By Scott Martin, @scottysmartin
SAN FRANCISCO - Brittany Morton used to cringe when her boyfriend would whip out his smartphone over dinner. Imagine what she'll think when it's attached to his face as computerized glasses or strapped to his wrist, demanding his attention at every glance.
It's a familiar scene today: romance at restaurants with a gaze across the table to another transfixed - by a smartphone. That person texting or tweeting is sending the message that, well, you're less important than their fleeting thoughts. One night, Morton got so upset with her phone-obsessed man during a dinner date that she stormed off to catch a cab.
Just as men barking into headsets on downtown streets becomes the new normal, the world is about to get even weirder -and perhaps more annoying - with a generation of wearable technologies. Apple, Google, Samsung and Microsoft are among companies vying for this next wave in computing. Think Internet-surfing glasses and watches capable of delighting or irritating partners, friends or strangers.
That technological shift in computing is just around the corner. Google's Glass computerized glasses, coming closer to reality, are a buzzing topic of chatter in the tech industry.
"I think it (Glass) would be a good conversation starter, but after you have it for a while, it could be a problem," says the 27-year-old Morton, who works in Los Angeles and now has a pact with her beau to keep phones out of dinner.
Wearable computing promises to marry the worlds of fashion and technology, ushering in accessories capable of meeting this world's 24/7 digital needs. While Google is testing its computing glasses that stick smartphone functions on a tiny screen in front of one eye, Apple is filing patents suggesting it is at work on a computerized watch to bring iPhone functions to the wrist.
Companies that want to play in wearable computing are focusing on the technology and its social implications. That's created an industry retrenching product development around social and privacy concerns. Because Google's computerized glasses are capable of taking photos and video, some are uneasy their privacy may come under attack with images posted online.
Despite concerns, the sci-fi aspects of computer-aided vision promise applications for both big industries and consumers.
Computerized goggles may help ID crime suspects by overlaying police database information in officers' vision that's linked from facial-recognition data or licence plates captured by a front-facing camera. Retail employees might use a pair of computerized glasses to look about a store for a particular item of clothing and find the exact item in view on a map that identifies the item by a tracking chip. And consumers could soon see their own augmented digital world from Google's Glass glasses, such as maps or Internet information placed in front of the eyes.
Long prognosticated, wearable computing is now poised for a computing boom. "This is the next big category," says Tim Chang, managing director of venture capital firm Mayfield Fund.
A confluence of the tech industry's biggest leaps forward makes the timing right: ubiquitous Internet, display improvements, better batteries, advanced chips and sensors that track more than ever. And most people already pack a pocket computer companion to wearable devices, the smartphone. That is expected to be the main computer that helps shuttle wireless cellphone data via Bluetooth to devices such as Google Glass or an iWatch from Apple.
A world of data and technology brought closer to our bodies, for better or worse, offers faster forms of consumption. People could call up their calendar or e-mail without pulling out a phone or laptop, grabbing quicker bites of information while walking. Someone wearing Glass at an outdoor concert might use facial-recognition software or location-tracking apps to find friends in view on a map.
"There are clearly a lot of implications that are interesting to consumers," says Ben Horowitz of venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.
The biggest names in tech are investing to get there first. In the first half of 2012, venture-capital firms invested more than $700 million in private companies developing devices that use sensors, according to Forrester.
A wave of consumer products that span health monitoring, entertainment, fitness and Internet consumption are on the horizon.
Apple, Google and Microsoft - whose meteoric growths have each slowed - could use another category of computing to fuel new business. "Apple and Google are in a league of their own because of their relations with developers and consumers," says Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps.
Researcher Gartner forecasts the wearable devices market will hit $10 billion by 2015.
Google isn't the only one developing computing glasses. Motorola Solutions is aiming squarely at industrial applications with a big headset device that could help warehouse workers locate items, mechanics see instructions in the field and firefighters see building schematics in emergencies. "It's all about getting the right information at the right place at the right time," says Paul Steinberg, chief technology officer for Motorola Solutions, of the goal to deliver industrial efficiencies.
And Vuzix is developing its M100 headset that brings smartphone functions to the eye and works with Android phones. "It's information access but not an overload of information that will be a total distraction," says Mike Hallett, Vuzix's director of sales.
The M100 is being tested by developers now. Vuzix expects to sell it to the public this year for less than $500, aimed at those who would gab into an earpiece. Still unknown is whether mainstream consumers will take the leap.
"The biggest impediment to widespread adoption of wearables will be the social aspect," says James Ellis, a former research assistant at Google X who worked on Project Glass and is a graduate student at Northwestern University.
Google is expected to reveal more details on Glass at its I/O developer conference scheduled for May 15. The company began testing among employees late last year.
Google's Glass computers are surprisingly light frames with a small screen above one eye. Those wearing Glass can surf the Internet, take photos and videos or send images or blast them online. The Glass units respond to voice, head gestures and a touch-pad on the side. They connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi or piggyback onto a smartphone's cell connection from Bluetooth.
"We really believe that there's much more convenient ways of having a computer augment your life than to take a phone out of your pocket," says Thad Starner, technical lead and manager on Google's Project Glass.
Starner is an extreme evangelist for wearable computing. He has been wearing a computer on his face for more than a decade. His homemade prototypes have been bulky and have had big battery packs before Google Glass came along.
He clearly doesn't find any of this socially awkward. The fact that he's worn what looks like a full-size mobile phone covering a lens of his glasses and had wires coming out of it might seem odd to many. "You get really good at using 30-second chunks of time" for computing tasks, he says, pointing out that he could check his appointments while walking within an office.
Not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of information in your face at all times. "There's a vaguely autistic note to what they are talking about with Google Glass," says Adam Greenfield, author of Everyware, a book about ubiquitous computing. "When you look at somebody eye-to-eye, there is literally a technological infrastructure that comes between."
Google has studied body gestures as ways of interacting with Glass. The alternative, say, speaking commands such as "forward" or "backward" on a busy train, might be awkward. "You may start noticing businessmen acting like mimes, scrolling through documents only they can see," says Ellis, describing what future computing interfaces might look like.
Google Glass devices were offered to software developers for $1,500 a unit in recent months. Early testers of Google Glass were spotted about the technology festival SXSW this month in Austin. Attendees referred to those wearing them as "Glassholes" because of their pretentious appearance and intrusive interaction of the front-facing camera. Many believe it could be years, even a decade, before social and technical hurdles are met.
A lot will have to be worked out over privacy issues, such as potentially rolling video of everything in sight with Glass, says Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg. "Health issues and eye strain will become questions," he says.
Not to mention, Google may not be able to squeeze enough battery power into the small device. That could be a buzz kill for a device meant to be worn all day but that runs low on juice every hour. "The technical realities of what we can achieve right now will probably hold it back - in terms of a business decision they should have kept it (Glass) behind the scenes," says Mark Rolston, chief creative officer at Frog Design.
Apple may have an easier time commercializing a computerized watch. A patent application revealed last month at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office suggests Apple is indeed developing an iWatch after persistent rumors.
"Everyone who has a smartphone presence is going to need to be in this space," Starner says. "Who would have said that Apple or Google would have a smartphone presence in 1998? They have all been playing with this stuff in their research labs."
Experts say a watch from Apple could disrupt that industry and ignite a new one, much as the company did with smartphones and tablets. Worldwide watch sales are expected to exceed $60 billion in 2013, according to Citigroup.
"Apple will probably launch a watch, and you'll see a lot of watches and pendant pieces with smart tech, and we'll see a rapid flow of wearable devices that can tell you any number of things," says Chang.
Apple spokeswoman Natalie Kerris declined to comment on the company's plans.
Former Apple CEO John Sculley has jumped on the wearable computing bandwagon. He's co-founded a company called Misfit Wearables, maker of the Shine waterproof distance tracker that looks like a quarter-size aluminum pendant. It's meant to be tapped to the surface of an Android or iOS phone to deliver its data and can be worn with optional wristbands and necklaces. Misfit is expected to deliver soon.
"Wearables aren't really that wearable right now," Misfit Wearables CEO Sonny Vu says. "You're not wearing plastic and rubber, but every product is made of plastic and rubber. Ours is a solid piece of metal - it's beautiful."
"You've been seeing the wearable computing industry all over the place. Now we're seeing it where consumer actually want it," says Starner.
Start-ups are already cranking out smartwatch devices. Kickstarter-funded Pebble is producing its watch that works with Apple's iOS and Google's Android to deliver notifications on phone calls, e-mails, texts, Facebook and Twitter. It connects to smartphones via Bluetooth. The Pebble watch is available for pre-order for $150.
Others are focusing on advancing health tech on the wrist. Upstart Basis makes a watch that captures heart rate, motion, perspiration and skin temperature to monitor sleep and exercise. "The idea is to try to get at physiological data that give you more information about your health," Basis CEO Jef Holove says.
Some health-tracking wristbands are focusing on steps and calories without a watch. Jawbone's UP bracelet works with an iPhone app to track sleep, food and activity. Nike's FuelBand, a bracelet worn by fitness enthusiast Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, tracks steps and calories.
The proliferation of such wristband devices suggests there's a larger market for wearable computing. Advances in sensors, battery life and computing have all made this possible, says Jawbone CEO Hosain Rahman. What matters is "whether you'll actually wear it," he says.
With consumers already biting on health-related smart devices it remains to be seen whether a next level of wearable technologies will become fashion du jour or faux pas. Like with Morton and her boyfriend, it may boil down to society figuring out what is socially acceptable.
It will come down to "people with good etiquette," says Morton.