Wondering Why Wearable Matters? Get In Your Car.

Photo by Ben Kobulnicky

Photo by Ben Kobulnicky

Imagine buckling up, turning the ignition, and the dashboard is dead. Your engine turns and the pedals work, but the speedometer is dark, the GPS is gray, and your radar detector and radio are silent.

Being the trouper you are, you head home anyways. In fact, you don’t even notice that your dash is out, although you find yourself checking the dark speedometer pretty often, and not having a radio is pretty annoying.

Then you get stuck in easily-avoidable traffic because you didn’t catch the report. Then you realize you left your high beams on for the last few miles. Then you’re pulled over for speeding at the same time you checked your dead speedometer again. Then your exit is closed and you get lost five miles from home.

And why is it so hot in here? Did you forget to turn on the AC, or is your engine overheating? Is that smell coming from under the hood? How much gas do you have, anyways?

You ignore your dashboard. It was designed that way – if your dashboard distracted you, you’d crash. But even as you ignore it, you still rely on it. Your eyes glance at the speedometer. Your ears pick up news on the radio. Sensors check for problems and alerts grab your attention. You set the GPS and tweak the AC without taking your eyes off the road.

What the dashboard does for driving, wearable tech should do for everyday life. It’s a tray of info you effortlessly refer to. It’s a network of alerts that monitor things you don’t need to handle yourself. It’s a GPS, a recorder, and a hotline you can call up anytime and anywhere, without having to “pull over”.

Want to get a feel for tomorrow’s wearables? Turn the ignition!

Google Glass is a lot like my homemade wearables. The resolution and field-of-view are fairly low, input is stripped-down, and a phone is involved. Here are some things I learned in the field, while using my own heads-up displays, that all hopeful Glass designers must know.

  1. Input is Your Enemy – Voice is imprecise, gesture is weird, and the touchpad is crude. Asking the user to interact with your app is a real imposition when the app is on the user’s head.
  2. Ambient is Powerful – My favorite HUD app I wrote simply showed me the three tweets nearest to my location. I walked along Broadway from Harlem to the Village reading people’s minds and absorbing the scenery. This experience can only be done on wearable.
  3. It’s a Magic Circle, Not an App – You’re changing the wearer’s senses and giving them superpowers. It sets them apart from other people and changes their motives. Your app changes the user’s world – it’s more of a pretense to do new things than a tool to make existing things easier.
  4. Involve the Smartphone – Don’t forget that the device is connected to a phone that’s close at hand. This cuts two ways: Smartphone apps can extend to Glass so the phone can go back in the pocket, and Glass apps can invoke counterparts on the phone. The two can even be used in tandem, unlike a phone and tablet.
  5. Augmented Reality is a Bitch – It’s a multifaceted technical challenge, and each part is astronomically difficult. On top of this, Glass gets two hours of battery life processing video. Avoid AR, it’s a trap.
  6. Don’t Distract the Wearer – Your app will be used while the wearer is doing something else – talking, waiting for a bus, walking to work. Don’t pull them away from their primary task, bug them with notifications, or expect them to give your app full attention.
  7. Give Them Something to Share – When a user has Glass and others don’t, it creates an uncomfortable us-versus-them tension. Ease it by giving the wearer things to share with their Glassless friends, and make it easy to use the app for friends’ suggestions.
  8. Don’t Allow Creepiness – Don’t videotape people without their permission. Don’t read someone’s Twitter while talking to them. Don’t encourage camera-aided manhunts. Don’t stream porn when it’s inappropriate. If you’re designing an app, have responsibility, class, and taste.