Human Bodies and Wearable Computers

So let’s say you’re Leonardo Da Vinci, inventor and artist. You’ve been hired by Google, Apple, Samsung, or some other tech company to create computers that will be (a) useful and (b) worn by most of the people most of the time. Where are you going to put that computer?

So let’s say you’re Leonardo Da Vinci, inventor and artist. You’ve been hired by Google, Apple, Samsung, or some other tech company to create computers that will be (a) useful and (b) worn by most of the people most of the time. Where are you going to put that computer?

I don’t envy the designers responsible for the next digital revolution: wearable computers. Mostly, the human body is poorly suited for the attachment of devices. Google Glass makes sense for the (I’m guessing) fifty percent of people who wear eyeglasses, but why would the other half decide to wear them? To see in the internet 24/7? Seems like a shaky argument. Hats make sense, but only under limited circumstances. Earphones are a good idea, especially if they’re worn on a headband covering both ears, or hooked over the ear. Those that simply plug into the ear are always falling out, or dangling a cord in an awkward way. To work properly, they must either cover the entire ear (muff-style), or include noise cancellation technology. Belts are a not-bad way to hang stuff, as we’ve discovered with belt-packs for cell phones. Ankle and wrist bracelets make sense, in part for law enforcement (both ankle monitors and handcuffs), and also for decorative jewelry and wristwatches.

If you’re designing wearable stuff, and the stuff requires a screen to be seen by human eyes, or to be within the range of human voice, options are very limited. Perhaps attach something to the face, but that’s awkward. Wrists are better because whatever it is can worn as a kind of jewelry, or hidden under long sleeves, or made small enough to be noticeable only upon closer inspection.

I suppose that’s why Apple, Samsung, and what will probably be a dozen other manufacturers have jumped on the wrist as the new place for humans to carry their increasingly small computers. Apple kind-of, sort-of tried this once before with the nifty little square iPad Nano, and, of course, Casio’s digital watches, tiny keyboards included, were iconic 1980s gadgetry (for a rundown on the history of digital watches, click here).

All of this raises an interesting question: if a watch could be very, very smart and very, very capable, what might we want it to do? Tell time—that’s the obvious one. It’s probably reasonable to assume that a watch, when held close to the mouth or the ear, could double as a phone. This makes more sense to me with a Bluetooth headphone; external noise would probably make phone calls difficult to hear for both the sending and receiving parties. Casio used to use the watch as a calculator, but the buttons were always too tiny, and so was the display. Do I want to watch a video on my watch? Probably not. Listen to music? Sure, but again, I would need a headset. Pedometer? Sure, and that was part of the appeal of the little Apple Nano (which could be attached to a wristband). What if the little watch was a WiFi device with a connection to the cloud? Then, I might be able to receive a Netflix film and send it over to any specially-equipped projector. Cool idea, but I’m not so sure that I want the signal running through my body for two hours. Find my phone? Sure, why not? Dictation machine? Okay, but there’s that sound issue to be wrestled by designers. Do I need a smart watch? Well, let’s take a look at Samsung Galaxy Gear Smart Watch, in part to understand what is now available at the likes of Best Buy, and also to predict what Apple will try to do just that much better when it releases something that might be called an iWatch in 2014.

Samsung_watchLet’s deal with the “of course” list first: it displays the time, offers a stopwatch and an alarm clock. It can be used as a phone. It’s a remote control for your nearby phone or tablet so you can start and stop and choose music. It can find your device if you’ve lost it. You can take pictures (1.9 megapixel camera, and it also shoots bits of video). It displays text messages and Tweets. There are bits of a Facebook timeline, and promise of more apps (inevitably) that will display news, sports, and other data.

What else? Well, there will be apps. Apps for your phone, apps for your tablet, apps for you computer, apps for your smart television, and now, apps for your watch (soon: apps for your car, too). This is the promised land: the gee-wiz app that makes everybody wonder how it was possible to live even a single day without a very smart watch.

For more details about Samsung’s watch, read David Pogue’s story in the New York Times.

It’s still early days. This watch is only half the story: you must pair it with a Samsung Galaxy phone or tablet, and so far, only one of each of these is compatible with the new watch.

So there are two rather obvious hurdles. First, there isn’t much that I want or need my watch to do in the 21st century. Second, not many people wear watches these days because they carry cell phones that tell the time.

I think we all want to see something surprising and magical that changes our perception of technology and its relationship with the human body. Somehow, designers must  figure out how to make the wrist digital because that’s so very difficult to do on the head. There are many easier jobs.


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