What do we mean by wearable computing? Think Google Glass or the Sony Smartwatch: compact, personal gadgets that are, as the name suggests, attached to your body in some way.
More than just telling the time
That image of Dick Tracy taking a video call with his watch has never been far from the minds of hardware designers and smartwatches have been tried many times in the past. For example, LG released its 3G GD910 watch phone in 2009, and in 2003 Palm launched the Fossil Wrist PDA, a chunky wrist-mounted computer.
But these and other watches were typically marred by ugly, bulky designs, poor battery life and worse performance. Recent attempts have been far superior, taking advantage of improvements to miniaturisation as well as learning from past mistakes.
The Pebble smartwatch launched this year after a huge Kickstarter funding campaign and offers a battery efficient e-ink display and a focus on smartphone notifications, throwing up your text messages and incoming calls, as well as supporting custom watch faces and apps. The Pebble’s success appears to have prompted major companies to take notice of this space.
It’s also interesting to note the impact of Apple’s sixth generation iPod Nano. This tiny device with its square display looked like a strap-less watch, and indeed it didn’t take long for fans to build their own wrist strap mounts. That Apple is rumoured to be working on its own watch may be the reason the latest iPod Nano does not use the same design.
But smartwatches are just an early and relatively basic example of wearable computing. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, they won’t do much more than act as a second screen for a smartphone.
For the revolutionary developments we only need to look at Google Glass. This unusual project uses a head-mounted computer with a camera and is enabled for voice and gesture control, so you can take a picture with a blink or send text messages with voice commands.
Right now it’s a little bulky and not at all subtle, and critics have (rightly) pointed out that you can’t avoid looking dorky while wearing Glass. But it’s just the first generation. Remember, when mobile phones first arrived they were huge handsets with batteries the size of a briefcase.
Google Glass seamlessly integrated into the frame of a standard pair of glasses would be a very different proposition.
Unwanted side effects
Wearable computing is an exciting subject. And aside from geeking out over the cool applications, there is the potential for it to benefit society.
Google Glass being controlled by voice and eye gestures means that technology like this could aid people affected by paralysis. Maybe the armed forces and emergency services will have such devices to aid them in their jobs.
But there are some negatives to consider, particularly surrounding our privacy. Many of us would feel uncomfortable talking to someone with a head-mounted camera, knowing they could be recording every moment. And what’s to stop someone standing at a beach or a children’s playground, quietly snapping pictures or taking video without alerting the public?
And there’s the concern about how much gadgets like this reveal about ourselves. This is already a problem with smartphones, which constantly record their location using cell towers or GPS location, allowing our every movement to be tracked. Given the recent revelations of the extent of the American government’s surveillance activities there’s likely to be a great deal of apprehension about accepting such personal technology.