Technology develops in fits and starts. It’s the reason we tech types make the manic pilgrimage to a convention center in Las Vegas every year to check in on it. It’s why software updates pop up on our phones every few months in increments. Outside of science fiction, quantum leaps aren’t supposed to happen.
With few places left to install computer systems, technology we can wear is the de facto hot new thing. Mobile engagement is through the roof, so we might as well see that trend to its logical conclusion and wear the damned things around. In the last year alone, fitness trackers have exploded onto shelves and iterated quickly. The “smartwatch” is suddenly a product category that we take seriously. And the imagination of the public remains captivated by Google’s moonshot wearable, Google Glass. But imaginations and pocketbooks don’t always see eye to eye.
With no direct competitors to speak of, Glass, still in its early developer days, looks to be in a league of its own. But viable, smart wearables just picking up some mainstream traction could actually prove the biggest threat of all. Among them, the Pebble smartwatch—a hardware whim Kickstarted into being—is in exactly the right place at the right time, pun retroactively intended. (Sure, Pebble isn’t the only smartwatch out there, but until the advent of the iWatch, it will likely remain the best.)
Competitors In A Strange New Ring
I own both Google Glass and a Pebble. Wearing both at once feels surprisingly redundant, and given my Pebble’s lower profile, it makes wearing Glass feel stupid. Which is a funny thing considering just what a wonder device Glass really is. Considering its sensors and processing power, Glass is leagues smarter than my smartwatch.
Yet my Pebble “does the trick” quite nicely, while Glass feels like cartoonish overkill—Wile E. Coyote taking TNT to our modern technological malaise.
What is that malaise exactly? According to Google co-founder Sergey Brin, smartphones are socially isolating, and that’s a big problem. In Brin’s early vision of our near future, with Glass, we could live in our experience rather than around it (you know, tweeting, Googling things, refreshing Facebook).
Put another way, for the first time since the smartphone shackled our collective gaze to confines of so many small LCDs, we could do both—we could have our lives and live them too. Pebble was conceived with a similar, simple goal: “get notified without checking out.” Technology, both devices posit, should get the hell out of the way.
As dissimilar as they seem, both Pebble and Glass are working toward the same end. Both devices revolve around the idea of providing a non disruptive flow of notification data, a sort of wearable ticker on the side of reality that we can glance at and quickly away from. Worn together, without configuring them individually, Glass and Pebble deliver redundant information: duplicate texts, two of every email. Essentially, when combining a wrist-worn wearable with a head-up display like Glass, both devices backfire, demanding more of us and not less. Two might be a crowd.
Is It Too Soon For Glass?
Glass and Pebble, both hardware marvels in their respective weight classes, embody very different means to a shared end. Glass is a grandiose reimagining of the way we live, work and play, a prescription (pun not intended this time) to wholly cure us of technological angst. Glass explodes the claustrophobic parameters of our smartphone’s micro-world, superimposing that data onto reality itself in a way that still looks and feels like Star Trek.
It’s no surprise that, after a few solid months of wonder, now cynicism prevails in conversations around Glass: it’s cool to hate Glass because it’s just too out there—now take this thing off my face, I look like an asshole. (This is technology! Where’s your sense of imagination?) When it goes on sale later this year, Google Glass may very well be met with a collective shrug from the mainstream, signaling that society just isn’t ready for it. Google, happy to see its moonshot come to life, may or may not even care.
In the booming field of wearable technology, the face is controversial terrain. Steve Mann, arguable father of wearable computing, has been wearing a less elegant, ever-evolving version of Google Glass for more than three decades—but that didn’t stop him from getting roughed up at a McDonald’s for looking weird.
Other facial augmented and virtual reality experiments like the Oculus Rift seem to inspire fear and fascination in equal parts. What society is ready for, though, is a stepping stone toward Google’s futuristic visor, one that shows the way to the other thing, the one that’s too “out there” even if it's here right now.
Wristwatches have been in vogue for a century and in development for centuries before that, though they've never delivered much but the time. When it comes to wearables, the power of the familiar form factor—one nowhere near the fragile social plane just before our eyes—can’t be underestimated.
When I wear Glass in public, it literally stops traffic. People do double takes at stop lights, slapstick comedy style. I leave my house with the knowledge that complete strangers will fling themselves toward the thing on my face with a mixture of fascination and incredulity. Even for a person who likes weird, it still feels weird.
When I wear my Pebble, which people notice and recognize more often than I’d expected, people ask how I like it. They don't want to try it on or see it in action, because they can imagine it themselves. It's like a tiny smartphone for your wrist, sort of. But a smartphone draped over your field of vision like a HUD in Mass Effect? It makes people squirmy. If the future is now, there are a lot of unsavory ethical and social implications to start thinking about—and hey, don’t planets blow up in most sci-fi?
The Right Place At The Right Time
If Glass is the precocious kid in school that asks too many questions and makes everyone uncomfortable—should he like, even be here?—Pebble is a straight A student. The latter performs well above average and plays by the rules. The precocious kid is less predictable. Sometimes he blows everyone out of the water, sometimes he fails out because no one else really “got it.” (Of course, sometimes he bubbles back to the surface in five years with a crazy-successful startup.)
Which fate will befall Glass? We'll know soon enough. But hey, at least we know what to expect from the other kid. The one that doesn't make us nervous.