Wearables are The Future

There seems to be some debate over whether wearables (smart watches, Google Glass, etc.) are  a fad, or if they will catch on.

In particular I’ve seen this relate to two specific things: firstly, whether enough people actually wear watches anymore; and secondly, that Google Glass is a clunky ugly product that practically has a flashing “steal me and punch my wearer” beacon on it.

But before we carry on, apologies for the deliberate click-bait headline. I’m not saying “wearables will be The One True Future, so you luddites had better hop onboard”, but I certainly think there’s a big market for both smart watches and smart glasses. Slightly moreso the latter.

Smart watches are a convenience. It’s easier to glance at your wrist to see who just texted you or (if you want to use them for their old-school watch abilities) what time it is, than it is to pull a mobile phone out of your pocket. Especially one of these big modern smart phones that looks like an obelisk out of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

There are three obvious downsides that I see to them as devices. One when compared to phones, two compared to a standard watch. It seems clear at this point that “the market” wants bigger screens on their devices – In terms of the amount of information that can clearly be displayed, and the ability to easily interact with all that stuff on the screen, bigger is better. Unlike phones, which have been creeping up in size and I guess are mostly constrained by the theoretical limits of how big a handbag or coat/trouser pocket can become, watches are going to have to stick with a small screen. This does limit them; though they will be perfectly fine for many uses, even with the finest UX design in the world there will be some things that a smartphone will trump them for, forever.

Compared to watches the issues are battery life (people who wear a watch currently are probably used to charging/changing the battery in the space of years, rather than days), and style. Smart watches, up until now, are ugly to varying degrees. Yes, even the Pebble (though admittedly it is on the less severe side of the scale, it still looks like a watch the 3D glasses kid from Back to the Future would wear). I’m making a guess here, but given that there are clocks all over the place these days – even on your phone! – I don’t think people who choose to wear a watch do so entirely out of utility, instead wearing it because it’s a nice piece of jewellery that they like and/or that they see as a status symbol that conveys a message about themselves to others.

Both of these issues will be overcome. Batteries are improving. Designs are improving. Eventually if you want a watch, there will be a smart watch that has a design you like, and with a battery that lasts. The only reason for not buying a smart watch at that point will be if the clockwork nature of the device is part of the status symbol you want.

That was entirely more words about watches than I’d intended to write. So let’s keep the glasses part short. Which is easy, because the issues are simpler.

Glass in its current incarnation, and at this time, is in its “80’s yuppies with mobile phones” phase. Big, clunky, overly visible units, with terrible battery life, and apparently primarily used by people with little understanding of social etiquette (though I suspect there is some confirmation bias going on and people are spotting “Glassholes“, but aren’t actually noticing the people who are going about quietly and respectfully using Glass).

But, like mobile phones and smart watches, all of these will change. The devices will get smaller, more discreet & stylish, batteries will improve, and usage will get more common as use cases become clearer and as people begin to feel they won’t become victims for using one (both through the gradually less conspicuous devices not attracting attention, and also that lack of attention grabbing forcing the “80’s yuppies” to move on to new places to try and foster their desired pioneer-and-trend-setter images). The device I’m about to talk about probably won’t even be called Google Glass, in the same way that an iPhone isn’t called the Motorola DynaTAC. Eventually the screen will be unnoticeable – probably manifesting as a contact lens or some such – and the camera will be barely visible, and easily mistaken for a tiny blemish such as a mole (or hey, why not as a piercing).

What are the use cases of smart glasses? What problem does they solve? The problem of having to look somewhere else to get information, mainly. When I’m out running if I want to get my current split pace, I have to try and focus on the small screen of my Garmin watch (during a jog, not easy). To use a sat-nav map in a car you have to look at a screen that isn’t the road ahead of you. To find out what the time is you have to look at your watch (smart or otherwise) or phone. Or a clock. And those are just basic cases – once you add augmented reality in to the mix it grows (have you ever used Shazam on your phone to identify a piece of music? You have to pull your phone out, unlock it, find the Shazam app, wait for it to load, then start recording. How much easier to just say “I wonder what this music is?”. Or you could even have your glasses running that app all the time, updating you every time the background tune changed, if you really loved knowing what sounds were around you).

Incidentally, this is why I think that smart watches, while they will be popular now, will eventually be killed off in favour of people wearing smart glasses (combined with a regular decorative watch if they have that “I listen to my records on vinyl” vibe about them).

Someone did say to me that they thought my opinion of Glass would change when I was run over and killed by someone distracted by it while driving. Aside from the obvious, that my opinions about a lot of things (not least the existence of an afterlife) will probably change once I’m dead, I don’t buy it. Accidents are caused every day by people being distracted by their mobile phones, but I still like those. It’s surely a relatively trivial act of engineering to make smart glasses software that significantly limits its utility while you’re driving a vehicle (trivial compared to the engineering required to make the device in the first place).

Still think that wearables are a dead end? Pft, you luddites had better hop onboard.