Where is Wearable Computing Ware Going?

Wednesday Dec 21st 2011 by Mike Elgan
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Apple and Google have sparked speculation about the future of wearable computing. But is it real?

Suddenly everybody's talking about wearable computing. Two Silicon Valley giants are reportedly working on wearable computing devices, which appears to validate a fringe area of research that’s been around for decades.

But is a new era of wearable computing about to dawn?

The answer is yes -- and no. Here’s where wearable ware is going.

My friend Seth Weintraub, writing on his blog 9to5Google, reported this week that Google is working on "wearable computer glasses."

According to Weintraub, Google's "Google X" lab is "in late prototype stages" of development of the glasses, which give the wearer a heads-up computer interface inside the glasses and a "few buttons" for controls on the temples of the glasses. The glasses run Android, and do not, according to Weintraub, connect to a nearby smartphone or PC, but directly to servers on the Internet.

Google apparently hired MIT wearable computing expert Richard DuVal to work on the project.

Apple is also rumored to have created prototypes of a wearable device, which has been described as a curved-glass wristwatch. The device enables the user to give commands via Siri, the personal assistant software built into the latest iPhone.

Why This News Doesn’t Validate the Category

Rumors that Apple and Google are working on wearable computing products triggered chatter expressing the flawed assumption that the whole category of wearable computing will suddenly go mainstream.

This category includes wacky experimental augmented reality helmets, painful implants, weird backpacks, dorky input devices lashed to arms and legs, wacky conceptual art projects, smart fabrics, funky glasses, ill-advised "quantified self" sensors and mind-reading temple clips.

One such project involves a display built into a contact lens that communicates wirelessly to a smart phone. In fact, an International Symposium on Wearable Computers has taken place every year since the late 1990s to discuss various technologies and issues related to wearables.

Scientists, inventors and hobbyists have been working on a spectacular range of wearable computing devices for many years.

But just because experimental concepts fall into the “wearable” category with what two Silicon Valley giants are working on doesn’t mean they’re all validated. The technologies behind these far-flung ideas are all over the map, and the acceptance of each idea depends upon the readiness and user friendliness of each technology.

In other words, that Apple comes out with a wristwatch doesn’t mean augmented-reality contact lenses are going to be showing up as an option at your optometrist’s office any time soon. The technologies are unrelated.

Why Apple's Wearable Will be a Bluetooth nano

It's tempting to think of the wearable-computing revolution as one in which full-power computers are made so small they can be built into anything and everything. Although that's reasonable and coming soon enough, the first wave of mainstream wearables will be less ambitious.

For example, I predict that Apple's first major wearable will be a Bluetooth-connected iPod nano that takes Siri commands.

The first generations of this 'iWatch' will almost certainly require another Apple product nearby — say, an iPhone or Mac. You'll touch the watch to wake up Siri and get it listening, then talk to it like Dick Tracey would.

As is Apple's fashion, I suspect the iWatch will be limited in features to only those that are pretty solid. It will download music from iCloud, store them locally on the watch and play them through earbuds or on any nearby device that supports the technology, for example.

You'll be able to do just about everything Siri now does on the iPhone — because it will use the iPhone to execute. So with the iPhone in your pocket or purse, you'll be able to say: "How does my day look?" Siri will reply by speaking: "You've got a planning meeting at 2pm." That sort of thing.

I believe that Bluetooth will transmit the noise your voice makes to the phone, which will upload it to Siri servers for the data crunching. The response will be sent back to the phone, then relayed to the watch and played. The illusion will be, however, that you talk to the watch and the watch talks back or displays the requested information.

Around the house, the fun really begins. I believe you'll be able to use the iWatch to control your TV, Mac, iPad, iPhone or supported peripherals.

The reason I believe this is that it's a continuation of current trends.

Let me give you four scenarios for watching a YouTube video -- three that exist today and one that does not:

The first scenario is an old and familiar one: You download and watch a YouTube video on a Mac.

The second scenario is that you launch a YouTube video on your Mac, but push it out through Apple TV.

The third scenario is pretty new: You watch a YouTube video on TV launched from iPhone using the iPhone's AirPlay Mirroring to Apple TV feature.

The fourth scenario doesn't exist yet. You launch a YouTube video from Apple TV using Siri commands on your iWatch. The video is actually "provisioned" by your Mac and its Internet connection.

If you can imagine the fourth scenario, you can also imagine playing music on your home audio systems by Siri command spoken into your iWatch, or controlling all kinds of home devices.

We already know that Apple is using iCloud to integrate its product. This integration will become ever more seamless to the point where all your iDevices will function as a single distributed gadget. Plugging a Siri wristwatch into the mix is a no-brainer.

Why Google’s Glasses Won’t Happen Anytime Soon

The news about Google's wearable device sounds more far-flung (and far off in the future) than Apple's. The reason is that Google will probably have trouble convincing millions of people to wear glasses on their face designed by Google.

The idea of Google glasses reminds me of the idiotic "Java Ring" concept floated by Sun Microsystems in the late 1990s: an embedded chip in a finger ring that would provide identity information to replace passwords and biometric access. The belief that people would actually buy jewelry from Sun Microsystems could only come from someone completely clueless about, well, about human beings.

Eventually — say, in ten years — it's conceivable that Google's technology could be built into regular glasses designed and built by glasses companies. But most of the people who would be willing anytime soon to actually wear clunky, heads-up display glasses with buttons on the side designed by Google probably already work at Google.

Having said that, I believe that Google will tweak Android to function on wristwatch phones.

These will probably be less elegant and integrated with other devices than Apple's. But the watches themselves will probably be a lot more powerful and capable, will connect to the Internet directly, make phone calls and may even run third-party apps.

Like the iWatch, Google's watch platform will probably be optimized for voice command.

Why? Because it makes sense, Apple will probably validate the product category and because Google could easily do this.

So are we entering into a new age of wearable devices? Not really. But I do think we’ll see the nano upgraded with Bluetooth and the ability to convey Siri commands and results back and forth from a phone. And I do think Android will support wrist phones.

And that’s pretty cool.

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