What a User Wants – Wearable Computing Deconstructed

What happens when technology just gets out of the way?

What happens when technology just gets out of the way?

Wearable computing is the coming thing, or at least some are saying that.  Being a technology hound, I am also excited by it.  I think the trend is there from computers at a distance (mainframes) to computers at ever decreasing distance to our eyes (mobile devices).  We are slowly moving towards a future where the interface is not between us and what we want to do.  We will just do it.

Let’s use the pub argument as a metaphor to explore this.  In a conversation a question comes up about who directed “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”  Many years ago you would have to either rely on the film expert, or go traipse off to the library to look up the newspapers reporting on the Academy Awards.  A few years ago, you could table the discussion until you got home and logged into some Gopher site.  Then we got NCSA Mosaic and early Google.  Today, the pub argument is resolved quickly as someone picks up their mobile device and types in a query.  Tomorrow, you won’t have to do that.  The argument will start, your software assistant will perceive the argument, retrieve the information for you before you need it and then display it to you.  Actually everyone’s assistants will do that and there will be no argument.  You will be left to arguing whether Blue Thunder would shoot Airwolf out of the sky.  The answer is it wouldn’t as nothing is more Airwolf than Airwolf.

Technology doesn’t come to us as a tool in and of itself.  It comes to us as a way to solve a problem.  Some technologies come to us without a problem in mind.  Most of those fail as they have no focus.  The others succeed beyond all imagination.  Why?  Because the users figure out ways to use the technology that the designers never thought of.  They use the technology as a foundation on which to better their own lives.  That is when technology becomes ubiquitous.  So are we there with wearable computing?

Wearable computing change us, and that will be the tipping point

In the MIT Technology Review interview published yesterday the future popularity of wearable computing was discussed with Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist at Intel.  She travels the world studying how people allow technology to fit into their lives.  Her answers are quite insightful and something we all should be pondering.

Her comments about technology having two aspects is quite interesting.  Technology has a functional aspect (“doing some kind of work”) and a symbolic aspect (“what [tech] says to others).  The early iPhone had a functional aspect, for sure.  It was an integration of multiple technologies.  But it also said something to the world as we whipped that thing out every time we could to show it off.  It said that we were on the leading edge.  That we were early adopters.  Quite frankly the functionality of the first gen iPhone was limited with no third party app support.  We still loved it and we still loved to show it off.  The interesting thing is this symbolic aspect is out of our control, it is all the perception of those around us.

I think she is right about where we are with wearable computing today.  We are definitely on the functional.  We are focused on the things we can do with it.  Completing tasks.  We haven’t grasped the symbolic nature of it fully.  The ‘how do we make sense of it,’ as she puts it.  I think she is onto something here, but I think that the adoption pace of these technologies will outstrip our making sense of it.

Right now the barrier is price for some.  Google Glass is currently $1,500, the Pebble smartwatch is $150, and the just announced Samsung smartwatch is $299.  As those prices come down, it will come into the “what the heck I will try it” range for tech adopters.  If Glass was $299 as that article suggest when it hits the shelves I think we might be at a tipping point.  Critical mass, if you will.

As Ms. Bell points out that once you stop looking at a piece of new technology through the eyes of old technology it gives you the opportunity to take the leap.  With smartphones, we took that leap from thinking of them as nothing more than untethered versions of our old-fashioned phones.  With wearable computing, we will have to get past the thought that it is just a computer that is wearable.

Quick aside.  When Apple first introduced the iPad, many of the naysayers said something along the lines of “t’s just a big iPhone.”  It was.  The point that was missed was what can I do with a big iPhone.  That is what happens when you shift focus, as Ms. Bell suggests

What are the promises of wearable?

Quick answer is we really don’t know.  I think the better question is what can you do when your technology is not a filter to your information and experience.  When it is just there.  When it is so powerful it just slides out of the way.  That is where it gets really interesting.

What is wearable computing?  It is ubiquitous computing and ubiquitous connectivity without the interface.  It is just there.  What does that enable?

I have no idea.  I think pub arguments are getting ready to be rendered even further moot.  Today your friends can berate you from reaching for your phone.  You can even make a drinking game out of it, punishing the first person that reaches for their technology crutch.  Tomorrow, you won’t even know they are getting help.  You may not know they are being ‘augmented.’  Maybe that is where we are all going.  The Age of Augmentation.  Do we all become augments?  Is the next generation of the Maginot line dividing those who are augmented and those who aren’t.  Which side would you take?


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