Forget Glass: Vertical is the future of wearable computing

The consumer is not always the litmus test for validating the worthiness of various technologies.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
Art: Q-Warrior from BAE Systems

In a previous article, "Fixing a Broken Google Glass," I touched upon a number of issues that are plaguing the acceptance and success of wearable computing in the mainstream. 

I think we need to reconsider what the success criteria is for emerging technologies such as wearables, as well as recalibrate our expectations accordingly.

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.

In vertical industries it is much easier to define functional requirements and a market for apps than it is for consumer electronics 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.

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.
And if we're talking about devices like Glass, the low-end 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.

With much more higher-end devices targeted towards vertical markets, these sorts of concerns are not an issue, because nobody cares (for the most part) about how much they cost, how fashionable they are, or how well they fit into social situations. They are concerned about performance and functionality above all else. 

Still, we can learn a great deal from applications of wearable technologies in vertical markets before it sees the light of day in the consumer realm.

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.

Just take a look at the BAE Systems Q-Warrior that is being tested by NATO, which I've put in the article header illustration. It's not exactly a fashion statement. But what it actually does can give our soldiers key advantages in situational awareness on the battlefield.

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 or upsell its capabilities is something else.

Next Page: How to address challenges for wearbles in the consumer space

To succeed in the consumer space, however, aside from technical improvements and a drastic lowering of the price, which we know is a virtual certainty over time, we also 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.

We need to stop thinking about them as autonomous devices and more as peripherals/accessories.

Likewise, "brandishing" of wearable computers only makes sense in a vertical application situation. 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 as well as having large modular sensor easily removable by the user or so it can be put away or deactivated on request.

Obviously, making wearables fit in better with existing eyeglass frames is one of the ways we can conceal the technology.  

However, I think that for the moment, Google's partnership with Luxottica, the world's largest producer of eyeglass frames, 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.

Aside from verticals, there is also potential to use wearables in the enterprise. 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.

So how do we bring wearables to the enterprise? Well, I think we need to stop thinking about them as autonomous devices and more as peripherals/accessories.

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 or most enterprise users 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.

Next Page: Smartwatches, Sensors and Social Impact

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 One and take advantage of those platforms' native capabilities and unique UX experiences? 

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

And what about other wearable form factors, like smart watches?

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. Getting notifications and the time is considered basic functionality on those devices.

As a species we are still in-person, social animals, this despite an ever-increasing focus on online communication.

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 probably never worn one in the first place. I'm talking about the early milennials already in our workforce and those born in the 1990s and 2000s who will be following them shortly.

I also think we need to consider the social implictions of why wearable computing in end-user, consumerized scenarios continue to be a challenge that is not easily solvable and why wearables may very well stay within the realm of vertical markets for some time to come.

As a species we are still in-person, social animals, this despite an ever-increasing focus on online communication.

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 an additional layer of complexity to basic human relationships not only because they distract 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. As these capabilites become more prevalent in wearable tech, we will have to think about potential regulation over their use not just from a social context but also a legal context as well.

Will wearbles stay within the realm of vertical markets and specialized industry applications for the forseeable future? Or will we resolve the technical and social issues hindering their adoption? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Editorial standards