Forget 'mobile vs. desktop,' the future of computing will be a question of 'head vs. wrist'

By Nathaniel Mott , written on February 13, 2013

From The News Desk

The battle for the future of computing is no longer a contest between tablets and PCs. Wearable computing is the hot new category, with startups like Pebble introducing “smart” watches while Apple reportedly tests a similar device (which former PandoDaily staffer Greg Kumparak asked for way back in August) in Jony Ive’s dungeon its Cupertino headquarters and Google prepares its own “smart” glasses. Wearable computing in general, and smartwatches in particular, could be, as The Verge's Chris Ziegler writes, "the Next Big Thing in consumer tech."

The New York Times’ Nick Bilton, who reported last week that Apple is testing a smartwatch (playfully dubbed the iWatch) with a “curved-glass” display, argues that Apple will launch a smartwatch instead of smart glasses because the wrist isn’t as “scary” as the brow. Bilton compares Apple’s approach to its iterative changes to its trackpads, writing:

Apple will do the same thing with its foray into wearable computing. The wrist is not a scary place for consumers to add their first computer. After all, we’ve been wearing a type of computer there for decades: the wristwatch. (For many of you in the 1970s, a digital watch, some with a mini-calculator, was your first computer.) Now that the wristwatch is being supplanted by the smartphone, the wrist is the perfect place to introduce customers to a computer they can wear.
Logical inconsistencies of arguing that the watch is ready to become the future of computing specifically because it was obsoleted by the smartphone aside, Bilton’s thesis makes sense. Sticking a computer directly into your field of vision seems more intrusive than, say, having a computer at arm’s – or, at least, wrist’s – length. But that doesn’t mean that smart glasses won’t be more capable and, once the initial fear is overcome, more intuitive than a smartwatch, for a few reasons.

Smart glasses will probably work better with voice controls. Go ahead and hold your wrist up to your mouth and pretend you’re having a conversation. Now pretend that you struggle to hear the other person over the cacophony of everyday life, forcing you to turn the volume up until what was once a near-private conversation is shared with anyone and everyone around you. That’s the promise of the smartwatch, unless it ships without calling capabilities or voice controls.

Imagine the same scenario, but this time you’re simply talking to thin air. (This part works better if you actually wear glasses.) Sure, it feels silly to talk like that, but that hasn’t stopped all of the people who rely on Bluetooth headsets or in-line microphones to interact with their smartphones. Smartwatches might pair with those same headsets (it’s hard to imagine a headphone-equipped smartwatch) but why wear two devices when you can wear one – or, if you already wear glasses, what feels like none?

As much as every tech blogger seems to desire becoming Dick Tracy (my apologies for referencing the series in yet another post about smartwatches), I imagine most people won’t want to talk into their wrists all the time. This problem could be mitigated by having a touch-only smartwatch, but that also seems like it would get uncomfortable sooner rather than later.

Smart glasses with no battery life still help you see. Smartwatches with no battery life are just expensive jewelry. You’re out and about. You go about your business, talking into your wearable device of choice, when all of the sudden it runs out of battery. Shit. What do you do?

If you have a smartwatch the answer is “nothing much.” You get by with the a piece of jewelry that won’t even tell you the time until you’re able to recharge the device and bring it back to life. This probably won’t bother some people – jewelry exists for a reason, after all – but anyone who wanted their smartwatch to replicate the functions of a dumbwatch (lord, I can’t wait for that to become a thing) will be shit out of luck.

If you have smart glasses the answer is still “nothing much,” but at least the device is just as capable as its duller brethren.

(It’s worth noting that the whole “telling time” aspect of a smartwatch is easily mitigated by using a smartphone to check for the same information, but that doesn’t change the fact that battery-dependent glasses can provide more utility sans charge than batter-dependent watches.)

Good luck recording anything with your smartwatch. One of the most interesting aspects of Google Glass is the built-in camera. Not because of the virtual reality aspects, which I suspect will take some time to be fully realized, but because of the convenience it will bring to capturing aspects of everyday life. Photos and videos could be captured without having to pull a smartphone from its pocket, fumble around for the camera app, and then trying to tap the damned “capture” button before the moment has passed.

This ability will appeal to everyone, from parents who want to take pictures of their children to teenagers and young adults who have flocked to Instagram or even Vine as platforms for self expression. So much of our daily lives are recorded with images and videos – isn’t a tool that makes capturing and sharing those moments easier more appealing than one that can’t?

The sheer number of companies producing or “experimenting” with smartwatches shows that there’s definite interest in the form factor. Being able to lift your wrist to your face seems more convenient than having to fumble for a smartphone in a pocket and then perform the same motion, even if only by a little bit.

I wasn’t immediately sold on the concept of smart glasses. My objections – that they would feel unnatural, that they would get in the way of face-to-face interaction, etc. – seemed common. Then I read Farhad Manjoo’s post on Google Glass, titled “Don’t laugh at Google Glass: They’re goofy, but they will save us from ourselves.” Manjoo, who had previously spoken with Google Glass technical lead Thad Starner and (briefly) worn Google Glass himself, wrote:

Do we really want to add one more thing to the mix? Especially something you wear on your face?

I’m glad you asked. Because this gets to the real promise of Google Glass: It is the only device on the horizon that offers any hope of freeing us from the digital invasion.

Yes, you’re going to wear a computer on your face, but it’s not what you think. It’s not going to make you less accessible to the people around you. It’s going to make you pay more attention to the real world. It’s going to cause fewer distractions, and those distractions are going to be less annoying than they are with today’s devices. Manjoo pointed out all of the issues with the way we use smartphones and tablets, from the constant distractions to the fact that we rarely see anyone’s face without an Apple or Samsung logo within our line of sight. I can’t help but feel that smartwatches will be the same way, and that the factor is, as Bilton himself suggests, just a stepping point to a wearable computing future dominated by smart glasses.

[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]