Wearable Tech: Past, Present and Future

by on Feb 04, 2014

On January 30th, Corporate Insight attended the Wearable Computing Conference 2014 in New York, the first of several similar events planned Gadget-overload-nike-fuelband-fitbit-flex-pebble-watcharound the country and the world. Over the course of the day, presenters – many of whom were “Explorers” sporting Google Glass – discussed the origins, current status and future outlook of wearable technology of all kinds.

First, Edgar Perez put the new trend in context with a concise history of wearables. One of the early iterations that stood out was the so-called “Sword of Damocles” in the 1960’s, an elaborate contraption with equipment worn on the head – and also suspended from the ceiling. Following that sinister-sounding device, wearable tech gradually became smaller and less cumbersome, with many advances from the famous Steven Mann, arguably the world’s first cyborg.

Sword of Damocles
Sword of Damocles
Today, wearable technology comes in a dizzying variety of forms, from eyewear to wristwatches to even textiles. However, Perez also made the point that the modern smartphone meets many of the qualifications of wearable tech – portable, always on, able to attract the user’s attention when not in use, (somewhat) sensitive to context. They fall short of the wearable ideal in that most functionality is not hands-free; smartphones are also notorious for monopolizing the user’s attention rather than accompanying or augmenting the real world.

Developing for Google Glass
Overall, presenters foresaw a bright future for wearable tech. Much of the excitement revolves around Google Glass, already a hot topic in the technology media despite its exclusivity. While Glassware development for the financial services industry is still in its infancy, there are some key takeaways from the conference to keep in mind when planning for and building on that device:

  • Screen Size – The usable screen size for Google Glass is just 640×360 pixels, well below the other devices for which firms have online presences or mobile apps. If Google Glass becomes another key service channel, financial services firms will not be excited to develop for yet another screen size. In that event, interfaces must be designed around simple “cards” that can be absorbed at a glance.
  • Touchpad – An important feature of Google Glass that many outside observers might not be aware of (including us, before the conference) is that it does actually include a touchpad, albeit an elongated one, along the earpiece. Not all functionality has to be usable through voice commands; Glassware can use taps and swipes as well.
  • Microinteractions – Some important shortcomings of the early Google Glass hardware is that the device heats up with more than a few minutes of continuous use. As such, Google has conceded that it is currently only appropriate for short “microinteractions.” Developers must keep this time limitation in mind when considering what functionality to include. Shorter activities such as checking balances make more sense than longer educational videos or investment research processes.


Google Glass Dissection
Google Glass Dissection
In broader terms, presenters emphasized the importance of creativity in wearable design. YosunChang emphatically argued that using Google Glass as just a handy camera or microphone wastes the potential of wearing an Android smartphone or even computer on your face. Developers have not yet found the limits of what wearable tech offers. As Cecilia Abadie (a developer also well-known for her brush with thelaw over wearing Google Glass while driving) noted, “The imagination of the developers exceeds the imagination of the inventors.”

Privacy Is a Concern
While presenters were also candid discussing technical shortcomings of current wearables, they may not have given privacy concerns the full consideration they deserve. Many made the point that oversharing is common through current mobile and social technology. The presenters were all entrenched in the tech culture, which must make that perspective seem even more prevalent. However, many people are already uncomfortable with the level of disclosure through wireless and social networks; privacy expectations should not be set to the lowest common denominator.

Google Glass & Mobile
Finally, a key question we put to several presenters was whether Google Glass and other wearables could eventually replace a smartphone, or if they would simply be another gadget consumers are expected to have on them at all times. Jennifer Levine seemed to hope that Google Glass could replace other devices, but Yosun Chang seemed more dubious, raising concerns about wearing a 3G or 4G wireless transmitter at your head for hours at a time. Wearable tech is definitely an exciting, fast-paced space, but for now and the foreseeable future, online and mobile remain the crucial channels to interact with customers.