Eyewear makers remember: Wearable technology is not new

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on June 3, 2013

From The News Desk

At last week’s D11 conference Atheer Labs demoed a project the company dubs a mixture between Google Glass and Leap Motion’s gesture controls. Or as Wired put it, this is what would happen "if you combined the wearability of Google Glass with the gesture-based control of Microsoft Kinect" – a wearable interface you can control with your voice or hand gestures.

The interface, as shown at the conference, is completely immersive and enables users to  experience the outside world as well as have a completely digital augmented reality layered over it. Atheer’s mobile 3-D platform beams a screen before your very eyes, then you can view a video, summon a map, read a book, and perhaps one day compare prices at Amazon while you, in real time, wander around WalMart, or review Yelp reviews of establishments you can see from the street.

Intriguing though this may be, Altheer is by no means assured of success. Wearable devices have a long history. Well, maybe not long, but they didn't just start with Google Glass, which hasn't even hit the market in full force yet. A recent retrospective in New York highlighted this by presenting a 20-year retrospective of the industry: In a row were 40 different models of wearable eyewear, going back as far as 1994. The use cases for each device varied from augmented reality, military use, and virtual reality, and the technologies point out the tribulations the industry has encountered.

Sure, the technology is new and interesting and provides a way to integrate the real with the virtual, but users still have to put a foreign device on their heads. Plus, as David Pogue put it, a big obstacle "is the smugness of people who wear Glass -- and the deep discomfort of everyone who doesn't.” What he's getting at is that while Glass may or may not be useful, it may alienate the rest of us.

image_4One wearable piece of eyewear was built to provide car mechanics with the manual while they performed maintenance under the frame. While it seemed useful, mechanics refused to wear it. Another relied on laser technology to provide visual imaging, causing some people, at the time, to claim partial injuries after wearing it. The ultimate lesson: Just because you build it doesn't mean they'll come.

There's also the social wild card. It's hard not to look like a complete dork when you have on a computerized headset. At the D11 conference Kara Swisher, referring to the Atheer device, said, “[They] freak me out, dude.” Later in the video she explained that she probably wouldn't speak to someone who was wearing such a bizarre eyepiece on their head. Add to that the head bobs and weaves you need to perform to get, say, Google Glass to work, the halted verbal commands you must issue, and, with the Athea, the hand motions you must orchestrate, and you can see why the market is a bit shaky.

image_3Some claim the market is ready, and perhaps that is true. But it would behoove these new companies to look back and see the vast 20-year history of what came before, because there's an important story in there, amidst all the failures.