At the beginning of this year, Google asked me if I'd like to try out a prototype of Google Glass. Being a complete gadget junkie, I'd read all about them and was as excited as anyone to actually put them on. A future of augmented reality in the form of computer glasses has long been the dream of many a science fiction fan who imagines a world where information is superimposed into his vision, where his every move is documented and archived and thus no memory is ever lost and every experience can be relived. (That may also be a dream function for the NSA).
Given time, Google Glass definitely has the potential to give us that fully augmented reality that so many have been asking for. But in answering that desire, it's also brought up some new questions: Will we still want it when we have it? Will it overwhelm and shorten our already dwindling attention span? Will it make life chaotic or simplify it? And will its intrusion into our perceived privacy and personal space be a cultural issue?
The debate has just begun, but so has the technology. From my hour or so with the prototype of Google Glass I got the feeling that it was sort of like the Wright brothers' flying machine – that we still have a way to go before we get to something more like a Lear jet.
As obvious as this may sound, I felt keenly self-conscious that I was wearing a small computer strapped to my head. To be straightforward, I think the main problem with most examples of "wearable tech" is that the emphasis is overwhelmingly put on the tech rather than it being truly wearable. To widen its appeal for when Google Glass becomes commercially available, Google would do well to mind its approach to design so that we don't risk looking like Geordi from Star Trek or a Terminator. It would be smart to partner with established eyewear designers such as Tom Ford or Ray-Ban to create something truly aesthetically pleasing that people would want to wear. Such collaborations could ensure that wearable tech is actually wearable. If not, I feel that Google Glass could quickly go the way of the Bluetooth headset – something that only obnoxious bro-types wear on their heads in 2015.
With Google Glass, I felt the most uncomfortable when I had to announce commands verbally. This is also my problem with Siri and other voice activated technology; who wants to be the crazy person speaking to a computer? At the time I suggested to the reps from Google that maybe they could have Glass read some kind of rudimentary sign language. Perhaps you could wear a ring or bracelet with a small accelerometer embedded that reads your movements and reports it to Glass. Yep, in my mind's eye I was sorting through files like Tom Cruise in Minority Report. Then again, maybe looking like you're conducting an invisible orchestra is just as crazy as speaking to an invisible computer assistant.
By the sound if it, Google Glass will have immediate competition in the wearable tech space from Apple and Samsung when it hits the wider market in a few months. As you're undoubtedly aware, Apple has reportedly been testing 1.5in curved OLED screens that would be perfect for an "iWatch." It's even started trademarking the name in many countries. And this spring, Samsung confirmed development of a smart watch. From the rumours alone it sounds like the smart watch concept could be a much more comfortable and acceptable apparatus to use, even if its form means it can't offer the same level of interactivity.
The era of wearable tech that Google Glass and smart watches are moving us into will be something like the smartphone market seven years ago; we will see wildly different takes on the idea that will filter down into a few tried and tested models that make sense for most people. The one rule I see dominating this emerging industry is that for wearable tech to really make sense it has to enhance our life, not complicate it or intrude upon it.
For more on Google Glass, see our hands-on preview.