I had the pleasure of taking part in a very nice seminar this past week – “The Synoptik Foundation” sponsored quite the interesting gathering, focused on the subject of “smart glasses” and, by natural extension, wearables in general.
It went down at “The Blue Planet” (if you get the chance, go – it’s awesome) with some good food, delicious cakes – and most importantly, a lot of knowledge sharing, debate and inspiration regarding that most relevant, and yet not very clearly understood topic, wearable technology.
The range of participants spanned the gamut from ophtalmologists and technologists to designers, users and investor/innovation interests – it was made an explicit part of the workshop section of the day that we’d try to get around various areas, and try to understand the subject under the light of different contexts. I thought we got around to at least touching upon most of the key issues regarding this field – and here’s my takeaway from the day…
The big one, of course, is “Why”, that is, why wearable?. That’s the core question: What, presumably, is the value of wearing technology, compared to carrying it? Well, of course you might almost argue that, at this point, some people are wearing their cell phones; it doesn’t leave the hand anymore often than a pair of glasses leave the face – but the fact remains, we are still in a bit of trouble arguing for wearable technology.
The strongest field, without a doubt – I think there was almost complete consensus – is in health care. Not only is that the field where, say, glasses that, using digital technology, can help people with failing eyesight see again (or see better) – it’s also a field where being able to access, say, patient files or treatment manuals on the spot, and without having to take your hands or eyes off a patient, can be extremely valuable to doctors, paramedics and the like (and of course, by extension, the patients).
Clearly, the argument for wearing in stead of carrying is the need for having your hands free, but still have the tech available (as in, not in your pocket/bag) – and it seems this applies to some very specific use cases. Basically, this casts wearable tech as a tool, to be picked up for a specific task, then put down – or, in other words, the wearability is a feature, but not a reason to wear it all the time.
Which leads to the next question: “”What” – what are wearables for? This was a lot less open-and-shut – we were fortunate enough to have, as our keynote speaker, Morten Just from Google SFO, where he works as a designer on “Google Wear” (Google’s bid for an operating system across wearables), and it was actually quite clear from his talk that, even within the field, there’s a lot of flailing going on.
Or, to put it slightly more bluntly, it swings wildly between utterly brilliant and “WTF?” – at times you’d swear Google deliberately strives to prove the irrelevance of their own product. Like showing an image similar to this one with the words “The World is The Experience”, which sounds a lot like Google knowing full well that there’s situations where they don’t belong, and yet still triumphantly try to squeeze themselves in there.
It’s not that simple, though – using technology right can, in fact, facilitate people’s ability to enjoy scenes like that. Perhaps not explicitly by virtue of being wearable but, well, think of all the people who can’t relax because of “notification anxiety” – you know, either there’s notifications ping’ing from the phone and/or smartwatch constantly, and they have to be checked, or there isn’t, and then that creates stress because maybe it’s broken, or maybe you’re not appreciated anymore, etc…
Think about a piece of technology that can help solve this problem, which we created with technology. If you read me, you know that’s what I think we should be doing – wearably, and in general.
Of course, that leads to the question: “How” – how, technically, and how, conceptually. An interesting thing that came up which I personally hadn’t thought about was, thanks to the ophtalmologists, the question of how things like head-up displays (think Google Glass) or immersive/augmentation gadgets (like Microsoft’s recently unveiled concept “Hololens”) work for people with varying eyesights. Hey, in my work group at the seminar 4 out of 6 people wore glasses – that’s a lot of potetial customers to displease if the tech doesn’t work for us.
Also a point of contention is the issue of agency – for example, think about that notification-fixing thing I mentioned two paragraphs ago. Should it take pressure off of you by making decisions for you? Or should it leave it to you, but make it easier for you to make the decision that suits the situation best? How is a computer to know what we want, when most of the time we don’t know ourselves until literally the second we decide?
Perhaps keeping that agency, the ability to decide for ourselves, and for the decision to be open until we decide it isn’t, is going to turn out to be a lot more important to us if we give it away – only, by then it will be just a little closer to too late, so let’s try to find out beforehand.
Yes, we also talked about the etiquette and social issues – clearly, part of what laid Google Glass out was that Google had not properly addressed these issues, and were not prepared for them when they became a problem.
This, however, seems to fall into the category of things that will be easy to work out, especially now that Google has shown everyone how badly it can bite you if you don’t – which is why I’ve devoted only this box to it. Read this article if you’re interested in my take on that topic
Also, if you remember my article about Google Glass, you know that one of my main beefs with wearables is if they’re used to justify lowering the bar for relevance – look, we’re taking too many pictures, not too few; we need help experiencing them. Not organizing them, or searching them, or categorizing them – but experiencing them. You know, do with them what we took them for in the first place.
All of this doesn’t mean, however, that I’m against talking to your wrist on principle, or that I wouldn’t like to have my own Tony Stark HUD just as much as the next guy (because I totally would, are you nuts!?).
I just think it’s important to get this right, and I’m happy to be part of the conversation.
A big thank you to our hosts: Brian Due, Eva Zeuthen Bentsen, Jesper Højbjerg Christensen and Signe Lavallee – to the lovely and talented people in my group and at the event in general, and to The Synoptik Foundation for making it possible.