Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Game Changers: The End of Google Glass

Yesterday was, apparently, technically the last day you could buy Google Glass. It's hard to gauge whether it was a horrible failure, a semi-failure, or a successful beta from whence will come the real "Google Glass" at some time in the future which will rock our collective worlds. Google is suggesting the latter--but it's not clear.

Sometime this year Apple will launch the Apple Watch, a smart-watch that integrates various smart-features (touch sensitive video display) with the iPhone 6's capabilities and (larger) brain.

A decent question to ask is: Will the Apple Watch be an Google Glass kind of flop? It's also an easy answer: No (The Omnivore will explain why in a second).

An interesting question will be: Is the Apple Watch (or other on-the-horizon wearable) will be a for-real game changer. Are any of these things going to have a meteoric impact?

Let's look . . .

Will The Apple Watch Fail?
The simple answer is "No." Firstly, smart-watches exist today and the Apple Watch seems to stack up nicely compared to them. Secondly, while the Apple Watch may not be a compelling game-changer (which, see below, . . maybe?) it has one aspect that people will want: it looks good.

Apple is consistently able to get away with charging a premium price for gear and having a loyal base buy it up because they, well, they do a very good job with it. Apple understands something about electronic aesthetics the same way that Marvel understands something about making super hero movies. While the Apple Watch may, eventually, go down as an over-priced underutilized Apple-fan-boy accessory, the odds are that, since it functions fine as an ordinary watch, people with $350.00 to spend on a watch will find it's a neat one.

Also: they've made it easier to charge at night than your smart-phone (the charger just magnetically locks on to the back) which may take some of the sting out of it's 1-day battery life.

Conversely, the tech blogs say Google Glass had about a 45min-1hr battery life if you were recording and the core functionality of Google Glass, in the wild, seemed to be recording everything you saw--which a lot of people got upset about.

The Apple Watch is not quite as innovative, true--but it is also not nearly that inflammatory.

Game Changer: Will Wearables Change Things?
So now we get to the interesting question: Will any of this new "wearable" technology (The Omnivore will throw the VR-Headset Oculus Rift in there for good measure) actually change things? Actually change the game, as they say? Why would we think so?

Almost without question, the biggest wearable-technology game-changer was the eye-glasses. Yeah, that's old-school--but it totally changed how people lived their entire lives in a major fashion. For anything today to have that kind of impact ... it's a pretty high bar to clear.

Let's talk about the smart-phone: yes, it might not be exactly 'wearable' but it's in the same general space and, assesses The Omnivore, for the smart-phone haves (which is almost anyone who cares today), The Omnivore thinks the change to our daily life has been, well, pretty significant. It might not be quite as life-and-death as eye-glasses but things like GPS and maps in your pocket, video cameras--good ones--when you need them (and just regular cameras), and excellent "life-management" capabilities have fundamentally changed the way a lot of people do things.

This is beyond the "making calls" category (which ordinary phones did--and it was a game-changer long before the phones got smart) and portable entertainment (kindle books, game-apps, pod-casts) options which certainly enhanced life for a lot of people but probably didn't change it in the tectonic fashion that, for example, eyeglasses did.

The major things that the Apple Watch brings to the table that are at least semi-new (over existing smart watches) are:
  • Improved health reporting. Apple has gone all in with this and could kill the "fitbit" market for people who can afford an Apple Watch.
  • Apple Pay: if your vendor can accept wireless Apple Pay, you'll be able to wave your watch at the sensor and pay for things.
  • Apple Id: Apple wants to get into the Id game. The Apple Watch might let you log into your favorite apps if it authenticates you and they accept Apple authentication.
These are all nice and, if Apple Pay takes off appropriately, could create a noticeable change in a lot of shopping (it'll look like"the future"). On the other hand, none of these seem likely to change society (think about--if you're old enough--how your family organized itself before the age of cell phones . . . that's a big difference. Not having to get your visa card out isn't such a big deal comparatively).

So what would it take for a wearable technology--any wearable technology--to change The Game?

What Would Change The Game?
Wearable technology is game-changing when it augments us in some strategic way. Giving us enhanced senses (either up to the normal-level if we are deficient or improving them in some way). Today applications can show us people nearby who might like to date us, where we are on a map, or use the camera to translate foreign languages in real time and identify things like historic buildings. These are all handy but they don't change the fabric of our lives. Furthermore, things like GPS or access to smart-agents like Google Now can help us organize our lives--but if they live comfortably on our smart phones as applications, they don't exactly count as new devices.

So what would be a massive game-changer wearable device?

Turns out? We don't have to guess: we already know because they outlawed it. Google Glass had the capability to do facial recognition. After privacy activists went nuts--and laws were proposed--Google took the initiative of banning that technology on their device. Being able to bring up a your-eyes-only dossier of anyone whose face you can see would be enough of a change to rate.

The Omnivore thinks that wearables have one really big advantage over phones--and it's kind of a creepy one: they can give you data without making it obvious that they are.

Imagine an application that tracks dangerous neighborhoods (people have suggested this for GPS and it's been contentious): the app knows where you are and gives you a nudge through the watch's force-feedback when you are near one. It shows a subtle direction / distance where the software thinks you might be in danger. This is the kind of thing you might not want to pull your phone out for. It's the kind of thing a set of glasses that showed you something only you could see would be great for!

What about an app that analyzes someone's net-worth based on visual identification of clothing? Sure, it could be wrong--but a lot of the time it wouldn't be ("Men's Warehouse Suit: 130.00 on sale, appears to be 2 years old"). That's not something you'd want to whip out your phone and take a snapshot for--but if it were seamless? That kind of global intel (it also looks for their police records and other publically available information) would, yes, game-change.

If this sounds like the kind of world you don't want to live in--if the value proposition of wearable gear promises to be the subtle provision of information--you've got good company. Google Glass was hampered by its price tag, battery life, and Google's (probably wise) decision not to allow certain applications but the core capability to make a major change was there. A sneaky and improved version of it would be a big deal. It'd be an arms race for people who felt that tech was giving others an edge.

That's the real, untapped upside of wearable technology.

As a side note, The Omnivore suspects that the reason that a lot of people were pissed off by Google Glass users was that they were enjoying / flaunting an "evolutionary advantage" over other people. Glass is/was expensive--it was a class signifier ("I've got money" or "I'm a special celebrity"). It also marked you as specific tribe (the techno-nerd, generally). This is all secondary to the big voiced complaint: "He's video-taping me!"

You're being video-recorded every second you're out in public these days. Yes, it's mostly traffic-cams and security and such--but everyone on that street is carrying a hand-held pocket recorder and if anything interesting happens, someone will be recording it. You already know that. The Glasshole guy? He's just doing it  better than you would: he's hands-free, he has an exotic piece of gear doing it, and he makes it look effortless.

But functionally? Functionally it's not any different from the device you have (in fact, yours has a longer battery life). There's also the fact that he can see things you can't: the heads-up display could be showing him anything while he's talking to you--you'd have to be looking down at your phone for that.

Yes, there are some potentially slippery-slope surveillance society concerns--but most people don't rise to that level of sophistication. The problem with Google Glass, The Omnivore assesses, was similar to the problem with the Segway: it made you look like a dork. Even worse: a self-satisfied rich-kid dork.

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