When Wearables Disappear

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Will the eventual subsuming of wearables into our being rescue us from our present numbed existence or finally snuff out those qualities that make us most human?

The human brain – critical, linguistic, self-aware – is the matryoshka doll of miracles, nested within the larger miracle of life. We’re surrounded by a symphony of stimuli we can not only perceive, but filter, process, and use to build meaning. Out of this meaning comes the unique way in which we understand our place in and engage with the world around us. We can appreciate. We can discern. We can think in systems, intuit outcomes, and envision the future. And we can conceive of and implement the complex tools necessary to build that future.

These attributes don’t make us human, but they do imbue us with humanity.  This is why Nicholas Carr, in his book, The Shallows, cautions against shortsighted misuse of these tools. “An honest appraisal of any new technology, or of progress in general, requires a sensitivity to what’s lost as well as what’s gained,” he says. Socrates told the father of letters that his invention would cost us our memory. When we reconceived time as a series of numbers on a mechanical clock we fell out of rhythm with the sun. In The Shallows, Carr unpacks the neurological cause and effect enabling the Internet and technology to rewire our brains in a way that now, only a few years after first booting up the World Wide Web, we’re beginning to lose ourselves.

David Rose is trying to prevent that from happening. He’s a lecturer and researcher at MIT Media Lab and the CEO of Ditto Labs, where he’s trained a system recognize ten thousand objects and five hundred scenes in photos. He is our Nikola Tesla. Which is to say, Rose didn’t invent the computer or the microprocessor, or the Internet, but he has a prescient understanding of the way to make these things useful in a way that will fundamentally alter our relationship with technology and the world.

Also like Tesla, Rose seems a bit mad. Not in his behavior – he’s actually quite calm and contemplative – but in the way he seems to disregard impossibility to create objects that are equal parts obvious and fantastical: an umbrella that glows blue when rain is forecast, requesting you to take it with you as you walk out the door, a wallet that is increasingly difficult to pry open as your spending nears the limits of your budget.

“The most humanistic approach to computing… is not about fanciful, ephemeral wishes,” he writes in his book Enchanted Objects, “but rather persistent, essential human ones.” Those persistent and essential human wishes, she says, can be broken down into six human drives. We want to know and understand, to maintain connections, to be secure, to be healthy, to express ourselves, and to be transported wherever it is we want to be. Internet-connected devices have become the tools we most often use to engage with and shape the world around us, and pursue these drives – the way we exercise our humanity. But today’s gadgets, he says, are the antithesis of the tools we’ve used in the past to accomplish these things.

“The smartphone is a confusing and feature-crammed techno-version of the Swiss Army knife, impressive only because it is so compact,” he writes. “It is awkward to use, impolite, interruptive, and doesn’t offer a good interface for much of anything. The smartphone is a jealous companion, turning us into blue-faced zombies, as we incessantly stare into its screen every waking minute of the day.” He concludes: “It has little respect for humanity.”

Like the smartphone, the majority of our digital technology takes little advantage of our miraculous brains and disregards those things about us that make us most human. But things are slowly changing. After transitioning them onto our bodies, we seem to be searching for less stilted interactions with our digital tools (Rose would attribute it to our six human drives), a more human experience. As we imagine and invent, reimagine and reinvent, our wearables are being miniaturized and refashioned, integrated into our existing aesthetic. They’re becoming seamless, enchanted, intuitive, and as they do, they’re beginning to disappear.

In February, market research firm Gartner forecasted two hundred and seventy four million wearables will be sold in 2016, an eighteen percent year-over-year increase. Smartwatches are expected to contribute most significantly: sixty-six percent growth to sales of fifty million units. The numbers can be justified on paper; Fitbit’s sales seem exponential lately and Silicon Valley’s determination to wrap our wrists with increasingly feature-rich activity trackers and smartwatches has become something of an arms race. Curiously, the zeitgeist doesn’t agree.

The market feels stagnant. Our wearables just haven’t clicked. Even the earliest adopters seem to be waiting for the innovation or the feature or the design that will see them finally mesh with us. “That’s one of the reasons they’re being abandoned,” Steve Brown, formerly Intel’s chief evangelist and futurist, said. “It can’t be a force fit – they have to naturally fit with the existing ecosystem, the way people live their lives.”

In 2014, technology and strategy consulting firm Endeavor Partners released a report that said a third of activity tracker owners abandon their device within six months. Smartwatches are equally uncompelling. “In their introduction, the Apple Watch didn’t provide much more utility above and beyond the smartphone,” he said. “Any time you have a tethered device you have a failed situation.” He’s certain these devices won’t last, that wearables will be uncoupled from server-like reliance to connect directly to the Internet, and the features crammed into smartphones and smart watches will dissolve into the world around us. This is the point, he said, when we’ll finally see an interesting interplay.

But wearables have an even greater shortcoming, a problem of significance, of fundamental importance: they’re ugly. The leading smartwatches are bulky, angular, attention-grabbing devices that look alien on our wrists. In an attempt to remedy this, the recent round of innovation introduced a circular watch face that was no less bulky and just as alien. As a result, the only real market traction they’ve gained is among tech enthusiasts.

Dr. Paul Marsden, a psychologist at the London College of Fashion, studies the various facets of consumers’ relationship with wearables. One such study is currently a pilot examining what it is about wearable technology that turns off many consumers. “The whole techy association is a big block,” he said. “The main reason…is the association with technology and performance, rather than lifestyle.

One of the primary functions of fashion is to communicate who we are and what we stand for to others. It’s kind of difficult to do that with a one-size-fits-all activity band and a one-size-fits-all iPhone.” He later added, “The research that I’ve been doing is relatively clear. What people want is good design and an effortless experience.” Wearables companies are showing signs they’ve realized this. Nearly every one of them has paired with a fashion designer to slap a coat of paint on activity trackers offering the same handful of features tethered to a smartphone. But two years into these efforts, wearables still feel like someone else’s tech.

Per Moore’s law – that the required footprint of a processor will be halved every two years – computer technology will likely be its own savior. Intel’s Edison Chip is a twenty-two-nanometer single-board computer that functions as a development system or wearable devices. Using the Edison Chip, Intel debuted the Mimo smart baby monitor in 2014, which is sewn into a onesie and, at the CES demo, transmitted vitals not only to a smartphone, but to an intuitive display on a coffee mug.

Under Armor, the polymorph of the fashion world, could just as easily be called a wearable tech company. Google has patented contact lenses with a microchip the size of a piece of glitter that can monitor and transmit the glucose level in the wearer’s tears. Google’s partner Novartis also announced they would soon trial an autofocus lens to treat farsightedness. And then there’s Samsung’s patent for a contact lens with a display system that works by projecting an image into the eye. David Rose wonders if it won’t be long before cameras are incorporated into shirt buttons, ushering in an era of life-logging that will see deeply meaningful insights pulled from photographs of our environment.

Google’s Project Jacquard, the recent innovation that’s most widely applicable and illustrative of just how invisible wearables will be, is a platform featuring a conductive thread around which anything from denim and wool to polyester and silk can be woven to create yarns compatible with the looms and machinery already being used by the textiles industry. The yarns can be combined with tiny electronics to allow any cloth surface to, in effect, function like a touchscreen or control a paired device. It’s wearable technology  literally woven into our fabric.

Nicholas Carr hints at the dangers of progress when he implores we appraise what’s lost and what’s gained as our technology evolves. “An honest appraisal of any new technology, or of progress in general, requires a sensitivity to what’s lost as well as what’s gained,” he says. “We shouldn’t allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we’ve numbed an essential part of ourselves.”

Will the eventual subsuming of wearables into our being rescue us from our present numbed existence or finally snuff out those qualities that make us most human? What’s left of us once we’ve delegated the functions of our brain and become robots responding to the commands of the enchanted objects surrounding us? Who’s more human, HAL 9000 or Dave?

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