Wearing the future

Current wearable computing technology is just scratching the surface — the really interesting tech has yet to be invented.

In an interview at SXSW, Google’s Sundar Pichai said something about wearables that I’ve been waiting to hear. Wearables aren’t about Google Glass; they aren’t about smart watches; they’re much, much more, and these technologies are only scratching the surface.

I’ve tweaked Apple a couple of times for their inability to deliver a watch, despite years of leaks and rumors. I suspect that products from competitors have forced them to pivot a few times, rethinking and delaying their product. But the bottom line is that I don’t care; I don’t wear a watch, haven’t for a long time, and I’m not about to start. Just not interested.

I’m more interested in Glass, but I’ve been amazed at how few people are listening to what Google has said about it: it’s an experiment. It’s not the endpoint, not the product. Given the excitement it has produced, Google would be foolish not to sell it. But really: it’s ugly, it’s a prototype, it’s a mockup. Five years from now, will we all be walking around with Google Glass hanging from designer frames? I doubt it. And I bet Pichai, Brin, and Page doubt it, too. It’s an experiment; it will show us what’s interesting, and point toward what to build next. It’s not the end result.

What could wearable computing be? When Jon Bruner and I were writing Building a Solid World, we considered a couple of possibilities that ended up on the cutting floor. Your clothing could “announce” itself to a washer or drier, so you wouldn’t wash your colors in hot water, or dry your shrinkables on high. Your shirt could have sensors that measured your stress levels and communicated to your smart car (if it wasn’t already driving itself), so it could optimize the way it behaves and the information it presents.

I haven’t heard much discussion of computational footwear, but that’s certainly likely. It makes more sense to build a Fitbit into your shoe than to hang it on your belt; I know too many people who have lost three, four, five fitbits. It’s hard (though not impossible) to lose a shoe, and I bet the data would be more accurate, too. Shoe manufacturers have made a mint selling different shoes for running, walking, jogging, strolling, etc.; with wearable computing and smart materials, could one shoe detect what you’re doing and optimize itself?

I’ll stop here; I’m not interested in writing a list of fantasies about the clothing of the future. A lot of what we’re doing now will no doubt seem silly in a decade. But I am glad that Pichai is stating what seems to me obvious: wearable computing isn’t about Glass, it isn’t about the iWatch, it’s something bigger that we haven’t invented yet.

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