I used to love Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. In 2007 I bought a used Motion Computing tablet PC from a doctor’s office. It was a crappy computer: text input was extremely painful, the stylus wouldn’t properly calibrate, and there was no touch input. It wasn’t a reimagined computing experience, it was just a crippled laptop. But it was so amazing to hold a keyboardless laptop! This wasn’t the future exactly, but it was a taste of tablet computing, and it felt exhilarating to be on the edge of a completely reinvented form factor. It took several years before Apple overhauled the tablet experience and the idea gained mainstream acceptance, and even then the iPad owed a lot to the attempts that came before it.
Google Glass is the Windows XP Tablet PC of wearable computing. It has a lot of tradeoffs. It doesn’t replace a smartphone completely, yet it doesn’t offer any groundbreaking new capability to justify its existence. It’s certainly not worth the extreme price tag for personal use. But... there’s something magical about it. It’s a computer on your face! It’s exhilarating, in that way that bleeding-edge technology feels if you look past the short-term flaws.
"Who would need an underpowered computer on their face?” you ask, “especially if it doesn’t enable anything worth the hassle, social stigma, and price?” While a fair question, it rings eerily similar to the question of “who would need an underpowered computer in their home?” Perhaps Glass is like the Apple II, a hobbyist device that most people can’t imagine a personal use for. But like the Apple II or Windows tablet PC, Glass is finding its way into specialized business uses. GlassAlmanac.com argues convincingly that people will become familiar with the tech at work, and eventually it may find its way back into personal use again. What Glass needs is a killer app: what spreadsheets, desktop publishing, etc were to personal computing. This is a great opportunity to be the Lotus/Microsoft/Adobe of the wearable computing era.
I feel like there is also a lot of opportunity for improvement in the user experience of Glass and wearable tech in general. Glass’s current model of pushing notifications or acting on voice commands feels too much like a smartphone interaction that just happens to be on one’s head. It’s Windows XP shoehorned into a keyboardless body. What if Glass was more contextual? Back when Google was still teasing us with Glass and my imagination wasn’t yet aligned to reality, I envisioned Glass listening to my speaking throughout the day and nudging me to reduce my share of talking in conversation if I’m yapping too much, or popping up with my grocery list as soon as I enter a grocery store, or giving me a summary of people I had talked with at a conference including face photos and snippets of conversation. Battery and processing power limit the viability of these ideas for now, but not forever.
Beyond just Glass, I see the future of wearables in a set of devices that work together. A heads-up display, maybe an optional head-mounted camera, a smartwatch with a screen and buttons, a ring/bracelet with motion sensitivity, and the smartphone as the coordinating hub. Right now my Glass and my Pebble each try to act independently. But it would be so much more useful if I could flick my wrist to turn on Glass, or speak to Glass to enter text on my watch, or take a photo with my Glass by pressing a button on my watch.
Regardless of whether Glass the product dies or thrives, wearables as a category are going to continue to evolve. Batteries will improve. Displays will blend into the frames. Pricing will come down. People will find uses for them, and as some point they will be useful enough and subtle enough that wearables will be just another technology. The magic will be gone along with the controversy. There is opportunity now for developers and businesses to learn from Glass and make the iPad or Excel of wearable computing. And there’s still plenty of time for wonder and excitement at the magic. Holy crap, I have a computer on my face!