Can wearable computing be saved?

Summary:Google Glass has some serious problems. What does this mean for the rest of the wearables industry?

Jason Perlow

Jason Perlow

Yes

or

No

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

Best Argument: Yes

74%
26%

Audience Favored: Yes (74%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

Vertical is the killer app

Jason Perlow: My esteemed colleague fears that because Glass has fallen on its posterior, it will potentially take the rest of the wearables industry down. I think we are being a bit too hasty here.

First, I think we all can agree that wearable computing covers a number of form factors, not just augmented reality monocles like Glass. These include those systems being tested by the military and police forces for anti-terrorism operations, numerous engineering and field scenarios as well as medical/hospital use. Wearable computing includes simple sensors like the Fitbit, smartwatches like the Pebble as well as more vertical-purposed and much more higher-end devices than even Glass.

Vertical has always been the killer app for wearables. And in vertical scenarios nobody cares if you look bizarre wearing one or if the user is pointing a camera at you. In short, in a purely vertical scenario, nobody is being a Glasshole. The wearer is simply doing their job.

The problem we need to solve is not with the wearable technology itself, which we know can and will improve with further development. It all has to do with the behavior of the wearer and social acceptance of its use.

Fatally flawed

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes: We've spent the most of this millennium making devices smaller. Now that these devices are about as small as they can get, we're reversing the trend (maybe because we ruined out eyesight on those small screens in the first place) and this leaves a gap in the market for small devices, which are collectively known as wearables.

But the current crop of wearables are fatally flawed. Not only are prices too high, and stylistically they look a mess, but on top of that most do little more than duplicate features already present on smartphones and tablets, but with the added limitation of not being able to function independently of another device.

In an era when we've seen so much convergence in the tech world, with so many features being packed into a single device – the smartphone – the wearables industry wants to turn that around and get people buying companion devices once again.

Related coverage:

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Welcome again

    It's time for this week's Great Debate. Our topic is one that's been creating a lot of buzz recently, wearable computers. Are the debaters ready?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    All set

    A smart watch, Google Glass...who could ask for more?

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Let's get going.

    I've got enough junk.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What's wrong?

    What's wrong with the wearable form factors today?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Nerdiness

    In the context of consumer technology, most wearable form factors have the air of nerdiness or social weirdness about them which makes them difficult to accept in traditional social settings.

    If we're talking about devices like Glass, the eye displays cannot be used for extended periods without causing significant eyestrain, and the daily battery life of Glass is less than half of a typical smartphone, about five hours maximum, if
    the video recording function is used sparingly.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Let me count the ways

    To be honest, it's probably easier to say what's right, but allow me to shortlist just a few issues facing wearables:

    • Poor battery life. It's hard to go much more than a day without recharging without risking that the gizmo putters out of power.
    • Lack of imagination. What exactly is the point of a device that mimics what a smartphone can do, but on a smaller display? The segment needs more innovation.
    • Styling, or lack thereof. The current crop of wearables makes those cheap digital watches of the 80s and early 90s look good. Wearables seem to fall into either the sports or retro categories, but if people are going to wear them all the time, they need to fit in whether people are at the office or relaxing on the beach. That's a pretty tough brief.
    • Price. Overall seems too high.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Use your magic wand

    If you had a magical wand to make wearables more enticing what would you do?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Hide them

    Aside from technical improvements and a drastic lowering of the price, which we know is a virtual certainty over time, we have to do for wearable computers that we have done for handguns, which is to make them completely concealable if needed.

    It sounds odd to compare something like Google Glass to a handgun, but think about it. In most civilized countries, and unless you are law enforcement, you can't strap a pistol to your belt and have it visible (brandished) without making people around you completely afraid.

    Not only does displaying a gun in public frighten people and the careless display of one is considered a misdemeanor crime in many states, but openly displaying a firearm also vastly reduces any advantage of surprise you have should a gun
    actually need to be used.

    Regardless of your political position on gun ownership, brandishing is why many states, such as where I live in Florida have concealed carry laws in the first place.

    Likewise, "brandishing" of wearable computers only makes sense in a vertical application situation, as I mentioned in my opening statement. And while nobody is afraid of getting killed by a wearable computer that is being openly displayed in public, many people don't want them around, are fearful of their privacy being invaded or having videos of them being quickly posted to social media outlets, and having them out in the open reduces the situational advantages of the wearer.

    However, despite these challenges, there are ways, both aesthetic and technological, that wearables can be made more concealable. This includes making the sensor more miniaturized and integrated into the frames of glasses as well as having large modular sensor easily removable by the user or so it can be put away or deactivated on request.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Start over

    Seriously, start again. From scratch.

    However, this time around I' like to see wearables distance themselves from being companion devices for smartphones and think more of them as being standalone devices in their own right. As it stands the current wearables market feels like it's little more than a secondary screen for your phone. And a small, non-touch screen at that, unsuited to anything beyond a quick glance.

    This level of casual engagement is unlikely to allow consumers to build much of a bond with the device.

    In order to succeed wearables have to stand on their own merit, and it can't rely on being a smartphone accessory. But that means overcoming huge hurdles, spanning design

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    "Real" glasses

    Do you think embedding Google Glass into prescription lenses would make the effort more viable?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Investment in the future

    I think that for the moment, Google's partnership with Luxottica is a bigger win for Luxottica than it is for Google. For Luxottica it represents an investment in the future even though many people don't really want to use the product in its current form today due to its prohibitively expensive price tag and the fact that the functionality is extremely limited.

    For Luxottica, locking in a Google partnership prevents other companies such as Wal-Mart or COSTCO from encroaching on their turf, which arguably is a huge monopoly in terms of manufacturing, designer brand recognition and distribution of eyeglass frames and prescription lenses.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Cross-eyed

    I've talked to Robert Scoble about this several times and he didn't seem to have much problem using Google Glass with his prescription lenses. The same goes for other Glass wearers such as the photographer Trey Ratcliff. But since you only get
    a new pair of eyes. And if they get screwed up, you can fix them with a software update or app. Embedding might be a good. What might be even better is working on making the frame look less goofy, and miniaturizing the display.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Roadblocks

    What has to happen for wearables to be a hit with consumers?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    The cost factor

    The price of devices like Google Glass has to go down, a lot. Above all else, the social stigma of using one has to be resolved and that is the biggest hurdle. The display tech, battery life and the capabilities of the sensor also has to be much better for more exploitative apps to be written.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Making it the best in class

    The best way for this to happen is for there to be a best-in-class device. People will then have to buy this device in sufficient quantities for the technology to gain enough momentum to leap Moore's chasm.

    It's as simple – or as tricky – as that.  To achieve this a single product will have to attract first the eyeballs, and then the cash, of a million or so people over the course of a few months. Without this critical mass of users, wearables will simply fade into obscurity.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Crystal ball

    What's the future for wearables in the enterprise?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Clearing up

    Potentially I see data visualization and real-time translation and ad-hoc information capture and character recognition as enterprise apps. Maybe we might see the intersection of something like Office Lens and Bing Translator in a whiteboarding type of application.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Hazy

    Companies that straddle the line between consumer and enterprise don't seem to fare all  that well (think BlackBerry). On top of that, I can't come up with a single enterprise application for wearables that a)can't already be done better and more efficiently with a  smartphone or tablet, and b)isn't creepy or weird or intrusive for the wearer (do you  want your boss having access to your vitals?). I've no doubt that wearables have a place in the enterprise, but as of these products being driven by the enterprise, I think we can forget that.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What needs it?

    What industries are best suited for wearables and why?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Verticals

    Medical is a no-brainer, and so is the hospitality industry (restaurants, hotels). Defense, aerospace as well as other engineering industries already use them with aplomb. All of these would benefit from hands-free operation of a computer, as well as reality  augmentation applications where information needs to be presented in an overlay format.

    In vertical industries it is much easier to define functional requirements and a market for apps than it is for consumer electronics applications, particularly since you are not necessarily dealing with the issues of app monetization and the advertising that consumer devices would by necessity have to bring along with it in order to justify the  application development.

    It's one thing to justify the development and then sell a $10,000 patient information and  medical records app for a bedside wearable, because the volume is less of a concern and  the market is clearly defined. Putting the level of effort to develop a sophisticated augmentation application for a  consumer wearable that either has to be free or has to sell for a very low price in high volumes with in-app purchases to enhance its capabilities is something else.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Medical and sales

    I could see wearables having application in (and here I'm thinking about Glass-type wearables rather than smartwatches):

    • Medical: For example, access to medical notes and the like.
    • Real estate: Info on properties right in the sales person's field of view.
    • Retail: Easy access to information. Nothing mind-blowing, but as I said before, the fate of wearables won't be decided by the enterprise.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Works with a smartphone?

    Do wearable devices need to decouple from smartphones to be truly viable? What's wrong with the companion device model?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Wearables should be external displays/sensors, not smart devices

    I am probably of the minority opinion that wearables need to become stupider, not smarter. The reality is that the more intelligence you throw into a wearable, the more computational power and a more power consumption it requires. It also requires more localized storage, which I think is a huge security risk.

    Smartphones, tablets, set-tops and PCs will always be more powerful than something like a  Google Glass due to engineering and physical limitations of what you can realistically  cram into that form factor for a consumer to want to use it.

    So it makes sense for the hard work to be done by the more powerful devices and have the wearables be sensor and display extensions.

    To conserve battery life a device like Glass should have just enough computational power  and OS to run the sensors, the display and the networking connectivity. That will not  only lower cost and simplify the bill of materials but also, if the device is stolen, presumably having limited local storage also makes the information stored on it less  valuable.

    By making them strictly sensor platforms, this also opens up the possibility of them  becoming more platform-agnostic. I mean, why wouldn't I want to use my wearable interchangeably with my iOS device, my Windows Phone, or my XBOX and
    take advantage of those platforms' native capabilities and unique UX experiences? 

    I can swap my Bluetooth headset around, why not my wearable?

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Absolutely

    At a time when multiple devices are converging into a single device (the  smartphone or the tablet), it's odd to see a device appear which seems to buck that  trend. The current crop of wearables are far too closely tied to Android smartphones, and  most of the applications are little more than a second screen (perhaps because  smartphones have grown so big that they are cumbersome).

    Sure, I can see a novelty to such a device, appealing to the kid in us
    who wanted a "spy  watch," "spy camera," or "spy glasses," but as to long-term appeal, I fear that most will end up gathering dust after only a few recharges.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Right and wrong

    What has Google Glass done right? What's wrong?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Hype

    I think what Google has done well with Glass is to raise initial developer interest in wearable and augmented reality technology. They have also figured out how to integrate  natural language voice query into the headset (aka "Ok Glass") and have made that somewhat useful.

    However, the UI and development paradigm leaves a great deal to be desired. It also is a fairly inflexible ecosystem that locks you into Google's services.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Unfinished business

    What Google did right:

    • Release a product. 


    What Google did wrong:

    • Not actually release a product.
    • Glass was about $1,000 too expensive.
    • The sign-up process was far too elitist, even for a $1,500 device.
    • By the time that Glass Explorers could invite others, the buzz had worn off. By the time it was open to all, the project had become irrevocably tainted by that "weird and creepy" feel.
    • App support for the device never really materialized.
    • It has failed to address privacy concerns.
    • It lacked the empathy to develop a product that had to interact in the real world with real people.
    • Glass never moved beyond being an experiment.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Smartwatches?

    Will smartwatches ever truly be a hit?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Time's limited

    Smartwatches don't necessarily have the same social acceptance issues as Glass, but timepieces are now considered unitasking or simple tasking devices in an age when many people carry smartphones, phablets and tablets and getting notifications and the time is  considered basic functionality on those devices.

    With fitness sensors being built into smartphones as well, smartwatches are yet another limited-function device that needs battery charging. Watches are also considered old tech for an entire generation of people who've never worn one in the first place.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Too late

    I'm finding it hard to come up with a compelling case for a smartwatch. The idea dates back to "spy watches" popularized by characters such as Dick Tracey and James Bond. But aside from lasers, tiny circular saws for cutting bindings, and maybe a powerful  electromagnet, what did these fictitious devices do that a modern smartphone cannot do? In fact, I think it's fair to say that weaponry notwithstanding (which, I have to admit, would be cool), a modern smartphone surpasses anything that Q could have dreamt of.

    Given that our smartphones (and tablets, let us not forget tablets) can do so much, and they are something that we carry with us as part of our daily lives, is there any need  for wearables? Were we fantasizing over a "spy watch" while we were waiting for the smartphone to be invented? I think we might have been.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Peer pressire

    Why does social acceptance matter in the wearable space?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Not reality yet

    Although online interaction has begun to displace traditional face-to-face interaction (just take a look at your teens and their texting habits) we are still as a species highly in-person, social animals.

    Most human beings prefer to look other people in the eye, to see them looking back at us  and to determine their emotional/mental status. We communicate with our eyes and our facial expressions just as much as we do with our voice.

    This is why even in electronic communications a great deal of meaning and context can be lost.

    Wearables add a layer of complexity to basic human relationships not only because it  distracts the wearer from direct face to face communication, but also because those of us  on the other side of that wearable know a camera is pointing at us and is potentially recording us.

    Nobody likes to feel like they are at a social disadvantage in front of another person.  Fundamentally, that's what Google Glass does to other people at a basic emotional level. Feeling disadvantaged makes most human beings uncomfortable. 

    I know how limiting Google Glass is in terms of functionality today and it still makes me  uncomfortable to see other people use them in my presence.  And that's just a device with a basic 5MP 720p camera sensor that can capture images and video with low-quality audio.

    I doubt most people have considered the future possibilities of real-time image  analysis/facial recognition, or something far more sophisticated like a miniaturized Kinect sensor that can measure changes in body temperature, detect minute changes in facial expression/body language, analyze levels of voice stress or read  a person's heartbeat from ten feet away.

    It sounds like science fiction now, but we're less than 10 years away from this from being a reality on a consumer or even a vertical market wearable computer.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Just "odd" not "familiar"

    who owned a Kindle, or an iPhone, iPad, or anything else new will have been seen as odd/special/weird/nerds/rich/spoilt/geeks* (delete as applicable), but very soon people  were seeing more and more people with these devices, and quickly they made the shift from  "odd" to "familiar," and from that point forward, the device started to sell itself. That's why social acceptance is so important, and that's why I fear that Google's  blundering into the wearables sector with Glass may have delivered a mortal blow even before the devices had a chance to get going.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Killer app

    Have we found a killer application for wearable computing yet?

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Vertical has always been the killer app for wearables

    I have to say emphatically, no. Not in the consumer space. But I don't think that having  wearables confined initially to vertical industries is necessarily a bad thing, and they can be very successful there. Not every technology needs to be consumerized to be successful.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Not there yet

    Fitness: Seems you can get always convince some people that wearing something (shoe,clothing, pedometer, calorie counter, GPS) will make them fitter, so this is definitely an exploitable market. But this is a market currently controlled by companies such asGarmin and Jawbone, not big Android players.

    Medical: Both monitoring vitals, and logging conditions. Again, a big market, but whether people want a wearable medical device as opposed to a standalone bit of kit

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    And the winner will be...

    If you had to pick one vendor out of Google, Apple and Samsung to nail the wearable category which one do you think will win? We'll also take write-in candidates.

    Posted by Larry Dignan

    Samsung?

    I think Samsung has to be considered at least as the prime candidate as OEM simply because of their sophisticated integrated manufacturing capabilities and their command over the component supply chain. Not only can they brand and market such devices themselves, they can also produce them the cheapest even for other vendors.

    That being said, I would not count out the traditional headset peripheral firms such as  Plantronics and Logitech who can develop platform agnostic wearables.

    Also it would not surprise me to see Amazon enter the space to use such a device to sell you practically everything you look at. If you think people are uncomfortable with Glass  in face to face situations, imagine the reaction from brick and mortar retailers to consumers with Amazon FireEyes strapped to their heads.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Apple

    Why? Because Apple has a track record of turning niche devices into huge mainstream successes.

    Apple has done this with MP3 players, smartphones, and tablets, and it is the only company  with the power, market position, credibility, tech savvy, and empathy to make it work for  wearables. And of all these strengths, I think empathy is the key strength. The company  seems to have a knack for being able to go from zero to mainstream in one leap.

    Also, if wearables are going to end up being a companion device, then what better platform than iOS to link that to. With hundreds of millions of iOS devices in circulation, it seems like the perfect platform to get wearables off the ground.

    And where Apple goes, others will follow.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Until next time

    Thanks again for joining us for this week's debate. I think you'll agree that the debaters did a great job. Coming up are the closing statements on Wednesday and my verdict which will be posted on Thursday. Please read the comments and don't forget to vote.

    Posted by Larry Dignan

Closing Statements

Technology simply has a ways to go

Jason Perlow

Many of the problems my opponent cite as serious problems with wearables and Glass itself can be and will be corrected with further iterations.

The price of the device will resolve itself, the aesthetics will improve, as will the marketing. The apps will come.

I also believe that Google is not a stupid company and views Glass, like many of its other initiatives, as a research project foisted upon the masses, as a way of crowdsourcing product development, just like it has done with everything else it has released to date.

We also need to acknowledge that for a device form factor that is still clearly in its infancy, the best place for the tech to be exploited today is in vertical market applications.

We should not be so quick to declare that wearables are a victim of infanticide because early efforts in making them viable consumer products have been less than stellar.

Despite this incessant (and shall I say it, often misplaced) focus on the mass-consumerization of tech within the mainstream media, the consumer is not always the litmus test for validating the worthiness of various technologies.

We have decades of computer history and strong examples from other industries that prove that technologies can be successful and establish markets long before they see the light of day in the consumer space.

And I suspect that due to social acceptance issues and various other unresolved problems, that is where we are with wearables today. But that doesn't mean the technology is dead, it just means that it has a ways to go.

 

A childhood obsession

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

I for one hope that the voting masses are right and that wearables can be saved following the fumbled start that Glass has had and the lackluster array of devices that currently occupy the market. We might end up with something cool. But hoping for something doesn't make it so, and unless the makers of wearables start raising their game and thinking outside of the box, it's all going to fizzle into nothing.

That said, I can't help but feel that wearables is a solution to a problem that doesn't really exist, and that our drive for wearables has less to do with wearable tech being a good idea and more to do with a childhood obsession with James Bond spy gadgets. And now that we have a spy gadget that we carry with us everywhere that does everything from take photos to well us where we are on the planet, is the 'wearable' part just a fad?

It's early in the game

Larry Dignan

Wearable computing is a hot topic right now---so hot it may flame out. However, Jason Perlow had a better argument that it's early for wearable computing and there are a host of applications in the enterprise and beyond. Perlow gets the win over Adrian Kingsley-Hughes.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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