I read an interesting blog post by Steven Levy titled Google Glass Team: ‘Wearable Computing Will Be the Norm’ with an interview with the Project Glass team which contains the following excerpt
Wired: Do you think this kind of technology will eventually be as common as smart phones are now?
Lee: Yes. It’s my expectation that in three to five years it will actually look unusual and awkward when we view someone holding an object in their hand and looking down at it. Wearable computing will become the norm.
The above reminds me of the Bill Gates quote, “there's a tendency to overestimate how much things will change in two years and underestimate how much change will occur over 10 years”. Coincidentally the past week has been full of retrospectives on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the iPhone. The iPhone has been a great example of how we can both overestimate and underestimate the impact of a technology. When the iPhone was announced as the convergence of an iPod, a phone and an internet mobile communicator the most forward thinking assumptions were that the majority of the Apple faithful who bought iPods would be people who bought iPhones and this would head off the demise of the iPod/MP3 player market category.
Five years later, the iPhone has effectively reshaped the computing industry. The majority of tech news today can be connected back to companies still dealing with the fallout of the creation of the iPhone and it’s progeny, the iPad. Entire categories of products across multiple industries have been made obsolete (or at least redundant) from yellow pages and paper maps to PDAs, point-and-shoot cameras and netbooks. This is in addition to the sociological changes that have been wrought (e.g. some children now think a magazine is a broken iPad). The most shocking change as a techie has been watching usage and growth of the World Wide Web being replaced by usage of mobile apps. No one really anticipated or predicted this five years ago.
Wearable computing will follow a similar path. It is unlikely that within a year or two of products like Project Glass coming to market that people will stop using smartphones especially since there are many uses for the ubiquitous smartphone that Project Glass hasn’t tried to address (e.g. playing Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja at the doctor’s office while waiting for your appointment). However it is quite clear that in our lifetime there will be the ability to put together scenarios that would have seemed far fetched for science fiction just a few years ago. It will one day be possible to look up the Facebook profile or future equivalent of anyone you meet at a bar, business meeting or on the street without the person being none the wiser simply by looking at them. Most of the technology to do this already exists, it just isn’t in a portable form factor. That is just one scenario that not only will be possible but will be commonplace with products like Project Glass in the future.
Focusing on Project Glass making smartphones obsolete is like focusing on the fact that the iPhone made iPod competitors like the Creative Zen Vision obsolete. Even if it did, that was not the interesting impact. As a software professional, it is interesting to ask yourself whether your product or business will be one of those obsoleted by this technology or empowered by it. Using analogies from the iPhone era, will you be RIM or will you be Instagram?
PS: I have to wonder what Apple thinks of all of this. When I look at the image below, I see a clunky and obtrusive piece of headgear that I can imagine makes Jonathan Ive roll his eyes and think he could do much better. Given Apple’s mantra is “If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will” I expect this space to be very interesting over the next ten years.
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