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Enough with the Hype: Let's Keep It Simple with Wearable Computing

Wearable computing is one of those really exciting technological breakthroughs that hasn't quite happened yet.
January 22, 2013, 8:30pm

Wearable computing is one of those really exciting technological breakthroughs that hasn't quite happened yet. Yes, you can buy a Jawbone UP that will tell you how much you slept last night. You can also pick up a Pebble smartwatch that will remind you to buy milk. In a couple of years, you'll be able to get geeky with Google Glass, the augmented reality headset we've all been waiting for. But do any of these devices really improve our lives or change out we look at the world? That's up for debate. It's fairly safe to say that, for now, there are a bunch of companies that are coming up with some awesome-sounding shit that either doesn't work or doesn't really exist.


It seems inevitable that wearable computing will completely reinvent how we interact with our devices and, gasp, each other in the next few years. For now, though, the technology is strikingly simple, so much so that it's not actually that useful. When the Jawbone UP came out last year, it was riddled with problems. Many users complained that it crapped out completely after two or three charges, and the backlash got so bad that the company recalled the device completely. When it relaunched last month, the technical problems were fixed, but tech bloggers were still unimpressed enough to tell people not to buy the $130 bracelet. Is that because they don't think it would be cool to wear a device that tracks your movements? Hardly — they'd just rather wait until one comes along that does it seamlessly.

The same goes for the burgeoning market for smartwatches. The Pebble is just one of the many smartwatches quickly populating a space that Apple reportedly wants to conquer next. Partially because it was such a hit on Kickstarter, where it gained 85,000 orders before anybody had even seen the device, the Pebble had to push back its launch date from September 2012 until January 23. Whether or not it will work when it gets here remains a mystery, however. Pebble’s lead engineer Eric Migicovsky was not encouraging when he told Venturebeat, "The delay mainly stems from us shifting our focus from a sort of hacked together, simple and more rudimentary device, to what we feel and are proud of as a full-blown consumer electronics product." And to be super skeptical about the whole thing, there's nothing the Pebble can do that your smartphone can't. It's just a little bit smaller and strapped to your wrist. Why not wait until Apple stuffs the entire iPhone into a watch-sized device?

But at least those devices are real. Much of the recent hubbub over wearable computing started with Segey Brin unveiling Google's too futuristic Project Glass. I say "too futuristic" because the wearable display absolutley looks like something out of Star Trek but hardly holds up to the show's 24th-century standard of technology. Google Glass jams a screen right in front of your eyeball that's supposed open up the possibility of augmented reality. You could walk down the street and see Yelp reviews floating above restaurants, or you could meet a new person and look at their Facebook profile while you're looking at their face. What a crazy idea! Too bad it's just a marketing gimmick so far. Google strapped them on models at fashion week, and it instantly got a viral video. Sergey Brin wore his headset on the subway this week, and boom: everybody's talking about Google Glass. This is all fine from a PR perspective, but when it comes to deciding whether or not the technology is useful, the rest of us will have to wait. It'll at least a year before we puny mortals will get our hands on the device.

Do I sound cyncial yet? Because I don't mean to be cynical. I want to be practical about how wearable computing can affect our lives right now, and right now, with the most exciting technology still on the way, wearable computers are stupid simple. As opposed to the companies that are trying and failing to build the next iPhone, some are embracing the simplicity of wearable computing technology and taking it down a creative path.

Machina is one of them. This budding Mexican technology company is building a lineup of computer-powered clothing. Take their MJ v1.0, a Midi Controller Jacket that's geared towards producers and DJs. The use case is fairly open-ended, but it sort of sounds like the Microsoft Kinect for music. When you move around in the jacket and touch sensors on the front, it sends electrical signals to your computer which turns them into music. It's not going to let you peer into the future like Google Glass, but it does bear major implication from an artistic perspective. As our friends at The Creators Project put it, "This idea has the potential to be revolutionary in the live performance aspect of controller-based music." It's a specific use for the device, but it's a powerful one.

Wearable computing will come around. Companies like Jawbone will work out the kinks in their product, and Apple will probably come out with some crazy tiny computer that you can strap to your body. (They already did actually.) Google will eventually release their nerdy Project Glass headsets, and we'll see if anybody wears them. Until then, we'll keep dreaming in science fiction.