A recent study by NPD found that about half of those surveyed had "heard of" smart watches, wearable fitness gadgets and smart glasses (which makes you really wonder about the other half) and of the more savvy 52%, almost 60% of prospective buyers of wearable tech are women. That being the case, why then is wearable tech so ungodly ugly? "I half expected that the Neptune Pine (right) was some kind of hoax," observes an exasperated Belinda Parmar of Lady Geek about the much buzzed-about entry into the smart watch market. "It looked like a lunchbox strapped to the skinny wrist of the booth-babe." (image)
Google employees don't like wearing Google Glass, probably for the same reason Wired's Mat Honan doesn't, deeming it kind of weird and definitely rude. "Google's head-mounted computer can make just about anybody look as if they've been assimilated by The Borg," continues Parmar. "It is without doubt a masterpiece of engineering but not the sort of thing that can be worn anywhere." (image)
And while the Navigate Jacket (top) is designed to worn everywhere, the question is, would ya? It contains shoulder pads that are meant to replace your smartphone's nav by vibrating to guide you to wherever you're going. When you reach your destination, it double-taps you.
I don't get it, either.
The confusion and lack of decently-designed devices probably reflects the fact a key element is missing that has long characterized all wearable tech of the last several thousand years, from armor and swords to pocket watches. In addition to the literal function of the technology - armor protects; watches tell time - there is what Intel's director of the interaction and experience research group, anthropologist Genevieve Bell, calls the symbolic function. "The armor and the coat of arms on it say 'I’m on his team, keep away.' Watches from 200 years ago said, 'Not only do I have the money to have a timepiece, but I believe in punctuality.'" Currently, wearable tech untethers us from the limits of geography, extending our reach and physicality, but the symbolic function remains undefined. (I'm talking to you, leopard-print covered USB strap-turned-bracelet.) "The choices about what you have on your body are entirely personal, but how they’re read by others is slightly out of your control and it’s a symbolic transaction," explains Bell. "At the moment we’re still very much in the “task” piece of wearable computing, not in the symbolic “how do we make sense of it” piece."
As computing continues to shrink and downsize, symbolic questions follow, including whether a next-gen TV is actually no longer a TV, but a large laptop. And smartphones... just fancier, footloose versions of a landline, or something more? "Smartphones only got interesting when people stopped thinking of them as phones," continues Bell. "Once people stopped being held hostage to the idea that smartphones were like old-fashioned phones, they could imagine that they needed to do all kinds of other things like good gaming and good photography. In my mind, the central promise of a smartphone is that you’ll never be bored again. You’ll never be without something to do." (image)
Although smartphones are morphing and shrinking to fit the real estate of the wrist, they are still schlepping big baggage made of up "old metaphors of computation". These outmoded views limit wearables to being either a smaller smartphone or a teensy computer. However, once we liberate how we perceive what the devices do, once we step out of the *either-a-small-smartphone-or-computer* box and allow in new possibilties created by new technology, the wearable tech space will transform. "It will become much more interesting when we let go...and work out the promise that wearable computing will make to us," adds Bell. "To me the wearables space is so nascent that we haven’t worked out what the promises are yet."
In particular, how to weave together the functionality with the symbolic and then what the symbolic part actually says to others. (image)
Here is the podcast I recorded - please let me know on Facebook what you think!
Music: Kevin MacLeod, Incompetech.com
- Lesley Scott