Wearing Your Computer

By the end of 2013, the next product to shake up the technology world will hit the market. Google Glass, a lightweight, durable pair of stylish eyeglasses with a tiny imbedded computer, is set to go on sale. It is already setting off the kind of industry buzz that preceded the iPhone and iPad. Completely voice-activated, Google Glass is the latest and sexiest example of wearable computers, a potentially life-changing category that is quickly gaining momentum. Using Google Glass, a consumer is able to search the Web, take photographs or video, ask for directions, send and receive e-mails, voicemails, texts and other Web-based data. The display appears in the upper right corner of the wearer’s field of view, thus allowing the user to remain digitally connected without staring at a smartphone or tablet. While some are aghast at this intimate level of computer engagement, pundits who have experienced Google Glass call it revolutionary, with the potential to be as transformative as the smartphone.

Like it or not, the future just keeps arriving, laden with technology that used to be little more than special effects in movies like “The Terminator” or “Minority Report.” Wearable computers come in eyeglasses, ski goggles, wristwatches, wristbands, smart badges, clothing with imbedded microchips, and clip-on cameras. The implication is clear: These sensor-laden devices (SLDs) are set to drive the next phase of growth in computing and will likely transform how consumers live and work, not unlike the smartphone and the tablet have done over the past decade.

Sarah Rotman Epps, who tracks wearable computing for Forrester Research, said the inquiries about wearables from Forrester’s client corporations – which include large banks, credit card companies and retailers – had “accelerated significantly” in recent months. “This is definitely top of mind,” Rotman Epps said. “Executives in every industry have seen the pattern before. A new type of technology comes out and totally disrupts their business. They want to stay ahead of where the technology is going. And this has the potential to disrupt media, retail, finance, everything. So it’s not too early for executives from every industry to start paying attention to this.”

Attention is indeed being paid, and when Google Glass hits the market, reportedly for $1,500, the response is expected to be dramatic.

“I think Google Glass is the next great platform for app developers,” Rotman Epps said. “Every type of enterprise that has invested in apps for the iPad and iPhone will go to Glass next.”

But Google Glass is hardly the only wearable product that will generate wide attention. At this stage, wearables tend to come in two categories: augmented reality and virtual reality. Products that augment reality, like Google Glass, have been trickling into the market. Dick Tracy-type wristwatches, such as the Meta Watch, Cookoo, Casio G-Shock, Martian and I’m Watch, are available for $180 to $400. Apple reportedly has 100 designers at work on an iWatch. These devices work in concert with a user’s smartphone, and the designs have included touchscreens, traditional watch faces with integrated displays, and other innovative interfaces.

In the virtual reality arena, products like the Oculus Rift, an affordable video headset, have gamers excited because they incorporate what feels like a 360-degree immersion experience for the user. (In fact, the viewing area is 110 degrees, but that is more than double the viewing area of its competitors.) And pundits see innumerable business applications for such devices, especially when augmented reality and virtual reality technologies are inevitably combined.

“I think it’s quite possible that when these two technologies catch on, they will easily be as revolutionary as the powerful mobile smartphones that have changed our world forever,” wrote Keith Hanson, CEO of Twin Engine Labs, in a Huffington Post blog. “The world around us will literally be a software developer’s playground, and I’m certain savvy businesses will quickly take advantage of it.”

Up to now, wearables have occupied the health and fitness space, most notably the Nike+ FuelBand, which captures data generated by the body during a workout and keeps the user informed of physiological functions. These niche devices are popular, but only among a small audience, and they don’t appear capable of grabbing massive market share. According to Rotman Epps, the products tend to be “overhyped” and lack data quality and robust features. However, such imbedded technology is ripe with potential to extend into navigation, shopping, social networking and productivity if users drive applications as they have done with many successful technologies.

For example, Jennifer Darmour, a user experience design director for Seattle-based design firm Artefact, has developed a wearable, sensor-laden Pilates shirt that monitors muscle movement and provides the wearer with useful self-correcting capabilities while working out. The clothing provides feedback on posture, technique for sit-ups and other exercises, and is “like having the teacher’s touch without the teacher,” Rotman Epps said. 
 
Smart badges, replacing the standard employee ID card, have also entered the marketplace. A Watertown, Mass.-based company, Sociometric Solutions, is selling a sensor-laden badge that monitors employee activity and conversations. The device, developed at the MIT Media Lab, is not designed to spy on employees but rather to monitor how staffers interact over long periods at work. Ben Waber, the company’s CEO, told The Boston Globe the device is “especially useful for tracking informal communications, like a conversation in a cafeteria line, that people might not report in an interview [with an outside consultant]. Surveys and interviews are just bad at getting information about sporadic interactions. And human interaction is a big factor in all sorts of organizational change initiatives, new product development endeavors and mergers.”

Rotman Epps is especially interested in the iWatch, which she and other analysts believe has the potential to be Apple’s next megahit. An iWatch can piggyback on the iPhone’s access to the Internet and become a popular adjunct technology. Given that 41 percent of mobile phone users had smartphones as of 2012, according to Forrester Research, that penetration bodes well for a product like the iWatch. More important, she points out, is Apple’s widespread popularity among application developers. New devices live or die by the number of apps aimed at their platforms.

“As of January 2013, the Apple app store had 40 billion downloads, 775,000 apps available and 500 million active accounts,” Rotman Epps said. “Creating new experiences for an iWatch is a no-brainer for developers.”

Over the next 12 to 18 months, she projects, wearables “will go more multifunctional and the market will see more form factor diversity, not just glasses or watches, but sensors imbedded in textiles, including more clothing and accessories.”

Of course, this tsunami of new technologies comes at a time when society is grappling with the impact of such devices on the quality and scope of human interaction. Users portend a traumatic shift as they stare for hours into the screens of their smartphones, tablets and laptops. Consumers have embraced these devices enthusiastically, but at what cost?

Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford University professor who focuses on issues of technology and self-control, has been monitoring the impact of smart devices. Speaking to The New York Times, McGonigal said the managers running technology companies “deeply want their technology and devices to enhance lives. But they’re becoming aware of people’s inability to disengage.” She worried that such interactive gadgets set off stress responses in the brain, creating a “persistent sense of emergency.”

“It’s this basic cultural recognition that people have a pathological relationship with their devices,” McGonigal told The Times. “People feel not just addicted but trapped.”