Wearable computing: Is there a real market?

Moderated by Steve Ranger | August 26, 2013 -- 07:00 GMT (00:00 PDT)

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 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

Talkback

60 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Remember the watch?

    Remember the watch?

    That was wearable tech before ZDNet ever even existed.

    Where are they now?

    Apparently people would rather drag through their purses and briefcases looking for their cell phones than to have the convenience of telling the time right on their hand.

    That there tells me a lot about whether people *really* want the convenience of wearable tech.

    Watches are far more convenient than a cell phone: You can see the time merely by looking at your wrist.

    But apparently we're not caring as much about convenience as tech magazines would like us to believe. We're actually very happy digging through our bags to figure out the time. I personally don't see why we don't like watches anymore, but that's the reality of the situation.
    CobraA1
    Reply 5 Votes I'm for No
    • You are totally misconstruing why people don't wear watches

      In a world of convergence, you misconstrue the disappearance of the watch.

      A watch is a single-purpose device - it tells time.

      A smartphone is a ridiculously multi-purpose device. It can not only tell time like your watch, but it can organize it replacing your Franklin planner (when's the last time you carried one of those?). You get your news on it - and from many news sources, even. When's the last time you bought a physical newspaper? It doesn't make sense to get news from just one source - much less pay for it - much less carry and unfold and manage and dispose of a physical problem like a paper. You can even get your magazine subscriptions that way, and read books that way. How about a camera? Do you still own a separate point-and-shoot? Even if you do - which do you use more often? Do you lament not bringing your camera to parties or events? Or do you just take a few memories with the phone that's always in your pocket anyway? And how about listening to music? Do you carry a separate iPod on you? Really, do you? It's way easier than carrying all these separate things - I don't have enough pockets for that!!
      Oh yeah, and it's a phone. And you use it to message people. So it's always in your pocket. Those other things - not always on you. That makes them redundant with the functions built into that thing that always IS in your pocket.
      Each of them carries a compromise compared to a purpose built device - but collectively, each is "good enough" for our needs, and since it's already on us - "good enough!"

      Since there's so many compelling reasons to carry a smartphone, and it already tells time, wearing a watch is redundant - even if in some situations it's more convenient to look at a watch, you aren't doing it that often, and when you have to it's not a big deal to take 3 seconds to pull your phone out and look at it than it is to use 1 second to look at your watch.

      People aren't shunning wearable technology - in fact the smartphone is a big, huge embracing of convergence.

      Why SMART watches HAVEN'T taken off is because they don't replace the smartphone - they augment it. It's an extra bit that people perceive they don't need - just like wearing a watch is perceived to no longer be needed since I've always got the time available on my phone. Might some people still buy a smart watch? Of course, for the same reasons some people buy bluetooth ear dongles. It's a convenient accessory for some people's lives use cases. Might some people buy a wearable thing like Google Glass? Sure, if it makes some aspect of their lives easier or better.
      How about everyone? Not unless it could totally replace the smartphone - otherwise it's going to be perceived as redundant or not necessary or too expensive for what might be only a mild benefit for some people - just like the 2 second savings for the few times you glance at a watch throughout the day.
      geolemon
      Reply Vote I'm Undecided
      • Newspapers

        I get a newspaper thrown in my driveway 7 days a week because they are EASIER to read; I don't want to hold a device that is 100 times heavier then my paper and a fraction of the size!

        As to watches, only idiots don't wear them!
        jimbritttn
        Reply 2 Votes I'm Undecided
        • A rather ignorant reply

          Only "idiots" don't wear watches, hmm? Very intelligent and mature of YOU, sir.
          And completely ignorant of the majority in society.
          We won't accuse you of being a society person.
          Or of being up on the times.

          And a paper is pretty damn heavy - a smartphone weighs a fraction of a newspaper. According to ask.com the average newspaper weighs about a pound (16 ounces). And of course your local Sunday paper is easily double that, probably triple.
          By comparison:
          An iPhone weighs 3.95 ounces.
          Even a tablet - a Nexus 7 weighs 10.2 ounces.

          But you exposed yourself as ignorant in the closer there. I expect your prejudices are what actually led you to both write that response as well as give you an excuse to not try to embrace what the rest of society is rapidly moving towards.
          geolemon
          Reply 2 Votes I'm Undecided
          • most of society IS ignorant

            in fact, most of society are not even worth saving..so that was a bad start to your argument.
            TrishaDishaWarEagle
            Reply 1 Vote I'm Undecided
          • Fool

            Long myopic and specious arguments. Watches will outlast tablets.
            QuantaII
            Reply Vote I'm Undecided
        • I stopped....

          ...wearing a watch when I started carrying a cell phone around, long before smartphones. I sit in front of a computer most of the workday, and when I am not, I looked at my phone if I need to know the time. A watch is an accessory like a bracelet. I don't wear bracelets.

          I stopped getting even the free paper when I bought a smartphone. I commute by bus/train into NYC and I really do not have any use for newspapers. I get all the news that I need on my phone, or on the web.

          As for the debate topic, I do not see Google Glass being more than a niche product. Unless they can make it look less obnoxious. I really don't like the whole concept, or to think people are walking around wearing these things. They might be great for tourists just walking around a city they are visiting, or as a part of tour. But I don't see people putting these on walking out the door headed to work.
          toph36
          Reply Vote I'm Undecided
        • No, the newspaper is NOT easier to read.

          It's big--in most cases large enough to physically cover the typical computer desk.
          It's flimsy--you constantly have to 'shake' the paper to restore that curve that holds the pages upright in a reading position.
          It's clumsy--you either have to fold it into quarters for easy reading or hold it up high, forcing you to crank your neck into odd angles just to read the typically tiny text.
          It's thin--with any kind of backlight page 2 or the inside back page let enough light through that the text of the front/back page is easily legible, making reading the page you want significantly more difficult
          It's disorganized--Sure, you have your Sections, but you have to scan across a lot of data you don't even want to see just to find the data you're looking for.

          As to watches; I'm not an idiot nor is my life controlled by a clock. Sure, sometimes I want to know the time, but not often enough to wear a clock on my wrist full time. Add to this the fact that some jobs require no jewelry on the hands and arms due to safety considerations (heavy equipment, repair, electrical, etc...) and it becomes the idiot that DOES wear the watch.

          You cannot make prejudicial statements like that without qualification.
          Vulpinemac
          Reply 2 Votes I'm Undecided
        • Time to Move ...

          To the UK. Here they go to the trouble of placing your newspaper through the letterbox in your front door!
          DJL64
          Reply 1 Vote I'm Undecided
      • I'm not entirely convinced.

        "A smartphone is a ridiculously multi-purpose device. "

        My reasoning is still perfectly valid and still stands - the watch is more convenient, even if is *is* a single purpose device. Theoretically, that should be a factor. What's curious is why it apparently isn't.

        "and it already tells time, wearing a watch is redundant "

        And? It's still more convenient. The redundancy doesn't (theoretically, at least) really matter. The convenience *should* be a factor, regardless of redundancy.

        In fact, the reason why convergence is successful is BECAUSE of convenience (it's more convenient to carry around one device than 100). The "convergence" argument is merely another form of a convenience argument.

        Which leads to the question - is the convergence of the phone really more convenient than the watch? I still think there's more to it than convergence.
        CobraA1
        Reply 1 Vote I'm Undecided