In the past two years, I have become enthralled with the thought of wearable computing and the possibilities that it holds for the future. I have had the pleasure of using the Pebble smart watch and recently became a Google Glass Explorer. I think very highly of these companies’ vision of wearables, and have found by using these devices, I am much more attentive to the world around me and less distracted by the smartphone in my pocket.
At this point, I think it is clear that wearable computing is on the rise. There are a lot of issues being discussed in the media regarding the viability, privacy implications, and social implications of wearable computing. I thought I would chime in with my own opinions and share my experiences on the matter in the hopes that everyone will give wearable computing a chance.
The first wearable devices that have hit the market seem to share a common concept of what wearable computing should be. I think this vision is to get technology out of our way while still allowing it to augment our lives and help us share our most precious moments. Google’s own marketing materials demonstrate the most extreme of cases — acrobats, skydivers, and snake wranglers sharing the craziest moments of their lives without skipping a beat.
It’s an admirable vision, mostly because of its idealism in how people will (and will want) to use their wearables. Good thing I’m an idealist.
Everyone has an idea about wearable computing
“The problem right now is that everyone has an idea about wearable computing,” said a member of the Glass team during a presentation to a group of Silicon Valley interns this summer. What he meant by that is that everyone has an idea of what it’s like to use a smart watch or to wear Google Glass without having any basis except for science fiction movies where entertainment value demands that the “usefulness” of such devices be exaggerated. Ask anyone off the street what they think Google Glass is and you’ll probably get a mixed description between Minority Report and Iron Man.
I’ve heard news broadcasts and personal conversations alike that claim the rise of wearables to be a major threat and danger to people’s safety. I’ve heard them say, without basis, that smart watches will be safer because glasses will completely obstruct our view and demand our attention. Specifically, today I heard a news broadcast talking about how people already get hit by cars crossing the street because of their cellphones, and how glasses will be 10x worse on this front and thus obviously watches are a better route. What?
The problem is one of education. Wearable technology is so new that most people have no experience with it, yet everyone talks as if they do. Unfortunately, the solution in many ways is also the problem. The Glass Explorer program, in my opinion, was designed so that Google could very tightly control the release and reception of Glass into the mainstream world and media. Of course it hasn’t stopped bars or states from banning Glass before its release, but it will hopefully allow Google to pioneer a strong education marketing campaign about how its futuristic specs are intended to be used — as an enhancement to living in the moment, not a distraction.
My experience with the Pebble Watch
I was a backer of the Pebble watch on Kickstarter and received my watch earlier this Spring. In many ways, it was my “litmus test” of sorts for wearable computing. I’ve been overwhelmingly excited since Google announced Glass at Google I/O 2012, but have admittedly shrugged off aforementioned concerns without any real basis, myself. The Pebble watch has given me proof that wearables can be used to help me live in the moment.
I think the simple nature of the product, being very heavily dependent on the smartphone as the “main” device with the watch itself being an auxiliary wearable, is key to its usability and usefulness in my life. I have started to send what I consider to be “important” notifications to my Pebble watch, while leaving my phone on full-silent without vibrate. This has allowed me to stop interrupting my face-to-face conversations to check every buzz I feel in my pocket, just in case it was urgent. I stopped interrupting myself and others, and I started giving myself the opportunity to fully immerse myself and enjoy what I am doing without interruption. I stopped letting the 4" piece of glass I carry around determine what I do, and instead began treating it as a tool I have access to.
Sure, I now glance down at my watch, but trust me the difference in these two actions is enormous. Even without a smart watch, people glance at their wrists occasionally to check the time in case they have somewhere to go (hopefully not as a sign they’re bored of the conversation!) But checking your smartphone in the middle of a conversation? That’s a no-no if you’re having an engaging, real conversation.
It didn’t take much, but I was sold. The vision that these companies were selling of a device that would in fact distract you less than your smartphone, despite being more accessible, was real. And it made me want Google Glass all the more.
My experience with Google Glass
Three days ago, I officially became a Google Glass Explorer. I have decided to dive right in, and so far I have worn them close to 100% of the time that I’ve been awake. I’ve showed my family how they work, what they can do, and done my best to explain to my dad that it’s not a distracting computer on my face.
I’ve shared more pictures of what I’ve been up to on-the-go in the last three days than I probably have in the last three months. I’ve also probably spent less aggregate time doing so than I usually spend uploading a single album to Facebook or writing a single email to a friend or family member.
I’ve used Glass’s translation service to settle a debate my family was having trying to think of how to say the names of each of the dishes we were eating in Mandarin Chinese (my family is Chinese). And guess what. We were all stumped, and Glass came through with a translation that made all of us say, “Duh… How did we not think of that?”
I’ve used Glass to make phone calls and send texts to people, letting them know I’m in the car and on the way to meet them. I’ve also had Glass read me their response, which were “K” and “Can you bring your google glass?”
I’ve checked my phone even less than I have been with my Pebble watch. Perhaps part of this is because only text messages and phone calls are passed to Glass, versus the several other apps I use with my Pebble.
The best part about this is that I am certain that I’m spending more time looking up. It’s something I realized this summer, too. Many times when I left my phone in my room when taking out my trash, I would walk back and notice these swaying trees that I thought were really nice. Every time I said to myself, “Wow, I should stop burying myself in my phone and look up more often.” And also, “I wish I had my phone to take a picture.” Eventually I had my phone and remembered to look up.
Today I went to lunch and left my Glass at home. We went to a golf club, where cell phones are very much frowned upon, so I figured it would be best to leave it. And as it turned out, I regretted it. During lunch, our conversation turned to a house we could see from our table that my Dad mentioned Mel Brooks used to live in with his wife. What was his wife’s name, again? She was a famous actress… (Anne Bancroft). But the conversation ended there. I couldn’t take my phone out in the dining room (against club rules), but a quick Google result would certainly have given us more to talk about.
It reminded me of a piece I once read in defense of smartphones and distraction. It said that smartphones were great in social situations because they enabled us to continue conversations by getting quick access to information that we otherwise would be at a loss for. Sure, nowadays smartphones are almost always more of a distractive force for person-to-person communication than for enabling further communication. But thinking now on it, I might argue that is because of the apps that we have all come to love which make us think it’s more important or more fun to stare into a piece of glass than engage with other people.
The future of wearables lies on your shoulders
When it comes down to it, the future of wearables and how they are used is not going to be determined by the form-factor, the included technology, or the amount and kind of apps allowed on it. The future of wearables will be determined by us, the people, and how we choose to use them.
People are concerned about privacy. Public privacy is dead, and I think most people realize that. What about private privacy? What about when I’m with a group of friends who don’t want to worry about their shenanigans being captured on a Friday night? Ultimately, the responsibility of how wearables will be accepted into social situations lies on the wearers and bearers to be responsible, respectful and sensible. At my friends’ requests, I’ll take off my Glass. They’ll be more comfortable, and I think we can all agree that there are certainly private moments that don’t need to be shared anyway.
I have placed myself firmly in the camp of the vision I mentioned before. I plan to use my wearables to augment my real-world life, to enable greater and smarter conversation, to capture amazing and fleeting moments, and to share exciting adventures with my dearest friends.
I hope you join me on my adventure to the future of wearable computing.