Wearable computing: Is there a real market?

Summary:Do augmented reality headsets like Google Glass and smartwatches like Samsung Galaxy Gear herald the next wave of personal computing?

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Yes

or

No

Matt Baxter-Reynolds

Matt Baxter-Reynolds

Best Argument: No

50%
50%

Audience Favored: No (50%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

Morning, August 26, 2033

Steven Vaughan-Nichols:  Yawn!

Another late morning and I've got things to do and little time to do them. So, I blink twice to get the weather report. It's going to be another nice day here, but I have a flight to New York City later today.

So, I look to the left and my flight is still on schedule, let's see look left again and up, OK, it's still on time. I had been a little worried since LaGuardia flooded last year about this same time thanks to high tides and global warming. Oh well, at least the dikes are holding around Manhattan so I don't need to worry about wading to corporate headquarters at 28 E. 28.

As I brush my teeth, I get a flicker of green in my left eye. OK, wink for half-a-second and that call goes into voicemail. That reminds me though I haven't gotten breakfast started yet. Look to the right once, tap my little finger, and the toaster and tea pot kick on.

Breakfast done, I tap twice on the dining room table and the garage door opens and the car starts. I hop in, wait for the car to load the navigation module to my Google Go Contacts, blink twice, and point at the airport on the map in "front" of my eyes and I'm on my way.

How odd to think that people actually used to use separate devices for such common every days tasks. Heck, some folks actually used to think that wearable computers wouldn't take off. How quaint!

Still, I'm not so sure about actual cyborg implants, that's a little much for me. I'll just stick with my pocket, body-heat powered do-everything computer, and my integrated contact lens and "hearing" aid.

Tech will be carried, not worn

Matt Baxter-Reynolds: Last weekend I did a piece about how I'd downsized from a "fat, 1980s style" wallet, to a thin, 2013 wallet . In it there was a mild lament about how I had to carry a wallet even though I had enough technology on me on me at all times to replace the wallet.

I love my digital life. I love having my smartphone on me all the time connecting me 24/7 to the people and things that I love. But it's nice to have it in my pocket. It's not something I necessarily want to drape all over me everytime I leave the house to go to the shops. And I'm a technologist.

The point of technology in the post-PC era is that it stays in the background until you need it. It's hidden away, but close to hand. Wearables run against this idea, trying to make the technology as much of a part of your body as can be achieved without surgery.

The market for wearables is niche. Being able to slap a camera on you when you're skiing, mountain biking, BASE jumping, etc -- that makes sense. But for day-to-day living? Nuh-uh.

See also:

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Welcome

    It's time to put on your Internet glasses and view today's debate. Are you ready? As an aside here's a look at wearable computers that I'm sure will interest you.

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    All set

    But this extra gear is getting heavy.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Yes

    Me too

    I'm using my laptop

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Why now?

    Wearable computing devices have been around for years with little success, so why should they make a breakthrough now? What's changed?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Now is the time

    In 1997, I attended an IEEE International symposium on wearable computers in Cambridge MA. By 2002, I was trying out the Xybernaut Poma Wearable PC in 2002. So why is it only now that wearable computers are being taken seriously?

    There's a bunch of reasons. First, and foremost, is the ubiquitous Internet. With Wi-Fi and 4G anywhere you go your wearable device can access all the riches of the Internet.

    Add to this the rise of better batteries, more energy-efficient computer components, flash memory, and faster, low-powered processors and you have what some people call "steam boat time." That time when all the technologies are lined up for a new development, in the early 19th century it was steamboats and in the early 21st century, it's human-wearable computers

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Yes

    There must be a need

    So I'm arguing the position that they won't make a breakthrough, so it's easy enough for me to just say "they won't", and leave it at that…

    However, that's perhaps a little unfair. As an industry, we're all human, and as such we're not good at spotting what the next big thing is going to be. In a years time could I be out and about seeing every person and their dog wearing smart watches or Google Glass-esque things, perhaps. We never really know where these breakthroughs come from.

    If they resonate with a common enough need they'll take off.


    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The best opportunity

    What are the most likely forms that wearable devices will take? Which will be most successful? And what is going to be left on the shelf gathering dust?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Google Glass

    Google Glass is looking mighty good at this point. Eventually, I expect the glasses model to be superseded by contact lens, but that's at least 10-years in the future.

    What I don't think has a chance is the watch format . You may have noticed but the watch is a dying technology. That's because it simply doesn't have the screen space to compete with smartphones. At most, a watch might hold the CPU and storage goodies for a glasses-style interface.

    Down the road I can also see computing embedded in clothing, ala Continuum's Kiera Cameron. Or, even tattoos and yes, cyborgs, with implanted electronics are in our future. Actually, they're already here with pacemakers and insulin pumps, we just don't think of them that way.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Yes

    I can't see glasses

    I think the glasses-style devices have blown it. They've been too visible prior to release -- society has had enough of a chance to judge them and make them fatally uncool before they've even hit.

    Watches? These have more chance. Watches are more personal, and they don't have cameras or microphones in them. They're less obviously threatening and invading than glasses.

    I love the idea of lifelogging. I'd love to wear a little puck that kept a record of my life. I'd like those to take off, but frankly I expect the same pushback as glasses-style.

    But, as per my last point, perhaps something will take off that we haven't seen before. Like a Fitbit or Nike+ quantification/measurement device that you swallow. (Assuming that still counts as wearable -- there's a lot of crossover between [ "quantified self" devices ] and wearables.)

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Filling a need -- for the industry?

    Is there any sign that there is pent-up consumer demand for wearables, or is this really being pushed by the tech industry largely because everybody has bought a smartphones already?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Passionate early adopters

    According to a survey done by Modis, an IT staffing firm, by 61 percent of self-described geeks said they would buy and wear a “smart watch,” and 56 percent would buy “smart glasses." It's not just geeks. 37 percent of self-described “non-geeks” are also interested in buying and wearing a smart watch and almost as many, 35 percent, would buy smart glasses.

    So much for the numbers. Here's what I've seen. I have many friends who are already using Google Glass and guess what? They tell me that people are always, and I mean always, interested in them. I've seen that kind of passion twice before in the last few years for an item of technology. Care to care what they were?

    They were the iPhone and the iPad.

    Early geek adopters, who are now the cutting edge for all technology buyers, are going to buy them and the others will follow.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Yes

    Missing the mainstream

    I think there's zero demand from consumers for wearables, if we look at a generalist, non-technologist market. That market is full of mainstreamers -- they don't demand technology innovation in the same way that early adopters.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Pros

    What's the biggest benefit to the end user of wearable devices?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Instant information

    For me, it's near-instant access to information anywhere, anytime. I think it will be for everyone. Yes, it's cool that I could take care photos and videos just by looking, but what I think will really be valuable is the "see and retrieve" ability they'll bring us.

    If I'm a mechanic, I can pull up the diagram of what I'm working on. If I'm delivering a package, I can glance at the box's address and have the real-time map for its delivery appear in front of me. If I'm in a large crowd, I'll be able to look at someone and pull up their name, company, title, whatever.

    A little scary isn't it? Well, get used to it. It's coming

    On the more fun side, real-world games like Google's Ingress will prove wildly popular. Someone, somewhere out there is already working on a killer game for Google Glass that will make them filthy rich.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Yes

    Always connected

    Post-PC devices, particularly smartphones, work because they they are always available and always connected. Through that nature they are relationship-centric devices that connect people to the people and things in their life that they love. Wearable devices offer that same potential.

    As well as this they offer "augmentation". Although this is a rather sci-fi content, the idea is sound. If you have a device attached to you all the time that records your life, the benefit there is that it will allow you to go back and remember previous parts of your life more readily. As part of the human journey that we all undertake,, that could be hugely important.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Where's the need?

    What can a wearable computing device do that a tablet or smartphone can't do already? And is that enough to justify carrying yet another device?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Speed

    What they'll bring us to is speed of access. You'll no longer need to reach for your tablet or phone. Want to read a book? Blink twice for it. Make a phone call? Touch your left ear-piece.  Listen to your newest album? Touch your right ear-piece.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Yes

    Portability

    Tablets are much less portable than smartphones. You don't tend to have a tablet on you *all the time*. Wearables are about as portable as smartphones, although I don't see any distinct advantage to having something you wear on your wrist or your head over and above a device you carry around in a pocket or bag.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Cons

    What's the biggest tech hurdle standing in the way of the success of wearables? Battery life? Limited number of apps? Or something else?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Software and network

    I see the highest hurdle being on the software and network side. Google Glass's interface still needs work and we're still a ways from the future I foresee where blinks and winks are enough to run them.

    In addition, for these devices to really work you need fast bandwidth. In some places, that's not a problem, but just like with our tablets, laptops, and smartphones, there are still plenty of dead spots. If you live in a large, well-connected urban area that won't be a problem. Our in the country, it's a different story.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Yes

    Battery

    If by tech you mean "wholly technologically", it's likely the battery. I have this problem to an extent with my Fitbit. The thing is supposed to measure me all the time, but sometimes I have to have it stop measuring me to charge the battery.

    However, I think the bigger threat in "tech" is privacy, given that as an industry we can't ignore these sociological aspects anymore. I think society has moved to a point where it's going to be actively hostile about wearables having cameras in them, and that knocks off a huge chunk of use cases. Probably the majority of use cases.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Loss of privacy

    If recording devices such as Google Glass become mainstream, does privacy become a big issue standing in the way of wearables?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    It's nothing new

    That problem is already here. Been to a concert recently? They still say not to record the show, but I haven't been to one in years where there were not dozens to hundreds of smartphones recording every move of the performer and every note they play.

    What about private life? The next time you're in a coffee shop or restaurant  take a look around. Notice how half the people are head down in their smartphone? Is one of them recording you? How would you know? If you're a well-known or attractive person, chances are you've already been recording numerous times and you never knew it.

    The privacy horse has already left the barn and he's not going back anytime in our lifetimes.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Yes

    It's a big problem

    As my previous points above -- I think it deals a "coup de grace" to nearly all of the wearables proposition.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Effect of other devices

    What happens to the smartphone market if wearable computing takes off? What other technologies does wearable disrupt?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    No immediate effect

    I don't see anything happening to it for the next few years. Remember when the iPod came along and revolutionized the personal music player? By the time it came we already had dozens of MP3 players and the cassette version of Sony Walkman had been around since the late 70s.

    We're at the Sony Walkman stage of the technology. They will be popular, people will buy them, but they're not going to change the market.

    What will be different this time around is that instead of the 22-years between the first Sony Walkman and the first iPod it will be only a decade before wearable computers start cannibalizing smartphones and tablets.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Yes

    No effect

    I think we'll see watches as a "value add" to smartphones, and hence won't replace smartphones. Remember, smartphones are getting bigger for a reason. Going to 1" screens on the wrist runs against that trend.

    On the quantified self device side, I think these will use smartphones symbiotically.

    Therefore I see smartphones as being distinctly advantaged by an uptake of wearables

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Where's the profit?

    Apart from hardware, how do vendors make money from wearables?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Invest in broadband

    The same way they do now from smartphones and tablets. The guaranteed money will be made by the carriers. Without bandwidth, wearable computing goes no where.

    So if you want to be sure you'll make cash from this computing revolution, invest in AT&T, Verizon and the other usual carrier suspects.

    Apps are, of course, the other way people will cash in from wearable. A few people will make a mint, others will make enough to pay the bills, and most developers will make enough to buy a round of beer for their mates at the local pub. It's a pity you can't tell from the start which will be which.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Yes

    Not for hardware

    That's a tricky question! I'm not sure the revenue streams are particularly clear outside of hardware sales. Bundled subscription services would be a likely candidate. If the device happened to increase cellular data consumption, that's another.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Fitting into the workplace

    What's the enterprise angle on wearable devices? Should CIOs be getting worried or excited?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Immediate answers

    I've already mentioned their use for techs, but it's easy enough to conjure up other future uses. Say, you're a sales person at a trade show. Here comes a big client whose name is.... Mr. Big Bucks. Mr. Bucks asks you what's the best you can do on widgets in the next quarter and you say, "Widgets? Next Quarter: $20.99 per hundred."

    You get the idea. It's all about getting information at computer speeds while you're out and about in the real world as well as when you're sitting in front of your computer at work.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Yes

    Niche markets

    There's some potential in the enterprise, but I'd say it's in very niche markets. Think about situations where someone needs both their hands free to undertake a task.
    Also this technical can be helpful in risky environments -- and of course we know that military and police use this sort of telemetry-based approach already.

    The only reason why a CIO would need to get worried, I would think, are on the softer side of the problem. Do employee guidelines need to be re-written to prevent wearables with cameras coming into the office and impinging unreasonably on coworkers' privacy, for example.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Getting to the point: When?

    Future-gazing time: Will wearable computing take over from smartphones as our most personal computing device? If so, when?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    20 years

    I think some people will always use smartphones for at least a generation. It was only at the end of 2012, that it appears that the majority of people switched from landline phones to cell phones (PDF Link).

    That said, in 20-years I think wearable computers will have overtaken smartphones. Them the  question will be how long it will be until we switch from wearable computers to embedded computers. The answer, by the way, will be another 20 years.

    Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

    I am for Yes

    Never

    Ha. No. We need a display that is clear and large, and an input mechanism that's tactile and reliable. That means a smartphone. An image floating in the air and Leap Motion/Kinect like gesture tracking? It's too sci-fi -- it won't work.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks...

    ...to the debaters for a good fight and thanks to you for joining us. Wednesday, we'll post the closing statements from Steven and Matt, and Thursday I'll reveal the winner. I think you'll enjoy reading the comments and giving feedback on your own views. Plus, vote for who you think should be the winner.

    Posted by Steve Ranger

Closing Statements

Morning, August 28, 2033

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Ack! It's morning again!

Time to wake up, check out of the hotel -- three right eye blinks to bring up the bill, tap on the table to pay it -- and get a taxi to LaGuardia -- double blinks and stick my thumb out in the old hitch-hiker's pose -- and I'm ready to go.

It's hard to think as the car automatically starts rolling from the Hotel Indigo to the airport that you used to have deal with taxi drivers. Now, the taxi automatically recognizes me and my reservation and we're on our way.

Oh well, I'd better get some work done. I reach out with my fingers, squeeze my eyes shut, reopen them, and my virtual keyboard "appears" on the laptop table in front of me. Funny how the name survives even though laptops are pretty much antiques. Of course, the keyboard isn't really there either. It's just the overlay my Google Lens displays on the surface for my convenience.

I could, of course, just start "writing" by speaking into the air, but I'm old-fashioned. I've been typing since I was a kid and there are some new tricks even an old tech dog doesn't want to learn.

This is going to happen, you know. Personal computing devices aren't science fiction. They're well on their way to being science fact.

I'm sure I have the details wrong. No one ever sees the future with 20-20 vision. But, in broad strokes, we're now on our way to a future where we'd no more go out without our integrated, networked computers than we would our pants.

Interesting times are ahead for us and I can't wait to see exactly how truly "personal" computing is going to turn out.

Smartphones: Where the real action is

Matt Baxter-Reynolds

Convergence is the path that all consumer electronics take, going from specialist devices (such as MP3 players, digital cameras, and in-car GPS receivers) to jack-of-all-trade devices that can carry out a myriad of tasks. And the king of the convergence devices is the smartphone.

The smartphone is king because it combines portability with the power to get work done. Sure, a PC or a notebook, or even a tablet is nice to have, but the best tool for any job is the tool you have on you.

And if you own a smartphone, I'll bet that it's rarely more than an arm's length away from you.

Also, the arbitrary line between smartphones and tablets is blurring. Samsung's Mega has a 6.3-inch screen, making it only a little bit smaller than the Nexus 7, a device that you can certainly do real work on.

Smartphones is where the real action is at.

See also:

Market isn't ready yet

Steve Ranger

Wearable tech has been just about to breakthrough for at least a decade (and probably longer) but this time there is enough enthusiasm (from the supplier side at least) which means some of the products might be attractive to the mainstream, and Steven makes a compelling argument that the time is right from a technology point of view.

But I have to agree with Matt that the mass market isn't ready – yet. Wearable tech will be a huge, all encompassing market, probably within a decade, but the products available now and over the next two or three years are really betas as use cases need to be tightened up and privacy addressed. I'm giving this one to Matt.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic, and has been writing about technology, business and culture for more than a decade. Previously he was the editor of silicon.com.

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