Wearables: immersion vs integration

Thu Mar 20, 2014

With Google releasing their Android Wear developer preview this week, and with their hardware partners announcing support for the platform, it feels like the wearables are starting to enter the mainstream. I say that with optimism because I think these guys are finally starting to figure out what people actually want. And when you look at the sociological big picture, it seems astoundingly obvious.

When thinking about where early wearable products have gone horribly wrong, I can’t help thinking about the sad little bluetooth headset. Wear one of these silly things in public and you’ll likely be derided as a cyborg yuppie. Perhaps some of these dorks think they look like a go-getter or a busy important person and ignore the sniggers that erupt when their backs are turned. Who knows.

But what I do know is that nobody chuckles at somebody sporting a hearing aid. Compared to the shiny black rectangle of a bluetooth headset, hearing aids are flesh-coloured and discrete. They are meant to blend in and integrate into your daily life. They are, in essence, tacitly invisible. And I would argue that this is exactly what people want a wearable to be.

Take the newly announced Moto 360 for example. Pundits are praising its “stunning design”, which is funny because you know what it looks like? A regular old watch. Until now, smart-watch design has revolved around rectangular displays, which are ubiquitous - easy to manufacture and acquire. Yes, there have been forays into curved displays, with a futuristic appeal to many a nerd I’m sure, but it’s not what regular people want. The Moto 360 is round, a much rarer LCD form factor, but looks like an ordinary timepiece. Except of course, that is not ordinary because you can summon the entire storehouse of human knowledge in the known universe with a voice command.

If integration is on one end of the spectrum, then immersion is on the other. When people are using technology for immersion, they are looking for an escape. This is the reason people go to the cinema to watch a movie - for that immersive experience. When it comes to wearables, virtual reality is once again a forerunner in the immersive space (despite being a bit creepy - I guess nobody remembers The Lawnmower Man. Oculus Rift sparked a revival in VR a few years ago and this week at the Game Developer’s Conference, Sony revealed Project Morpheus - a slick VR prototype that looks extremely promising. The design of these headsets is hideous in the sense that you wouldn’t want to walk around in public looking like you’re jacked into the Matrix. And that’s the point really - when you’re cocooned in your VR world, you don’t want anybody to look at you.

I think Google glass is a wearable that falls in between integration and immersion, which is why it will never catch on (in its current design at least). Even Google has acknowledged the epithet “glasshole” in it’s list of Glass do’s and don’ts. Mainstream society will never accept Google Glass wearers (or “explorers” in Google’s parlance) because it positions them as outliers. And potentially malevolent outliers at that - recording your every move and taking shifty sideways glances at their incoming messages instead of maintaining eye contact.

It’s early days yet, and more major players will lay down their cards on the table this year. Apple has yet to announce some sort of wearable, although early indications point toward something bristling with health sensors, which sounds great. But I believe that when you walk down a busy street in a few years, you’ll notice nothing different. Because whoever comes to dominate the wearable space will be completely invisible - integration will win over immersion in the end.

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