of course. Cell phones have long been more accurate timepieces, relying on synchronized time signals from the towers, and ultimately, GPS radios. Adding killer features to the wristwatch ultimately appeals exclusively to those willing to wear a wristwatch in the first place.
The fitness wristbands are a different animal, of course. It’s nice that the Fitbit Force doubles as a timepiece, but the main advantage to it is that it carries the full Fitbit sensor suite in addition to all of the display capabilities of their belt-mounted sensor. It’s also more discreet than a smartwatch, and serves a purpose beyond the typical watch. Sadly, it’s got another problem: Motorola, Apple, and Samsung have all started to build low-power motion-tracking capabilities directly into their phones.
Google Glass, on the other hand, provides a potentially always-on, always-connected heads-up display for your life. It can record audio and video for you. With sufficient image recognition and location awareness, it could very well be the first commercial product to allow for augmented reality, a pipe dream of many wearable computing advocates. Unfortunately, it’s got two problems that are very hard to get around. The first is a matter of fashion, but the second is a matter of capability.
Fashion’s an important part of product design. People will accept a less-capable product if it doesn’t look out of place. Google Glass and the Pebble both need some work on this front, though many of the fitness bracelets are pretty good about this. For all of its technical flaws, the Jawbone Up was a sufficiently attractive product to turn heads. The Pebble is a bit clunky, and I’ve taken to replacing the wrist strap to get around this problem. It certainly helps, though the actual device could stand to be a little thinner and the sides could use a slight beveling. Google Glass is a very different animal in this regard. It’s very difficult to hide that display element, along with the camera, earpiece, and battery at present, and many people find the device clamped onto someone’s head fairly off-putting.
This isn’t a unique-to-Glass problem, either. Medical devices strive to blend into the patient’s body as well, from prosthetic limbs to cochlear implants, as the concept of “normality” tends to be a major issue. What’s truly funny about this is that it even goes back to the Pebble: I’ve had to learn to ignore it, because if you check your wrist every time that you get an email, text message, or other important notification from someone, people start to think that you’d rather be somewhere else, and are actually checking the time!
So, how do you blend these functions together? Unfortunately, this is going to lead us right back to head-mounted units: You need to keep the people around you comfortable with your “enhanced” awareness if you want it to take off, and that requires a situation where the awareness is understood, or where your hardware is fundamentally invisible.
Let’s start with the former, an area where Glass and its ilk can excel right now. Non-social tasks, such as surgery, sports, and vehicle operation can be aided with Glass without the handful of people around you really noticing a difference. There’s little difference between using Glass as a navigation aid and relying on an on-dash GPS, so long as that’s all it does. A surgeon certainly doesn’t work alone, but they are often more focused on the patient than their coworkers, so a headset won’t make much difference. A skier may have friends on the slopes, but they’re often wearing a helmet and goggles, so adding Glass, or the Recon Snow, really wouldn’t register. It probably even helps that some winter sports enthusiasts like to record their runs using a helmet-mounted camera. In short, if you’re already focused on a task, a device that melds into that focus is a good fit.
Now, for invisibility, here’s the real problem: Watches are more invisible, but you have to look at them. Glass is less invisible, but that’s mostly a function of the technology. We need smaller camera modules, smaller batteries, and slimmer batteries, all without compromises. Once you get that into something that looks like a pair of prescription glasses, you’re most of the way there. I’m sure we’re not too far on this: Only 25 years ago or so, I met a teacher who was hard of hearing. She had hearing aids built into her glasses, and I didn’t notice for quite some time. While the hearing aids are definitely designed to restore an ability we all take for granted, the concept remains the same for adding a new sensory option.
I think that there’s a lot of room for improvement across the board, and I’m really interested to see what we get in 2014, though I’m certainly skeptical that Google Glass will shrink down by enough in the coming year, and I certainly don’t expect Apple to jump into this market just yet. There are simply too many compromises in the core requirements of invisibility and battery life for the typical Apple product. Will it start to spill into niche markets, however? Absolutely, and I’m very interested to see where that leads.