May 9th, 2012
I’ve been reading all the excitement surrounding Google’s new augmented reality project, Google Glasses.
In case you missed it, these are essentially Oakley-style sunglasses with a lens-mounted HUD (the head-up display fighter pilots use for altitude, vector, targeting etc.). Wearing a pair, you can read and compose emails, view calendar events, check the weather, take phone calls and, according to the promo video accompanying the launch, learn to play the ukulele.
While this all may appear like great fun, it’s being touted by some quite serious tech journos as nothing less than the natural replacement for the smartphone as our primary communications device.
They’re dead wrong.
Information isn’t moving to the bridge of your nose. It’s moving to the end of your arm. Even people who wear glasses don’t always wear glasses. Whereas, for most people at least, a watch is something you feel naked without. We even sleep and shower wearing them.
And, if this is to be the next information interface, at least in conjunction with the smartphone in your pocket, shouldn’t it be where most people have most access to it most often?
Now, before you start bringing up the fact that smart-watches have been attempted before – Microsoft SPOT anyone? – I’d remind you that tablets had also been around for years before someone made them the hottest tech on the planet.
Sooner or later, science always catches up with the concept. Power is better managed, silicon is made smaller and more powerful, promise becomes reality.
But it isn’t solely the display of at-a-glance information that makes watches the perfect communication accessory.
Near-field is near.
Despite all the false-starts, NFC is going to happen. And, when it does in earnest, it’ll spread like a fire at a match factory. It will offer new applications by the hour, literally.
Nowhere will this shift be more tectonic than in replacing things you hand over. Using your hands. And that makes a watch a far better option than a phone or pair of glasses.
Think about it, you’re getting the train home after some Christmas shopping. You have half a dozen bags on each arm and your grizzly six-year-old has totally lost their sense of festive wonder and wants carrying – too bad your train leaves in less than two minutes.
So you hurriedly approach one of only three barriers not displaying a red diagonal cross and, while trying not to lose your first-born in the sea of fellow travellers, you attempt to shift all the bags onto one arm and fumble past your heavy coat for the pocket containing your NFC-enabled smartphone.
Once you’ve got hold of it, you pop it between your teeth and start patting down little Alfie for his. You’re going to be really popular with everyone at this point.
Of course, if you’re wearing smart-glasses, and presuming you don’t have to get them out of their protective case first, you could simply bend over at the waist and place your face close enough to the sensor to open the gate.
Then, when you regain consciousness after being knocked into the barrier by the onrushing commuter behind you, you can marvel at how easy this new technology has made your life.
How much more practical it would be if you were simply to wave your hand, Jedi-like, and have the gate obediently open up before you. No fumbling, no awkward bodily adjustments, no trauma injury to the head.
While Google hasn’t implied that their space-age specs will even utilise NFC, if they’re talking about them replacing the mobile phone – and they are – then they’ll have to. People don’t want to carry any more devices than necessary, as the decline in sales of digital cameras, mp3 players and PDAs will attest.
Well you can now add traditional watches to technology’s death-row.
Your next watch is going to be your Oyster card, your wallet, your work security pass, your Tesco Clubcard, your train tickets. Followed before long by your car and house keys.
These are things you use multiple times daily – and they don’t belong on anything that has to be taken out of your pocket or off your nose. They belong on the end of an eminently dexterous appendage that can quickly, accurately and naturally place a chip inside a near-field bubble with a single, effortless motion.
The clues are out there.
I’m pretty sure Apple’s seemingly off the cuff suggestion at the launch of the 6th gen iPod nano in 2010 – that it could be used as a wristwatch – wasn’t a casual comment at all.
Instead, it was the first move in getting people used to the idea of a watch as an extension of a smartphone or tablet.
Already, at least a dozen third parties make straps for it. But just wait until it comes with everything NFC offers, and Bluetooth so you can read texts and emails from the smartphone in your pocket. Bung in a wireless headset and you’ll be able to place calls from it. Change the strap, and you’ll have an always-on heart monitor.
Clearly, you’re never going to want to read the FT, play Angry Birds or watch the director’s cut of Aliens on the thing; but it accomplishes enough well enough to justify itself as a new, truly useful adjunct where nothing existed before.
I might be going out on a limb, predicting that next-gen communicators are going out on a limb. But I feel that nature sides with me on this. Your hands have evolved on the end of long, multi-pinioned arms for a reason: to allow them to move effortlessly through a multitude of different positions.
Why would we assume to second guess this natural selection by putting the most essential of tools on your face?
Besides a few cute applications, like turn-by-turn directions and watching porn on your daily commute, the idea of forcing communication into a pair of glasses is an idea destined for extinction.
It simply lacks vision.