May 5-6, 2014

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The hunger for wearable computing

Could wearable computing really be the next big step in computing? The enthusiasm around Google Glass, the company's research exercise into augmented rarity glasses suggests that many people hope it could be.

But the Google project is far from the only wearable computing project to have hit the headlines in the last couple of weeks and, despite my skepticism, enthusiasm seems to be building rapidly. One project, to build a smart watch that connects seamlessly with your smartphone to give it connection to the internet, launched on crowd-funding site Kickstarter looking for $100,000 in backing. It's now closing in on $3million – with a month to go. The first million took just 28 hours…

The Pebble seems to have started an avalanche of enthusiasm. And it builds on the intriguing notion of your cellphone as the centre of your wearable computing universe. It's the device that you always carry, and which has an always-on connection to the internet. Perhaps a cloud of smaller, more battery efficient devices like the Pebble on your person would help solve some of the battery issues that plague our smartphones, while making our connections to the internet more truly ubiquitous.

Perhaps the most intriguing suggestion of the likelihood of this future comes from a post on the Valve blog. Valve is a gaming and technology platform company, with an unusual, flat organisational structure. They characterise it as an organisation of peer, without bosses or middle management. And that organisation of peers has allowed one of their number – Michael Abrash – to start exploring wearable computing:

By “wearable computing” I mean mobile computing where both computer-generated graphics and the real world are seamlessly overlaid in your view; there is no separate display that you hold in your hands (think Terminator vision). The underlying trend as we’ve gone from desktops through laptops and notebooks to tablets is one of having computing available in more places, more of the time. The logical endpoint is computing everywhere, all the time – that is, wearable computing – and I have no doubt that 20 years from now that will be standard, probably through glasses or contacts, but for all I know through some kind of more direct neural connection. And I’m pretty confident that platform shift will happen a lot sooner than 20 years – almost certainly within 10, but quite likely as little as 3-5, because the key areas – input, processing/power/size, and output – that need to evolve to enable wearable computing are shaping up nicely, although there’s a lot still to be figured out.

The project is a self-described R&D effort, with “clear tests for success and failure”.

Of course, ultimately success and failure with rest in the hands of the consumer. And perhaps, by the time of NEXT Berlin 2015, we'll be checking the conference schedule on our watch, or in the corner of our eye…

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