Wearable computing devices have come to the forefront lately thanks to a convergence of technologies. Everyone is speculating about an Apple iWatch. Who's saying what, what are the prospects for this technology, and how could the technology affect our culture?
There are two technical avenues before us, and neither one is exclusive of the other. First, there are smart glasses, designed to directly display data in our visual field. Recently, I interviewed the CTO of APX Labs about the work his company is doing with smart glasses, "Can Smart Glasses Replace the Smartphone?" and it has a lot of good background information on the technology. And a side discussion of Google Glass.
The other technology is a wearable display. I mentioned this in Particle Debris on January 25 in the context of curved glass and a currently popular depiction in the SyFy TV show, Continuum. There, agent Kiera Cameron wears a device on her forearm that not only displays information but is a handy digital tool (and Taser).
Rachel Nichols plays Kiera Cameron on SyFy's Continuum -- has a device kind of like that on the right.
Each technology has its advantages. With smart glasses, there's no need to look at a distant, moving target, like an arm. There is an opportunity to overlay information in a helpful way. For example, augmented reality or alternate wavelength (infrared) vision. Sound and vision are easily integrated. On the other hand, those people who wear corrective lenses or prescription sunglasses will find it difficult to integrate smart glasses with their conventional eyewear. Technical advances in optics, however, might allow smart glasses to provide multi-functions: optical correction, opacity, polarization and digital data, all with good taste and style.
Smart glasses are especially useful for the military or surgeons, where the hands must remain free and mobile -- or may be encumbered. Wearable devices, like a smart wristwatch suffer less from the curent geek stigma of smart glasses that make one appear awkward -- but the cosmetics there continue to improve. A smart wristwatch doesn't have to solve certain optical problems, isn't as likely to get lost, and may be more amendable to casual consumer use.
The fact that Google is working with smart glasses and Apple is apparently leaning towards a smart wristwatch may say something about the expertise of each company, the patents they hold, and how they want to integrate their current technologies into the consumer space. However Nick Bilton with the NY Times in "Disruptions: Where Apple and Dick Tracy May Converge, notes: "Last year [Apple] filed patents for displays that sit over the eye and stream information to the retina." Plus, another enormous patent application by Apple has come to light that focuses on sensors and movement and leverages from Apple's previous work with Nike.
Rumors are that Apple has 100 people working its iWatch, a placeholder name only.
The problem nowadays is that a thin piece of curved (sturdy, tough) glass on the forearm, weighing perhaps an ounce or two, in order to remain light, likely wouldn't have the battery and processing power to be a stand alone device. That's why we're hearing about a first generation wristwatch that's tied to an iPhone via a wireless link. In time, I would expect the smart wristwatch to grow in size and power, but not weight, while the iPhone in the pocket shrinks and then disappears. In five years the smartphone will seem as ancient as a Sony Walkman.
I've seen two really good articles lately that lay out how such smart wristwatches might operate. The first is by the legendary Bruce Tognazzini: "The Apple iWatch." He goes into the human interface issues such as charging, (lack of) buttons, and, of course, design by Ive. The second is from one of my favorite writers, Jonny Evans, "5 wearable ideas Apple could borrow from sci-fi." Both these articles explore wearable computing devices in considerable detail.
One of the questions that has come up is whether a smart wristwatch would have a small, conventional display in its first iteration, like the Pebble, or whether it would be an ambitious, curved glass affair like this:
Image credit: gridgamecase
Everyone is talking about Corning's "Willow" curved glass as if that's the total answer, but of course, there are many other manufacturing issues to take into account before we can jump from a flat iPhone-like display to curved glass with all its attendant, high tech layers and capacitive touch. But that's definitely the future.
The Business Prospects for Apple
Some may view the idea of an Apple "iWatch" as a an attempt to demonstrate, in a strained way, innovation or to insert some jazz into the product line. But there's more than that going on. Advanced in technologies are making it clear that this is a palpable technological avenue that needs to be explored. The fact that many companies are working on this technology at the same time represents a technological current in the industry. The question is not, "is this a good idea?" The question, rather, is. "Who is going to implement this technology in the best, most commercially successful way?"
Another thing that Apple is really good at is developing a hierarchy of interoperable products. The original iPod wouldn't have been as useful without iTunes on a Mac. The iPad steps in when the iPhone can't do the job, and, in turn, is backed up seamlessly to the Mac. I would suspect that the rumored iWatch will fit into our lives in such a way that it complements an iPhone and brings utility that we hadn't really realized that we needed. When Apple can do that gracefully, the company will spring it on us.
A Changing Culture
All of this technology seems to be leading to the idea of an intelligent companion, instantiated with data and a vocal interface, namely Siri. Not only does the intelligent companion provide routine information, but assists with that oh-so important element of search. In Apple's world, an intelligent companion, with a Siri interface, is a powerful tool to combat Google. TMO's Bryan Chaffin recently explored this important aspect of Siri: "Apple Needs to Go Into Search."
We may not see it as the process of being smarter at first, because the technology is an add-on. Without it, we're stranded, helpless. However, from an external perspective, beings that act smarter can be taken as being smarter in an objective sense. And we're already doing that. We avoid bad weather thanks to our weather apps, we seldom get lost anymore with Google maps, apps can find where we parked our car and we don't forget to buy butter when we're in the grocery store. The next level of intelligent companion will drive us to even higher levels.
The question is, who will be the master? Will an intelligent companion steer us towards the maker's goals or will it be an enabler that allows us to be more human, more productive in a positive sense?
Image credit: The Blue Mountain Shepherd
Perhaps Jonathan Ive is working on that too.