The Future Of Wearable Computing

*Note* This was originally written as an academic paper by me and has been reposted here.

It was earlier this year that Google introduced its Google Glass device, a device that they felt would change wearable computing forever. Beta testers and developers were selected to try out the device, including many bloggers and media members. Unfortunately, the reaction to Google’s newest device was not as positive as they would have hoped. Some media mocked Google Glass, others criticized it as being a “distraction,” and the device was even mocked in a popular Saturday Night Live skit where the lead character struggled with Glass’ responsiveness to gestures and speech. With Glass’ problems, it might be easy to assume that the future of wearable computing is quite bleak; however, that’s not the case as I’ll show in this paper.

Although I’ll be taking a look at several upcoming devices, first let’s take a closer look at Google Glass and Google’s goal in releasing it to developers this year and the general public in 2014. Google Glass is a wearable computer attached to a pair of glasses. The user wears these glasses and is able to access the Internet, take photos, and film short snippets, among many other things. (1) Additional features beyond those cited by Google may be added to the device as developers determine what the device is and is not capable of. Google’s goal in releasing Glass is to provide consumers with a “seamless and empowering” experience where they can access features anywhere. Glass is constantly on them, even when a cell phone isn’t, which means it can come in handy for those times when taking a picture is unexpectedly desired, or when there’s a question on your mind that you don’t want to wait until you’re on your phone or a computer to answer.

As Google’s website shows, Glass recognizes several different phrases/gestures. For instance, if you are looking at something and want to take a picture of it, you simply say “take a picture,” or if you want to record something you are watching, you would simply say “record.” Glass even supports live streaming. This would obviously come in handy for family members who are far away but want to see your child’s recital, or executives who want to be at a meeting without actually physically being there. For those who need directions, Glass can show you directions right through your glasses. Messages can be sent to friends through voice command, while questions can be asked and answered from anywhere through Google’s search engine. Translations are also given through the device, which could prove handy when traveling to a country whose language you do not speak.

The concept of Google Glass itself is very cool; however in practice, there’s a lot of doubts at this point as to just how useful, safe and secure Glass really is. I sort of liken it to when Android smartphones first came on the market. They had a lot of useful features that Apple’s iOS did not have until later iterations, such as notifications. However, the operating system lacked the polish and usability of iOS, there were issues with viruses, bloatware and security, which is why it took so long for Android to take over iOS. Now, of course, Android is quite polished and has surpassed iOS in the mobile share. Google Glass may not have many competitors, so it should be on top of the wearable computer market when it is released to consumers next year, but it does have a lot of issues that will need to be worked out before it can truly be used by more than just technology enthusiasts.

First, there are the concerns with the navigation feature on Google Glass. It’s assumed by Google that Glass wearers will use Glass for their navigation needs. That obviously means that Google Glass will be worn while driving. Because Glass displays directions on the glasses you are wearing, this can, at best, serve to distract you while driving. At worst, this can impair your driving and even cause an accident. Even if Glass isn’t used for navigation while driving, it could still prove to be a distraction while driving with its other features, such as the ability to search the web. Just as texting and other mobile phone usage while driving has been viewed as a significant problem in the United States (Michigan has even banned texting while driving), Glass is already causing concern for legislators. In fact, West Virginia legislators who recently banned texting while driving are looking to remove the loophole that would permit Glass to be used while driving (as it’s a hands-free device). It would not be surprising at all for other states to follow suit.

There’s also the concern of Glass being used in situations where recording devices are not normally permitted, sort of like a “spy cam.” Casinos such as the Caesars casino in Las Vegas have banned the usage of Google Glass while attending shows or gambling at the casino. Bars, such as the 5 Point Café in Seattle, have done the same. It’s highly likely that as Google Glass increases in popularity, other places will also ban its usage, such as concert venues, courtrooms and virtually any other place that bans the usage of recording devices.

However, perhaps of even greater concern than usage at a casino, is the potential usage of Google Glass to spy. A Google shareholder even called Glass a “voyeur’s dream come true.” Indeed, there’s a lot of concern that Google Glass may be used to record individuals or take pictures without their consent. Imagine an individual who is wearing Glass and comes into the locker room of your gym. Those in the locker room are obviously in various states of undress, with some who have no clothes on at all. While someone who came into the locker room holding a smartphone and recording what they see would be obvious, someone who is wearing Glass and recording would not. Another example of this voyeurism would be a child predator who is watching children play at a school or a playground. The sight of them taking pictures with a camera or smartphone would be obvious; however, if they’re doing so with Google Glass, it would be much harder to detect and put a stop to. It’s this discreetness that makes Google Glass both convenient and a huge potential problem that will need to be solved as Glass increases in usage.

One other cause for concern is Google’s open platform and the ability for developers to design apps for Glass that may do less than ethical things. While Glass normally requires the user to say “take a picture,” one developer came up with an app that takes a picture when the Glass wearer merely blinks. This obviously makes Glass even more discreet to use in cases where spying or taking pictures/video without consent is the goal. Others have expressed concern that Glass developers will be able to create porn apps that allow wearers to view this form of media from anywhere, in the presence of anyone. Still others have pointed out that Glass developers could create facial recognition software. Fortunately, Google has reassured the public that neither porn nor facial recognition apps will be allowed in the market.

Lastly, there’s the aspect of privacy in terms of data. Google Glass syncs up with Google’s search engine as well as Google’s email and other offerings. Google has been accused of giving data without the user’s consent to the government and, in effect, aiding the government in spying on private citizens’ email, search engine requests etc. The same issues could apply with Glass, as well as the additional issues of Glass’ ability to record what the wearer is seeing. For instance, Google could authorize the government to remotely turn on Glass’ video recording capability without the wearer’s knowledge, which would then allow the government to see what the wearer is doing. Google hasn’t really said either way if this concern is even a real possibility; however, people tend to assume the worst when it comes to Google and private data, so it’s a huge concern with Google Glass at this point.

While Glass obviously has its positives and negatives, it’s still capable of  being a significant part of the future of wearable computing. Glass shows us all of the possibilities that exist with this type of computing, as well as the issues that must be fixed before it can become as integrated into society as the desktop/laptop computer, the tablet or the smartphone. However, Glass is not the only wearable computer set to hit the general public soon.

Google’s biggest rival is arguably Apple, as Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android have been competing for years. When it comes to wearable computing, this could be another area in which Apple and Google compete with one another. While Google has their Glass, Apple has been rumored to be working on an iWatch for a while now. With the iPhone 5S recently being announced, some are even predicting that the iPhone 5S will usher in Apple’s era of wearable computers. Gigaom writer Chris Brandick feels that Apple’s iPhone 5S A7 chip could be a sign that an iWatch is on the way.

The A7 chip is capable of feeding data into apps, running background applications and conserving battery life. It functions separately from the iPhone 5S’ primary A7 processor as it senses when you’re walking, running, or driving. One example of the chip’s use here is its use in Nike’s upcoming Nike+ move app, where the chip tracks motion. In theory, the chip could be used in an iWatch. The iWatch could track the number of steps you take, the calories you burn. It could sync up with your iPhone so that you can check your email from your watch, get directions to a place, search the web, do everything that you could do on the iPhone, but without having to carry it. Much like Google’s Glass, except without wearing a pair of glasses that look sort of out of place. Although Apple has not announced the iWatch yet, it is expected to happen within the next year or two, possibly next year right around the same time as Google Glass hits shelves.

It’s worth noting that there is an a wristband attachment offered for the iPod Nano 6th generation player that effectively converts the Nano to a wearable computer. However, it is not as full featured as the iWatch will likely be.

Another example of a potential revolutionary wearable computer is the Sony SmartWatch. The SmartWatch is more like the iWatch than Google Glass as it syncs up with a compatible Android device, such as a smartphone or a tablet. The SmartWatch works via Bluetooth and is capable of relaying notifications from your phone. For instance, if you get a new email, the SmartWatch will display the notification. Or if you have an incoming call, the SmartWatch will alert you to it in real time. This especially comes in handy for those times where you have silenced your phone, or have placed it at the bottom of a bag and are unable to hear the notification. The SmartWatch has a three-level microdisplay, which means it supports tap and swipe actions, as well as a long press to open the options menu. Apps can be downloaded from the Google Play store for the SmartWatch, which extends its usability.

Although the SmartWatch isn’t going to replace a smartphone like Google Glass might down the line, it is a pretty compelling accessory for Android devices. With a $99 pricetag—which is likely less than what Glass will cost when it comes out in 2014—it’s also affordable for the average smartphone user. The device has apparently sold well enough, as Sony is soon coming out with a SmartWatch 2 that promises to have new features and a more refined look.

With devices like Google Glass, the possible iWatch, and the Sony SmartWatch 2 on the way, the future of wearable computing looks bright. Although it’s still unknown whether or not wearable computing will catch on as smartphones and tablets have, it’s pretty obvious the potential uses for this technology, as I’ve pointed out here. This is technology that could make capturing every moment, losing weight and keeping track of notifications easier. It is technology that could even be used in military or other security applications. It should be interesting to see where wearable computing goes in the next 5 or 10 years. It is certainly technology that is ripe for development and a multitude of applications.


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