Essays on Technology and Culture

Why Wearable Computing Won’t Go Mainstream

I’ve said it elsewhere on the Internet, but it’s time I codified it in text. The glow will be off the rose of Google Glass, and possibly even the idea of ubiquitous wearable computing, as soon as someone gets hit by a car because they were too busy checking Facebook or Twitter on their HUD. Plenty of people have probably been hit by cars because they were checking their smartphones, but it’s easier to blame the user because they could just keep it in their pocket. When you have an omni-present interruption device in your constant vision, all bets are off.

There’s a key word I want to point out in the above paragraph: “ubiquitous”. Google Glass is the first modern attempt to put wearable computing in the hands of ordinary users. Until now, the wearable computer has been the provenance of übernerds like Steve Mann, or advertising for technology companies. [1] Outside of that world, the closest most of us ever got to a wearable computer was the calculator watch. I’ll skip over the “smartwatch” in this essay, except to note that it’s too early to tell how well the category will catch on.

The problem with Google Glass is that it’s solving the wrong problem. As we live more and more in the digital world, we want more and more to have our data and our tools with us. Now we do, in the smartphone. Smartphones have their flaws: they can get dropped and broken, lost or stolen, and if you’re away from anywhere with cellular reception, it loses half it’s utility. Fortunately, it’s looking like areas without cell phone reception are becoming rarer and rarer. What we need isn’t data in our face. What we need is more reliable and faster access to data, and that will come in time as we develop faster wireless communication and longer-lasting batteries. The only advantage of Google Glass over the smartphone is that it’s less likely to get lost, broken, or stolen off your face.

Though let’s not jump to conclusions. Anyone who looks at Google Glass and brushes it off as a useless piece of technology is missing the point. There’s plenty of applications for wearable computing. I wouldn’t be surprised if down the line, Google Glass, or a derivative technology finds itself strapped to the heads of police officers, the Armed Forces, Air Traffic Controllers, or anyone whose job actually requires having constant access to data. Precious few of us in the normal world, no matter how geeky we are, need to be that in touch. Even IBM’s stock trading guy wouldn’t need to constantly hover over a spreadsheet monitoring prices now. He’s got algorithms to do that for him now.

Some people have compared Google Glass with the Segway. It makes sense: Glass is also a high-priced gadget of questionable utility, lusted after by nerds who won’t be using it for its intended purpose. I think it’s more likely to the next Bluetooth earpiece, a garish symbol of the need to be constantly in touch, accessible, and connected, outside world be damned. For a while, you saw them everywhere, stuck in the ears of high-powered businessmen and schmucks who wanted to seem important, alike. [2] Glass and wearable computing will likely follow the same trajectory: a quick adoption, once prices become affordable, a few years of Glassholes annoying the world, followed by a quick drop off.

  1. I love how dated this IBM ad is. Not only is the HUD basically a desktop spreadsheet app, but it’s being used by a day-trader to buy stocks. Compare that with Google’s ad showing the uses of Glass to see how far we’ve come.  ↩

  2. To map that set of people, you’d use an Euler diagram, not a Venn Diagram.  ↩