A CNET Article on Wearable Computer Gear
Data will not help you if you can’t see it when you need it. For Dan Eisenhardt—a competitive swimmer for more than a decade, beginning as a 9-year-old in his native Denmark—the data he needed in the water, what he could never know in the water, was his splits. His event was the 1,500-meter freestyle, the longest slog in the sport, a near-mile of grinding exertion divided into 15 laps of 100 meters apiece. As with every distance sport, pacing is all; lag your target time on the first two laps and you may never catch up, but accidentally beat it and you’ll load your tissue with lactic acid, doom your endgame. How fast was his last lap? How did it compare to his usual pace? His coach up on the pool deck could know, his parents in the stands could know. But Eisenhardt, at war in the water, could only guess.
The rigors of engineering school eventually forced Eisenhardt to stop racing. He worked for a while as a management consultant. But later, during business school, while he was spending an exchange semester at the University of British Columbia, the problem nagged at him again. For a project in an entrepreneurship class, he pitched a business plan: data-enabled goggles for swimmers like his former self. He teamed up with some other students, and they soon concluded they had the wrong sport. Swim goggles were too small to support a screen, plus the athletes were too few in number—and too unaccustomed to shelling out for expensive gear. Close at hand in wintry Canada, though, was a better idea. In January 2008, after a year or so of tinkering, four of the classmates founded Recon Instruments.
Their first product, Recon Snow, is a heads-up display for skiers and snowboarders. From the outside it looks just like any set of ski goggles. But tucked below the right eye is a little display, controllable by a simple remote—snow-proof with big, chunky buttons—that clips to a jacket. The main screen is a dashboard that shows speed, altitude, and vertical descent. There’s also a navigation view that uses the built-in GPS to plot position on a resort map, as well as an app screen that offers access to a camera. Through Bluetooth, the display integrates with a smartphone, letting skiers play music, answer calls, and see text messages or other notifications. Recon has sold 50,000 of the Snow so far, and the second generation, Snow2, came out in November. The company’s next product—Jet, designed for cyclists, with voice control and gaze detection for hands-free use—will ship in March.
Recon Heads-Up Display | From the outside, the only real sign that anything’s different about these Oakley goggles is a tiny red logo on the right. On the inside, though, the Recon Snow2 (starting at $399) sports an ingenious display that lets skiers and snowboarders stay connected on the slopes. With an armband-mounted remote control, users can toggle between a few simple screens showing speed and more. Friends using Recon devices at the same resort can keep track of one another on a map. Recon sold 50,000 pairs of its first-generation goggles, and the company’s second product—Jet, designed for cyclists, with voice control and gaze detection for totally hands-free use—goes on sale in March.
Technically, the Recon doesn’t do anything that the average smartphone couldn’t. The lavish array of sensors in today’s phones can chart speed and altitude; social networking apps can find friends and set up voice or video chats; any number of map apps can navigate users down a mountain. That is, a smartphone would do those things—if users could access it on a ski slope or cycling run. But they can’t, at least not without risking a crack in their screen or their head. What Recon sells is the ability to see all the crucial data, and only the crucial data, at times when it would otherwise remain locked away. It brings the power of the smartphone out of your pocket and into your field of vision, accessible any time you glance its way.
This is the promise of wearable technology, and it’s the reason—after more than 20 years of tinkering by cybernetics enthusiasts—we’re finally seeing an explosion of these devices on the market. It’s the reason Google has poured millions into an improbable set of eyeglasses, why Samsung has unveiled a companion watch for its smartphones, and why Apple is widely rumored to be exploring something similar. It’s the reason tiny companies banked thousands of preorders last year for smartwatches, gesture-controlled armbands, transmitting rings, notification bracelets, and more. A new device revolution is at hand: Just as mobile phones and tablets displaced the once-dominant PC, so wearable devices are poised to push smartphones aside.
In purely technological terms, the wearable revolution could take shape much faster than the mobile revolution that preceded it. Thanks to what former WIRED editor in chief Chris Anderson has called the “peace dividend of the smartphone wars,” sensors and chip sets are cheaper now than ever, making it easier for small companies to incorporate sophisticated hardware into wearable devices. And while smartphone manufacturers had to master the tricky art of providing dependable mobile Internet service, wearable manufacturers can piggyback on those innovations using simple Bluetooth or other protocols to communicate with a smartphone and thus with the outside world. With all that prebaked hardware and wireless connectivity—and huge preorders from crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter—it has become possible for tiny companies to dream up, build, and sell wearable devices in competition with big companies, a feat that was never possible with smartphones.
It may seem laughable to suggest that people will soon neglect their iPhones in favor of amped-up watches, eyeglasses, rings, and bracelets. But then again, 10 years ago it seemed laughable to think that people would use their smartphones to email, surf the web, play games, watch videos, keep calendars, and take notes—all once core tasks of desktop PCs. We can already see how wearable devices might peel off some of the phone’s key functions: One study of smartphone users indicates that on average we unlock our gadgets more than 100 times a day, with some of us pawing at screens far more often than that. Internet analyst Mary Meeker estimates that as many as two-thirds of those uses could be handled with a wearable device.
To get there, though, pure functionality won’t be enough. After all, people could surf the web on their BlackBerrys; smartphones didn’t really take off until the advent of the iPhone, a device that launched an aesthetic transformation in the tech industry, as design went from an afterthought to a corporate necessity, a core competency prized no less than the ability to make a faster chip or stable operating system. Wearable devices—technology that people will want to display on their bodies, for all to see—represent a new threshold in aesthetics. The tech companies that mastered design will now need to conquer the entirely different realm of fashion. And that could require technologists to unlearn a great deal of what they think they know.
These days Thad Starner, a wearables pioneer who now serves as technical lead for Google Glass, cuts the figure of a casual-chic tech executive, with stylishly cropped blond hair and a penchant for plain black T-shirts. But when I meet him at a Google office complex in Mountain View, he turns his laptop toward me and presses Play on an artifact from his deeply unfashionable past. It’s a grainy clip from 60 Minutes in which Morley Safer challenges Starner—then a scraggly-haired kid with a goatee, dark trench coat, and black Ho Ho-sized object affixed to his left eye—to carry out what was then his parlor trick: retrieving any piece of information in 30 seconds.
“Give me the lifetime average and number of home runs, doubles, singles, and triples of Mickey Mantle,” Safer says.
Thad Starner, 44, started wearing a head-mounted display as an MIT grad student in the ’90s. Now he’s the technical lead for Google Glass. Rob Felt/Georgia Tech Dan Goldman
“How do you spell Mantle?” Starner asks. He types the name on a one-handed keyboard (a “Twiddler” that used combinations of 12 buttons to span the whole range of characters) and peers into his eye-screen.
“I’m getting a lot of hits on that,” he says, a touch of nervousness in his voice.
“So did he,” Safer retorts.
The year was 1997, and the task took Starner far longer than he’d hoped. He eventually got there by scouring results on AltaVista, the world’s best search engine at the time: “The right hit was often in the top 14 but not the top one,” Starner now recalls.
Thirteen years later Starner came to work for the company that finally perfected Internet searching. Google made it significantly easier and faster for people to find the information they were seeking, a process that has only sped up in recent years. Google Search, for example, now not only auto-completes but auto-searches, Starner points out. “You don’t even have to get all the way through your first word and it might have the right piece of information for you.” It all comes down to what Google CEO Larry Page calls “reducing the time between intention and action,” words that Starner calls a mission statement.
That dovetails exactly with Starner’s vision of how wearables can revolutionize the way we access technology in our everyday lives. He cites a seminal 1968 paper by Robert B. Miller, an IBM psychologist who spent years studying early computer operators. It identifies a crucial threshold of human behavior with machines: We’re inclined to give up on them if they take more than two seconds to respond to an instruction. In his own research as a longtime professor at Georgia Tech, Starner found the same rule of thumb applies to accessing devices themselves. He calls it the magic two-second rule. “If you can’t get to a tool within two seconds,” he says, “your use of it goes down exponentially.” Even today, smartphones have trouble meeting that standard. By the time we extract them from our skinny jeans, swipe, type a passcode, and find our way to whichever app we wanted, the moment has usually passed.
Wearables reduce that friction. That’s the selling point of Recon Instruments, and it’s the same promise that Mary Meeker sees when she imagines wearables replacing many of our smartphone interactions. When you put on Google Glass—or, say, the Pebble smartwatch, whose unprecedented $10.3 million Kickstarter campaign two years ago arguably helped launch the wearable era—you suddenly have a window into your phone, with your calls, texts, and emails popping up on a glanceable screen as they flow in. In the case of Glass or some of the other smartwatches on the market, you even get a camera and voice recorder to document the world around you.
But reducing the time between intention and action goes much further than that. In many of the most cutting-edge applications for wearables, the time between intention and action is actually negative: The device knows what users want before they want it. The heart of the Glass experience is Google Now, the company’s attempt to divine and deliver needed information based on context. Observing your driving patterns, the app gives traffic updates when you’re almost ready to ask for them; scanning your calendar, it displays an alert when it’s time to leave and gives you directions too. Google Now is already available for Android and iOS, but requiring users to check an app on a phone defeats the whole purpose. It’s a perfect fit for wearables, though, because it gives instant, even predictive information to get you through the day.
For all its portability, the smartphone still has a distracting screen that pulls us away from whatever else we’re doing—in the car, in business meetings, at restaurants. Wearables, by contrast, are a gateway to augmented reality, a more ubiquitous but less distracting data layer that gives us constant intelligence about the world around us—and keeps our attention grounded in that world, rather than off in the digital ether. Phil Libin, CEO of the cross-platform note-taking app Evernote and a big proponent of the promise of wearables, sees Google Now–like applications as his company’s future. The ultimate effect of these devices, he says, will be to “make you more aware, more mindful. They’ll reduce the number of seconds in the day when you’re confused. That’s what this whole connected universe will do. It will make you a functionally smarter human being.”
Sonny Vu’s graceful aluminum disc matches the functionality of other trackers in a stylish, minimalist form.
This new world of wearables will never arrive if nobody consents to wear them. Such is the problem that weighs on Sonny Vu, CEO of Misfit Wearables, a startup dedicated to creating devices that truly deserve to be called fashionable. Misfit’s name is appropriate, at least as it pertains to its office in a drab residential section of Daly City, California. Crammed into a two-bedroom town house, the growing company threatens to resemble a very unfashionable sweatshop. The hardware team occupies one small bedroom, software the other. Shipping hangs out in the dining room, right up against the tiny kitchen. “We used to have a garden,” Vu says, gesturing out the sliding-glass door, “but all the plants died.”
Despite the overstuffed surroundings, Misfit’s first product, the Shine activity tracker, is a study in spare elegance. It’s a graceful aluminum disc just over an inch in diameter. A set of simple accessories allows it to be worn in multiple ways: as a pin, a pendant, a wristband, or even a timepiece (a ring of tiny lights around Shine’s perimeter indicates the time).
Vu’s goal with Shine was to make a fitness tracker that women in particular would be willing to show off. Most of the current trackers, Vu says, “look like they were made by Silicon Valley men for Silicon Valley men,” using materials such as plastic and rubber that are more suited for utilitarian gadgets than stylish accessories. Worse, most fitness trackers are designed to be worn on the wrist—but Misfit’s research found that 30 percent of women say they would never wear a device there, either because they already own a watch or bracelet they like or because they refuse to wear anything there at all.
Wearables, Vu has concluded, “need to be either gorgeous or invisible,” and his first product goes a long way toward gorgeous. But it’s also worth pondering the ways in which gorgeous isn’t enough. For example, as a physical object, Google Glass is arguably quite attractive, with its curved titanium headband and well-proportioned computing assembly poised just above the right eye. Ride the elevator up to Google’s “concierge” space in its San Francisco offices, where buyers get fitted with one of five tasteful Glass colors—Shale, Tangerine, Charcoal, Cotton, or Sky—while attractive Glass-wearing staff serve complimentary drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and Google Glass seems almost fashionable. But the evidence suggests that out in the real world, it simply isn’t; six months into the experiment, even hardcore tech boosters who once wrote glowingly of Glass were seldom seen actually wearing the thing. (And these are some of the least fashion-conscious people on the planet.)
The problem with Google Glass is not that it’s bad industrial design. Google, like the rest of Silicon Valley, has learned a great deal about how to make an aesthetically pleasing product. But Glass is meant to be a highly visible addition to someone’s body as they walk around in public. That demands more than just a gorgeous product; it demands a fashionable product. And the tricky task of wearables makers will be to understand the distinction.
One can boil that difference down to two basic rules. The first is what we might call—with apologies for the vulgarism—the Bluedouche principle. For those who don’t remember the term, it’s an epithet hurled circa 2007 at anyone who walked around talking on a Bluetooth earpiece all day. For all their functionality, and for all the attempts to make more stylish models (Jawbone sells beautiful and highly ingenious ones), earpieces have never succeeded in shedding this fundamental perception of lameness. That’s because wearing technology sends a pointed social message, which can render even the best industrial design superfluous.
Consider: However gorgeous a Bluetooth earpiece, it fundamentally says that its wearer might need to make or receive a call at any time—and for most people, that’s not a cool message to send. It makes the wearer look like they jump at the world’s beck and call rather than engaging with it on their own terms. It’s hardly coincidental that the demographics in which the earpieces seem to have caught on (salespeople, say, or small-business owners) tend to value that kind of always-on hustling. One imagines that some of them keep their earpieces in even when they’ve forgotten to charge them up. Similarly, successful wearable devices will need to convey a message to the world that the wearer is happy to send—even if the batteries are dead.
If the first rule presents a challenge for wearables as they gain acceptance, the second will present a problem once they really take off. Call this the Trucker Hat principle, after the low-fashion item that became popular as a hipster accessory in the early aughts and then lost steam precisely for its popularity. Everybody was wearing one, so it wasn’t cool anymore. Here’s yet another way the design lessons of the smartphone era won’t apply in the wearables age. If you walk into a business meeting where everyone has the same phone as you, you’re not likely to care very much. But what if you walked into that same meeting and five other people were wearing the exact same eyeglasses as you? Or even the same frame in five different colors—say, white, pink, yellow, blue, and green, to name the five hues that grace Apple’s stylish (but not, by this definition, fashionable) iPhone 5c? You might as well all be wearing the same trucker hat.
This urge for individuality is so well known in fashion research that there is even a quantitative measure of it called the consumer need for uniqueness scale. Developed by three marketing professors in 2001, the CNFU test consists of 31 first-person statements—for example, “I collect unusual products as a way of telling people I’m different” or “When a style of clothing I own becomes too commonplace, I usually quit wearing it”—statements the subject ranks on a scale of 1 to 5. In most study groups, there’s a wide variation in CNFU scores, but nearly everyone who takes the test will reveal at least some desire for uniqueness.
The tech industry isn’t immune to this drive for individuality. Witness Apple’s legendary “1984″ and “Think Different” ad campaigns, which encouraged customers to distinguish themselves from the brainwashed hordes. But even Apple users didn’t expect that their computer would express their personality and style to the same extent their clothing did. Now tech companies will be competing in product categories—wristwatches, glasses, other fashionable accessories—where even the least fashion-conscious consumers demand a great degree of uniqueness and variety.
In these early days, it’s the Bluedouche problem—the social message that our wearable tech is sending—that most needs to be overcome. That’s why some of the most promising devices today are simple, targeted products that allow for more elegant form factors and a more streamlined sales pitch. Sonny Vu calls this use-case engineering, meaning a tight focus on one particular function, such as notifications. “Right now what we’re seeing with smartwatches is that they’re like smartphones you can wear on your wrist,” Vu says. “I don’t think that’s the way to go.”
Vu said this in September, a week before Samsung unveiled its Galaxy Gear smartwatch, but it was as if he’d been given a sneak peek at the device. Technologically speaking, the Galaxy Gear is impressive, with its bright 1.6-inch touchscreen, 1.9-megapixel camera on the side of the wristband, and Dick Tracy-style speaker underneath it, at the clasp. Thanks to support for S Voice, Samsung’s (not quite as capable) answer to Siri, the Gear can reply to text messages, add to a calendar, dial a contact, and more. Testing out the Galaxy Gear is a revelation, because it’s a chance to step a little farther into that possible future, a few hops down that plausible timeline in which wearables subsume the functions of our phones.
Based on early reviews, though, this maximalist approach has possibly been a mistake. “Nobody will buy this watch, and nobody should,” sniffed former New York Times columnist David Pogue in a representative review. Some of this response has to do with tech limitations—at launch, the Galaxy Gear was compatible with only one phone and had just a handful of apps. But some has to do with the social message such an all-encompassing device sends—namely, “I’m wearing a fully functional computing device on my body.” Contrast that with the stand-alone fitness tracker, like the Jawbone Up or the Nike FuelBand. By sending a more constrained and acceptable social message (“I’m sporty”) and hewing to Vu’s advice of doing one thing well, those devices have forged the first profitable path to the future of wearable computing.
Two recent Kickstarter projects, scheduled to hit the market at the beginning of 2014, take that lesson further. One, the NFC Ring, is the brainchild of John McLear, a web developer in the British city of Bradford who hit on his big idea after his girlfriend “kept shouting at me about leaving the front door unlocked,” he says. So he came up with a simple way to unlock a door with no key: Make a ring, the simplest and most unassuming genre of jewelry, but embed a near-field-communication chip into it. That chip lets the ring talk not just to NFC-enabled door locks (available off the shelf) but also to a host of other systems, including touchless payment networks that are already widely used in the UK and Europe. McLear also offered a wealth of different looks—not just various sizes but colors of metal, inlays, and anodized coatings. The Ring beat the Bluedouche problem by offering very specific functionality while surmounting the Trucker Hat problem with an array of unique choices. Fifteen thousand preorders flowed in.
The second intriguing example is the Embrace+, a simple device for delivering notifications from your smartphone. But here’s the twist: It doesn’t have a screen. Through a smartphone app, users can program the Embrace+—a translucent bracelet with LEDs hidden inside—to flash different colors, depending on the message being conveyed. If a best friend calls, it might flash red; if a post gets liked on Facebook, orange; and so on. Perhaps owing to the current demographics of Kickstarter users, a surprising portion of the project’s roughly 4,500 backers are thirtysomething men, says Rudi Beijnen, the Dutch expat in Shenzhen, China, who heads up the project. But he imagines, logically enough, that the device will eventually find a market among teenage girls who can’t always look at their phones—in English class, for instance. By eschewing a screen for a suggestive set of lights, it manages to skirt the Bluedouche problem, turning a wrist-mounted wearable into a subtle act of adolescent rebellion.
Not long ago in New York, I visited the SoHo showroom of a boutique watchmaker called House of Horology. There I met the two principal collaborators behind the Agent smartwatch, another Kickstarter campaign (more than 5,600 backers have pledged in excess of $1 million so far), whose first units are scheduled to ship in early 2014 and who personify the coming merger of tech and fashion. Indeed, the two men embody their respective realms almost comically. The tech brains and prime mover behind the Agent project is Chris Walker, 35, a rotund baby-faced Idahoan packed into a charcoal suit. The style is supplied by Lawrence Leyderman, House of Horology’s 31-year-old proprietor, a New York City native wearing a mustardy-tan hoodie and cargo shorts.
Leyderman comes from a watch family (his father owns a watch-repair shop in Midtown), and he grew up admiring boxy “pilot”-style models from such European watch houses as Panerai, Audemars, and Bell & Ross. Their influence is clearly visible in Leyderman’s own line of Bedlam watches, which he began selling in 2012 to great acclaim; last spring, New York magazine named his shop the best men’s watch store in the city. Walker already knew he wanted to build a fashionable smartwatch when he stumbled across the store last January. He suggested a partnership, and Leyderman began developing his take on the design: a chunky, vaguely military-looking frame cast in metal with an irregular 12-sided face, plus a thick leather or rubber strap with contrast stitching. Today the two are putting the finishing touches on Agent, which they ambitiously imagine as the world’s best smartwatch along just about every dimension: function, stability, security, and—best of all—coolness.
So far this kind of marriage between technology and fashion thinking remains vanishingly rare. Among big companies, perhaps the most notable example is Beats by Dre, the ubiquitous headphones that kids all around the country wear on their ears or, tellingly, around their necks—that is, when they’re not even listening to them. Though Beats is based in Santa Monica, near the Hollywood-industrial complex that feeds its image, its designer—Robert Brunner, a graying but hip 55-year-old with chunky plastic glasses and new twins at home—works out of an office near the San Francisco waterfront. He explains that Beats keeps its offerings fresh through a canny process of constant product introduction. In addition to the company’s standard offerings, it puts out limited-edition seasonal colors every six months or so, often informed by the same high-end color forecasting research that fashion houses use. Beyond that, Beats also regularly rolls out tiny runs of “custom” headphones, cobranded with a pro football team, say, or tagged by a graffiti artist, or even single pairs made to order for a particular celebrity. Those editions take a ton of work to coordinate, and if they do impact the bottom line of such a large company, it’s probably for the worse. But these small editions help counter any perception of Beats as an overexposed commodity; in the weird cultural math of fashion, the existence of Kobe Bryant’s one-of-a-kind Beats in faux snakeskin makes your cheap old black model somehow less cliché.
“Capturing people’s imagination in a way that makes them want to put your stuff on their body is a skill set that not many people have,” Brunner says. “It definitely doesn’t exist in many large corporations.” Brunner rattles off some of the ways that fashion and tech are at odds: the very different sorts of early adopters whose acceptance drives products into the mainstream, and the even more aspirational dynamic (“Who do I want to be like?”) that motivates people to buy. “It’s very complex,” he says. “Tech companies don’t get that stuff.” Then again, they might now be ready to learn. In just the past year, Apple alone has hired executives from Burberry, Levi Strauss, and Yves Saint Laurent—in the last case, to head up a “special projects” division that many suspect will wind up creating wearable devices.
It’s an auspicious moment for wearables, one that’s been two decades in the making. Sonny Vu, echoing a sentiment I hear from a few wearables thinkers, says “it feels like 2003 of the mobile era”—that is, right before smartphones came along to invent a new category. A pessimist, pondering the reaction to Google Glass and the Galaxy Gear, might counter that it’s more like 1993, when Apple’s Newton PDA showed off the capabilities of mobile devices a decade before the public was prepared for it. But unlike with mobile, the barrier to the wearable future isn’t technological innovation; it’s the unique challenge of creating something that is not just functional or even beautiful but deeply personal. The wearable future will be here someday. The only question is how soon you’ll be willing to put it on.